washington and the world
We asked activists, scholars and politicians from around the world for one thing the U.S. could do to help democracy in their country.
By POLITICO MAGAZINE
Leaders from around the world are gathering (virtually) this week for President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy. The event was one of the earliest and most concrete foreign-policy promises Biden made during his campaign — and it represents perhaps the most tangible way in which he has sought to elevate democracy as a defining feature of his foreign policy.
But despite the many headlines the summit has generated, it’s still a gathering of politicians — which is to say, it risks being long on lofty promises and short on real reform. Biden’s summit has already been the subject of skeptical analysis pointing out that it will be hard to get countries to commit to more than sound bites, and that a summit is inadequate to the task of solving the real problems plaguing global democracy.
So the question is: What could actually work? What else can Biden do to bolster the cause of democracy around the world? We reached out to experts and activists in endangered democracies from Iraq to Poland to India, and asked them what they wish the U.S. would do to help democracy in their country. Some were skeptical that America could do much at all, while others offered ideas for specific policy moves or broader foreign-policy shifts. Once the Biden team logs off the final summit Zoom this week, here are 18 pieces of homework it can start on right away.
Vladimir Milov is a Russian opposition politician, economist and energy expert, and an economic adviser to opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He is the co-author, with the late Boris Nemtsov, of “Putin. The Results,” a critique of President Vladimir Putin’s policy.
Stop the attempts to “reset relations” or otherwise establish a “strategic stability dialogue” with the Russian dictatorship. U.S. dialogues with Putin are highly demoralizing to pro-democracy forces in Russia, inevitably producing a feeling of a trade-off behind closed doors, of the U.S. trying to trade the Russian people’s rights in favor of its preferred policy goals. Even if this isn’t the case, it appears this way to democracy activists, and bolsters the regime’s propaganda efforts. In the current environment, with political and civil liberties in Russia nearly totally destroyed, the position of the collective West has become extremely important for maintaining the morale of Russia’s pro-democracy forces.
The need for dialogue with Putin on global issues is understandable. But the following simple principles should be adopted: Dialogue should be conditional on Russia making progress on democracy and human rights; the U.S. should take care to avoid the appearance of one-way concessions; and dialogue should be reduced if progress is not made.
If the West proves that its declared principles really mean something and declines to engage in further “resets,” this alone would be tremendously emboldening for democratic forces in our country. If the U.S. does this, there will be little need for it to engage in specific democracy promotion policies in Russia — we’ll do the rest by ourselves.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. | Peter Klaunzer/Pool/Keystone via Getty Images
Lilia Shevtsova is the author of Putin’s Russia and a member of the Liberal Mission Foundation.
I am skeptical that the U.S. can help democracy in Russia through engaging robustly with Russian society, when any link with the West is liable to get the recipient of the assistance branded a “foreign agent.” However, the U.S. could be helpful in two other ways.
Firstly, it should address its internal problems and become a role model. Russians watching the rise of Trumpism, the apparent clumsiness of the U.S. lawmaking process and the country’s polarized conflicts hardly find American democracy attractive. Even for Russian liberals, it’s becoming easy to be skeptical of American democracy, as we read books about Trump’s “assault on truth” and watch the country’s democracy ranking slide down Freedom House’s list.
But Biden’s success with his domestic agenda — a form of “American perestroika” — could return the U.S. to its role of being the example to follow, at least among people with democratic convictions. He could appeal to the 40 percent of Russians who, despite confrontational relations between Russia and the U.S., have a positive view of America. Viewed by Russians as the leader of the Western world, America could either undermine or increase, in Russian minds, the attractiveness of democracy and trust in its ability to secure people’s well-being.
Yemi Adamolekun is executive director of Enough is Enough Nigeria, a nonpartisan network of individuals and organizations committed to building a culture of good governance and public accountability in Nigeria through active citizenship.
How do you fight for rights you do not know you have? Or how do you hold a governance system accountable if you don’t know you can? At the heart of any democratic society is understanding one’s rights and responsibilities within an ecosystem that supports freedom of speech, association and assembly with clear penalties when the rule of law is disregarded. This is not learnt by osmosis; it’s taught. Elementary school students in the U.S. know about the Constitution, can recite the famous “We the people” phrase and recognize its importance. That is not the case in Nigeria. Funding civic education is not sexy, so it tends not to get funded either by private donors or by government agencies like USAID. The Biden administration should fund Nigerian civil society organizations that teach citizens about their rights and responsibilities, especially at the elementary, middle and high school levels, so Nigerians grow up knowing how to function effectively within a democratic society.
People in Abuja, Nigeria, march during a silent protest in April 2015, calling on the government to rescue nearly 300 schoolgirls who were kidnapped a year earlier. | Sunday Alamba /AP Photo
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is a journalist and co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism.
The India-U.S. relationship has never been about the sweet-sounding “shared values” of democracy, as both sides would like us to believe. It has always been shaped by geopolitics, and will be even more so in the coming years as the U.S.-China decoupling deepens. India has chosen to side with the U.S. in this great divide, incurring the considerable strategic risk of a more hostile China on its border. The last thing it will want in return is lectures on democracy and how to run our country.
But where the U.S. does have a legitimate right to interfere is in matters of civil society organizations operating in India that are linked to or funded by America and its Western allies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has gone to extraordinary lengths to coerce and curb NGOs, both local and foreign. The clampdown on these entities, which have traditionally played an important role in strengthening and upholding democratic rights, is a critical part of the democratic backsliding occurring in India. Modi’s government has severely restricted NGOs’ ability to operate in India; it put the Ford Foundation on a watch list, forced Greenpeace to shutter offices in the country; and has gone after Amnesty International via court cases, funding freezes and hounding and harassment of employees. This is an area that is completely within the Biden administration’s rights to push back on, and America will do Indian democracy an immense favor if it does.
Protesters gather at the outskirts of New Delhi, India, September 27, 2021. Thousands of Indian farmers blocked traffic on major roads and railway tracks outside of the nation’s capital, calling on the government to rescind certain agricultural laws. | Manish Swarup /AP Photo
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is Laurance S. Rockefeller visiting professor for distinguished teaching at Princeton University and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research Delhi.
Friends of democracy should worry about the presumption that the U.S. can promote and strengthen democracy abroad at all. For Indians, the exemplarity of U.S. democracy has long mattered more than specific democracy-promotion tools. Even though America has always struggled to overcome the original sins of slavery and racism, it was thought of as an example of how to build successful institutions and a successful economy. American institutions were often reference points in thinking about how to develop Indian ones: Court cases routinely cited American Supreme Court precedents; lawmakers even looked with envy at congressional hearings as an example of open and public deliberation.
But advocates of democracy around the world no longer draw strength from these institutions. The failure to protect against the disenfranchisement of many voters; a broken congressional confirmation system; the violent assault on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6; and a racially polarized culture are not good advertisements for democratic institutions. The inspirational power of America’s example is at the lowest it has ever been.
Right now, Indian democracy is struggling, particularly when it comes to civil liberties and the rights of minorities. But these are struggles for Indians to take up. Overt U.S. judgments of Indian democracy will rally nationalist sentiment without achieving any of America’s aims. If democracy is seen as a tool of geopolitics, democracy stands discredited. America’s checkered track record of supporting unsavory regimes has left a distinct impression that U.S. democracy promotion is more about the projection of power. After the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, this hubris is even less defensible. The United States simply does not have the moral authority, power or sincerity of purpose to be a credible champion of democracy worldwide. The only thing it can do for democracy is, as Biden said at his inauguration, to use the power of its example.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
From Thailand’s military-backed royalist conservative regime manipulating the constitution to stay in power, to the Myanmar military’s brutal robbery of democratic rule from its people, to established and emergent authoritarianism around Southeast Asia, democracy in the region appears to be unmistakably in retreat. The best hope ahead is to support younger generations who demand basic rights and freedoms. Young people generally abhor top-down autocratic tendencies because their digitalized lifestyles and affinity for 21st-century upward mobility require self-determination and attendant liberties.
What the United States can do — apart from constantly nurturing and improving its own democracy — is to recognize and promote millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha by providing programmatic support and channels for youth movements to rise up for a better future. Washington should, for instance, support the Milk Tea Alliance, a transnational anti-autocracy movement led by young Asian activists. More generally, the U.S. can find ways to align itself with the young democrats in Thailand, Myanmar and elsewhere who have adopted the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute as a symbol of solidarity. While authoritarian pasts have come back to haunt many societies over the past three decades, the younger generations are the agents who can turn back the tide over the next 30 years. Theirs is a necessarily more open and pro-democracy future.
Maria Laura Canineu is Brazil director at Human Rights Watch.
The United States should use its leverage to try and halt President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environment policies. The Bolsonaro government has sabotaged the country’s environmental enforcement agencies by cutting budgets, hampering their law-enforcement capacity, and preventing the imposition of fines for environmental crimes. This has effectively given a green light to the criminal networks that drive deforestation (known as “rainforest mafias”) and threaten and attack local communities and authorities who attempt to defend the forests (including Indigenous people). Those responsible for these attacks are rarely brought to justice. The result is a climate of violence and impunity that is antithetical to democratic participation and the rule of law.
The Biden administration should indicate that its support for Brazil’s accession to the OECD and other areas of mutual interest will be tied to the government’s progress in substantially reducing deforestation, taking a clear stand to protect the country’s forest defenders and upholding the rule of law.
Suat Kiniklioglu is a former member of the Turkish parliament.
The most important thing the U.S. can do to help Turkey’s struggling democracy is not to do anything that could be interpreted as interfering in the domestic political process. Turkey’s political climate has become excessively paranoid and inward-looking. As in many authoritarian states, Turkey’s ruling coalition has succeeded in branding even the slightest foreign influence as a treacherous act, such as when candidate Biden made a seemingly benign reference to supporting the Turkish opposition. The U.S. should recognize that Turkish democracy will have to find its way out through its own internal dynamics, namely elections. No doubt the U.S. should reiterate the principles and norms it values and adheres to. That said, in no way should it be seen as helping or assisting one party or the other domestically.
The Turkish public continues to hold democracy dear, however imperfect our country’s democratic credentials may be right now. Democratic legitimacy only comes through the ballot box. The U.S. should insist on the basic principle of free and fair elections whose outcomes reflect Turkish popular opinion. After that, it is up to the Turkish electorate to decide the country’s future course.
An official holds up a ballot at a polling station in Istanbul in June 2019. Voters re-voted in a mayoral election after a March vote was voided for procedural irregularities. | Emrah Gurel/AP Photo
Aslı Aydıntasbas is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
One way the Biden administration can help Turkey’s democratic development is to be consistent in its messaging and in calling out human rights abuses. A sense of U.S. disregard for democracy during the previous administration has emboldened anti-democratic forces here. The four years under the Trump administration were basically wasted — and even today, despite the Biden administration’s commitment to advancing global democracy, the outreach seems selective and dependent on the temperature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. The U.S. can — and should — be consistent about calling out Turkey’s flagrant violations, both in public and in private.
Washington should also present President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a reasonable offer that asks him to restore the democratic norms that have faltered in recent years while offering things like financial incentives, a solution to the dispute over S-400 misisles and an offer of NATO solidarity.
Finally, the U.S. cannot replace the Europeans on this matter. But it seems the EU has long given up on Turkey’s democracy. Getting the Europeans to engage seriously with Erdogan, such as on enforcing European Court of Human Rights decisions on the jailings of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas, is important but would require much more EU engagement with Ankara. The U.S. should use its leverage to push Europe to be more principled on Turkey — and not reduce human rights to virtue signaling from Brussels.
Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, is currently a Hauser human rights scholar at Hunter College and Pozen visiting professor at the University of Chicago.
The West should stop providing technology to the Chinese censorship and surveillance system, and stop American companies’ complicity in forced labor, genocide and human rights violations in China. China’s internet censorship and control systems have benefited from the enthusiastic assistance of Western technology companies such as Cisco, Nortel, Motorola, Microsoft and Intel. Google tried to launch Project Dragonfly, a search engine complying with the Chinese government’s censorship. Fortunately, that project was canceled. Links to forced labor have been reported in the supply chains and products of Apple, Nike and numerous other Western companies. It is welcome news that the U.S. Congress is looking at legislation to stop Uighur forced labor. It would be greatly helpful for Congress to also pass a law or regulation banning Western companies from providing surveillance or censorship technology and equipment to authoritarian governments.
Daria Kaleniuk is the executive director of Ukraine’s Anticorruption Action Centre.
The best support the U.S. can provide to democracy in Ukraine, as well as in the world, would be blocking the flow of illicit funds through Western shell companies and forbidding kleptocrats, oligarchs and their associates from traveling to Western countries or accessing their financial systems. The U.S. can do this in two main ways. First, oblige professional services providers like real estate agents, investment fund managers, auditors and lawyers to conduct anti-money laundering due diligence on their clients. I am glad to see that the Biden administration’s recently announced anti-corruption strategy envisions steps precisely along these lines, and hope to see them implemented swiftly. Second, mobilize the U.K., Switzerland, EU members and other Western countries to impose coordinated visa and entry bans for corrupt officials and oligarchs.
When tycoons from Ukraine lose access to the Western financial system; when they can’t purchase expensive real estate in France, Austria and the U.S.; when they can no longer educate their kids in London or ski in Switzerland, the crooks will be forced to revisit their role in sustaining autocratic rule. Oligarchs undermine rule of law, buy politicians, bribe judges, attack democratic institutions, spread anti-democracy propaganda through national TV channels they control and rob the Ukrainian taxpayer through state-subsidized monopolies. Until they can no longer siphon proceeds of this robbery out of Ukraine, these elites will continue to indirectly assist Kremlin hybrid attacks on Ukraine and hold back democratic transformation in our country.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is co-founder and spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s National Assembly Party and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Abdullah Alaoudh is the general secretary of NAAS and director of research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now, which was founded to build on the vision of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The U.S. should, first, stop supporting, arming and protecting the Saudi dictatorship. The primary victim of this protection is the Saudi people — scholars, activists, businessmen and businesswomen, defenders of human rights for women. Second, Washington should open channels with Saudi civil society abroad. Too often, the United States government shapes policy based on manufactured, controlled assessments provided by authoritarian regimes, rather than including the voices of civil society. Since the public sphere in Saudi Arabia itself is completely shut down by the government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the most viable option is to listen to the diverse coalitions of Saudis in exile, who have more freedom to speak openly about the country’s problems.
In this spirit, we founded a political party to call for democracy in Saudi Arabia. We believe that without Western and American support for the tyrannical Saudi system, popular pressure for a more open and democratic country would have succeeded long ago — and will succeed in the future.
Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman to the Pentagon in March 2018 in Arlington, Va. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Umair Javed is an assistant professor in politics and sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Lahore, Pakistan. He is also a current affairs columnist for Pakistan’s most widely read English language newspaper, Dawn.
Among a range of tangible interventions that the Biden administration can undertake to strengthen Pakistan’s democracy, a particularly important one is providing technical assistance and support to the Election Commission of Pakistan. The ECP is a constitutional body mandated to implement and regulate Pakistan’s electoral laws at the national, provincial and local level. A functional and autonomous ECP is central to the improved health of Pakistan’s democracy and remains a viable defense against extra-constitutional interference in the electoral process — such as manipulation prior to, and on the day of, elections by powerful politicians and sections of the historically interventionist military establishment.
In recent years, the commission has made considerable progress in improving its own capacity to lead electoral reform in areas like inclusion and participation of marginalized segments, enhancing coordination with other parts of Pakistan’s government, and mainstreaming the use of technology for collating and reporting electoral data. There is plenty of room for the United States and international organizations to provide technical assistance to the commission to enhance its technological capacity (especially the use of electronic voting machines) and ensure that women and minorities are reliably able to participate in all stages of the electoral process.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner is deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
The Biden administration has responded to the escalation of Nicaragua’s human rights crisis primarily through public statements of concern and targeted sanctions, including visa restrictions, on 36 government officials. These measures send an important message, but they have been insufficient to press Daniel Ortega’s government to make concessions.
For targeted sanctions to be effective, they must be used as a means, not an end. To encourage the Ortega government to release the more than 150 people perceived as regime critics who remain arbitrarily detained, the United States should consider expanding targeted sanctions to Ortega himself and to members of the Nicaraguan military.
The US should not act alone. The RENACER Act, which Biden recently signed into law, calls for increased coordination with other governments to monitor human rights in Nicaragua. The Biden administration should in particular engage governments with close links to Nicaragua, such as Mexico and Argentina, to push Ortega to release the detainees, restore fundamental rights, and hold free and fair elections. However, this collaboration will only be effective if all participants share an accurate assessment of Ortega’s abuses of power, open disregard for checks and balances, and attacks on human rights.
Youssef Cherif is a Tunis-based political analyst, director of the Columbia Global Centers | Tunis and a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.
Few Americans realize the outsize role Facebook plays in transmitting information in Tunisia. Most Tunisian politicians prefer to write Facebook posts rather than op-eds to state their positions, and Tunisian ministries and other official agencies use Facebook as their main communication platform. Furthermore, a significant swath of the country’s population and, consequently, its ruling elite, take the news that circulates on Facebook pages and groups at face value. Yet as other examples around the world have repeatedly shown, social media platforms are inundated with misinformation and malign influence. Tunisia is no exception. Local and foreign groups use the platform for many misdeeds, including undermining democracy. Pro-authoritarianism Facebook pages portray human rights campaigners as terrorism advocates simply because they oppose torturing suspected extremists. Or, when democracy activists talk to foreign media about what they see as democratic backsliding, these pages often label those activists as foreign agents. Tunisia has also seen cases of major social media influence operations involving foreign actors attempting to manipulate the political process.
A few initiatives are trying to tackle these issues, but that is not enough. The Biden administration should work with Facebook and other American social media companies to counter this threat, tackle misinformation and foreign meddling, and secure democracy in Tunisia and around the world. This will have a more direct effect than broad statements or unpopular sanctions, because it will change the way the Tunisian people learn about what’s happening in the country.
Demonstrators gather during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied, September 18, 2021, in Tunis. In July, Saied fired the country’s prime minister and froze parliament’s activities after violent demonstrations over the country’s pandemic and economic situation. | Riadh Dridi/AP Photo
Hassan Hadad is the host of the Iraqi Voices podcast.
The one thing the United States can do to support Iraq’s nascent democracy, without costing the American taxpayer a single penny, is to stop supporting undemocratic political figures in Iraq. These politicians receive political or financial support from the United States under the pretext of countering Iran. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, the U.S. has consistently backed the Sadrist Movement, which makes up a part of the coalition government in Baghdad. It has also backed the two largest political parties that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, both of whom are clear human rights violators and have little tolerance for dissent. Under the pretext of supporting Iraqi efforts to combat ISIS, the U.S. provided millions of dollars in aid to the political party -affiliated militias known as the Peshmerga. Meanwhile, the U.S. now sees the Sadrists as a group they can do business with.
This policy of supporting those who counter Iran, despite their own clear track record of working against the establishment of democratic institutions, is shortsighted. Moreover, it will stunt the growth of democratic cornerstones, like civil society organizations and a skeptical and free press. Most recently, we have seen the Peshmerga violently suppress protests in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Viewing Iraq from the angle of Iran, our neighbor and economic partner, is not helpful to Iraq or the region. Instead, America should invest in building democratic institutions working with genuine democratic actors.
Zselyke Csaky is Freedom House’s research director for Europe and Eurasia. These recommendations are adapted from the author’s testimony before the congressional Commission on Security in Europe in November.
First, the U.S. should make use of its historical ties and leverage in Central Europe and speak out firmly against the spread of autocracy, while maintaining dialogue with partners there. The United States should also support the European Commission’s efforts to address democratic erosion—such as the deployment of the “conditionality mechanism,” which links access to EU funds to respecting the rule of law.
Second, help foster resilience in the civic sector. A healthy civil society works as the first line of defense against autocracy. The United States should provide trainings on professionalization and sustainable business models; facilitate peer-to-peer learning between local and international civil society; and incentivize the philanthropic community to support civil society organizations, including with core funding.
People gather to protest in Heroes Square in Budapest in April 2017. | Zoltan Balogh/MTI via AP
Third, continue supporting free and independent media. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is doing vital work exposing underreported stories and explaining new developments in Hungary. The U.S. should also take steps to ensure that Hungary’s model for controlling the media does not take root in Poland and other countries that are vulnerable to authoritarian trends. This can be done through vocally defending media pluralism and by speaking out against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which seek to censor, intimidate, and silence critical voices. Ultimately, it is up to the Hungarian electorate to change the situation, but the United States can be a force for good if it helps to reinvigorate support for fundamental values through a long-term, strategic commitment in the region.
Ambassador Nina Hachigian is the first deputy mayor for international affairs for the City of Los Angeles. Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America.
Advocates and lawmakers are frustrated at how difficult it has been to shore up U.S. democratic institutions at the national level. While the federal effort to address voting rights, election administration and other challenges is vital, the Biden administration and friends of democratic institutions can use the president’s democracy summit as a chance to look beyond elections and take steps to rebuild the foundations on which democratic institutions rest — effective, representative governance in people’s everyday lives.
National governments are responsible for only a small fraction of the experience people have with democratic governance. City leaders are essential partners in consolidating and sustaining democracy, and serving as democratic reserves where authoritarianism is ascendant.
America’s cities have tasted this struggle. The last presidential administration rallied against cities, removed funding and put restrictions on key programs. But cities nevertheless handled the assault of Covid, implemented climate projects and welcomed international collaboration and visitors.
City governments can build relationships of trust with residents that can resist even the most deeply polarized national politics. When cities (and towns and counties) deliver what residents need in a transparent, accountable and efficient way, they demonstrate the benefits of democracy. To play this role, cities need resources like those in the Build Back Better package currently before Congress. They need technology and techniques for civic participation, like participatory budgeting, as well as networks to share best practices and resources and to build political power. The Biden administration should support America’s mayors in developing an explicit democracy agenda here at home; make it easier for city and community leaders to access and influence democracy programming; and open an office of City and State Diplomacy at the State Department to support local democracy globally.
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