IRI Experts Discuss COVID-19 and the Importance of Democracy for The Hill

Democracy will win this battle
The Hill

By Daniel Twining and Patrick Quirk

The coronavirus pandemic is a global health crisis that is also a political crisis. Marshalling an effective humanitarian response while maintaining security and creating the conditions for an economic recovery will put unprecedented strain on even the most resilient governments.

American leaders are rightly focused on bolstering our health system and preserving our economy. Yet this crisis also requires a response that puts democracy at its core. Democracy is vital to preventing future pandemics, resisting the influence of our rivals, and securing an economic and social recovery. Targeted foreign assistance that has both direct humanitarian relief and support for democratic institutions, particularly for the most vulnerable nations and those targeted by malign influence campaigns, can protect American interests and restore global security.

History is awash with stories of American leaders turning inward in the face of threats from overseas, but this would be a mistake. Generations have learned the hard way that withdrawing from world affairs exposes our nation to greater peril. This crisis is no exception. It will tempt many American leaders to argue for diverting strategic foreign assistance to support domestic responses. This will only leave our nation even more exposed as foreign nations fail to manage the pandemic and our great power competitors expand their influence at our expense.

We are only in the early stages of this crisis. We are already seeing that governments grounded in accountability, transparency, the rule of law, and citizen governance are best positioned to respond to the crisis and create lasting conditions for social stability and economic recovery not susceptible to authoritarianism. History suggests that if any democratic institutions crack under the strain of this pandemic, we could expect to see new threats to global stability and American interests.

South Korea and Taiwan, with capable democracies, have managed the health emergency and sustained citizen trust. China and Russia, on the other hand, have repressed key medical information, imprisoned civilian voices, and peddled disinformation campaigns designed to exploit the divisions in Western democracies. Authoritarian regimes are also using this crisis as an excuse to centralize their power at home.

We see the coronavirus threatening nations all around the world that have been on the pathway to successful democracies. From Ethiopia to Tunisia, societies in lockdown will soon experience major economic contractions. Democracy assistance will help enable partners to deliver more effective responses and thereby push back against populist authoritarian appeals. From Colombia to Mongolia, leaders are trying to manage the pandemic in ways that keep democratic institutions functioning and responding to citizen needs. Whether they can do so will shape the trajectory of their countries and of their effectiveness as American partners.

While the response to the pandemic must focus on strengthening health systems and government capabilities, these efforts should be paired with affirmative support for the kind of accountable and transparent oversight that will reduce opportunities for corrupt authorities to bungle necessary public health measures. We know that democracies are more responsive to civilian voices, more resilient to such malign foreign influence, make more reliable allies, and ensure the United States does not speak alone when advocating for unalienable rights around the world.

Our great power competitors stand ready to exploit these dynamics to advance their strategic positions and weaken ours. We cannot allow the pandemic to cause the United States to shrink from a global leadership role. By investing in democracy development, our country can respond effectively to this unprecedented health challenge, create conditions for an economic recovery, and minimize the opportunities for authoritarian states such as China to use this crisis to their advantage.

Authoritarianism transformed the coronavirus from a local epidemic into this global pandemic in which the unelected Chinese Communist Party is complicit. Now China is running a disinformation campaign that aims to weaponize the coronavirus against the United States and its democratic allies. The coronavirus lays bare the threat that authoritarian states like China pose. By suppressing information, dismantling civil society, and pumping out disinformation, these regimes endanger us.

Democracy assistance can check the influence of such regimes and give vulnerable nations the tools to resist disinformation campaigns. As it has always been, American global leadership will be required for these efforts. More strategic investments in the resilience of our allies and partners will be essential to containing the coronavirus, mitigating the effects at home and abroad, and ensuring that the United States is positioned to maximize its advantage and retain its critical global leadership role.

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