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IRI President and Expert Outline U.S. Democracy Assistance Agenda for Brookings

November 17, 2020

A Democracy Assistance Agenda for the Biden Administration


By Dr. Daniel Twining and Patrick Quirk 

The Biden administration will take office at a time when democracy is being tested across the world. Since COVID-19 began its global spread, 80 countries have experienced democratic backsliding as autocrats exploit the pandemic to expand their power and quash dissent.

Democracy is facing an ideological insurgency, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promotes an alternative governance model based on centralized control and suppression of independent thought. The CCP also corrodes democracy by proffering opaque deals that fuel corruption and embolden authoritarians in countries where China seeks expanded influence. The Kremlin actively endeavors to destabilize the West by undermining legitimate electoral processes and exploiting fissures to divide democratic societies against themselves.

But all is not bleak. Democracies have mounted the most effective responses to the pandemic without police-state coercion. People-power movements in every region are demanding more of their governments and striving to transform protest into responsive policies.

Underlying these trends is the promise new technologies hold for democratic participation and accountability, albeit balanced against their use by authoritarians to repress and control citizens.

The state of democracy globally is a priority for U.S. foreign policy — not only because supporting freedom and liberty has long been a guiding light of the American project, but because American citizens are more prosperous and secure when the world is free and open.

America’s closest allies are democracies. Countries governed by rule of law and democratic institutions do not fight each other, host violent extremists, or produce uncontrolled mass migration. Great-power autocracies seeking expanded spheres of illiberal influence pose the greatest danger to American security; countervailing them demands a values-based approach that protects the United States and the free world.

Supporting democracy abroad not only underwrites the safety and prosperity of the American public, it is a something our citizens strongly support — 71% of Americans favor the U.S. “taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Democracy Project.

The next administration should make strengthening democracy overseas a pillar of its foreign policy because doing so embodies our nation’s core ideals and is imperative to U.S. security and economic well-being. The fate of democracy abroad is tied to the health of our democracy at home: A world in which authoritarians control the balance of power would gravely endanger domestic freedoms.

Instead of dusting off the same playbook, the Biden administration should craft a democracy agenda that is responsive to today’s context, rooted in evidence-based innovative approaches, and positions the United States for key struggles and opportunities over the horizon.

Doing so will require strong bilateral partnerships — with governments and civil society — and reinforcing alliances capable of buoying liberal democracy and helping steel it against illiberal challenges from authoritarian regimes.

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