President Joe Biden and his team have repeatedly declared that “America is back.” The rest of the world is not so sure. Washington would promote multilateralism and champion democracy; American leadership, said the President, “must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.”
Yet despite this claimed reassertion of American international leadership, China’s suppression of civil and political rights in Hong Kong continues; there have been military coups in Myanmar and Sudan; the assassination of Haiti’s prime minister; the overthrow of the elected government of Afghanistan by the Taliban; a constitutional coup in Tunisia; a deepening economic and political crisis in Lebanon; a worsening civil war in Ethiopia; continuing repression in Belarus: I could go on.
If being “back” means a return to America’s former role as default global policeman, there is trouble in the precinct. But the President who withdrew from Afghanistan does not want to assume that role again. From at least President Obama, there has been a steady retreat from such responsibility. Instead, as articulated by President Biden, there is an emphasis on both emerging democracy and human rights as a means to a more peaceful and law-abiding world and deploying multilateral rather than unilateral means to enforce this order. Preventive, community-policing instead of the global security policeman of the past might capture the metaphor of America’s newly imagined role.
Yet the overall metrics of democracy and human rights progress do not make happy reading either. Beyond the dramatic setbacks referred to above, the world has receded from the high watermark of the 1990s and early 2000s, when democratic and accountable governments flourished in the aftermath of the Cold War, and the number of countries classed as “unfree” by Freedom House declined from 62 in 1989, to 45 in 2005. That number is now back up to 54, in what the organization calls a “democratic recession.” Today almost 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that saw a diminution of civil and political freedoms in 2020. Democracy, it turned out, was not enough in the face of the often-painful disruptions and widening inequalities caused by the forces of global economic integration and wider digital, environmental, and social dysfunctions.
The Open Society Foundations is a child of those new democratic minds of the 1990s. We grew up believing the march to more open societies was unstoppable. Today Open Society cannot operate in the Russian Federation or China; we have been forced to close offices in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Hungary; we can no longer fund civil society groups in Egypt and India (purportedly the world’s largest democracy).
At the same time, China’s growing global influence has added to the anti-democratic pressure, in part through its economic and financial support for authoritarian states. Hungary, under Viktor Orbán, has become a prime example of this strategy at work; in early 2021, Hungary blocked a European Union statement criticizing China’s imposition of a new security law on Hong Kong and blocked a further attempt by the EU to criticize the handing out of prison sentences to Hong Kong legislators who took part in protests against the new law. This acquiescence came as Prime Minister Orbán sought to move ahead with a multi-million dollar Chinese investment in a new university in Budapest.
President Biden and many others have chosen to see this as a Manichean contest between democracy and authoritarianism with America in one corner and China in the other. And the behaviors of Xi’s China or Orbán’s Hungary makes this an easy conclusion to reach.
This may be to miss an equally fundamental point. Both democracy and authoritarianism may be threatened by common enemies: competence and honesty. An uncomfortable truth is, free or unfree, much of the world is not very well-governed at present. Growing inequality in countries and between countries; a runaway climate and wider environmental crisis; regional epicenters of youth unemployment adjacent to aging labor-short societies and the illegal migrations it inevitably stimulates; new concentrations of global corporate power; illegal financial flows; and an unregulated digital transformation are all leading to epic disruption of political structures and institutions. The economic and social structures in more countries is under extreme threat. The COVID epidemic has cast a brutal light on this, magnifying inequalities and exposing the ineffectiveness of many governments’ response.
And certainly authoritarian governments often fall back on an even shallower response than more democratic ones.
Illiberal leaders can mobilize majoritarian support with populist programs; they can fuel fear over migration pressures, or cultural issues such as gender equity, or LGBT rights. But are they any more successful when it comes to dealing with the business of government, and delivering the stability, wellbeing, and particularly clean government that their people seek?
In Turkey, for example, President Erdogan’s AKP Party has consolidated power at a national level, exercising control over the media and locking up peaceful political critics such as Osman Kavala. But the AKP lost control of Istanbul and Izmir in local elections in 2019; other issues including the handling of out-of-control wildfires and continuing national economic problems have raised questions about Erdogan’s bid for reelection in June 2023.
In the Czech Republic, the populist prime minister Andrej Babiš—long mired in corruption allegations—was pushed out of office after elections in October by a new center-right coalition government, whose main unifying factor was resistance to Babiš. And, similarly, in neighboring Slovakia, voters turned against incumbent Robert Fico over corruption concerns highlighted by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová in February 2018.
The list goes on: In South Africa the ANC eventually backed Cyril Ramaphosa to replace an increasingly authoritarian Jacob Zuma, whose political reputation was also left severely damaged by corruption scandals. In Malaysia in 2018, a massive 1MDB corruption scandal led to the fall of the deeply entrenched Barisan Nasional government, and the creation of a new coalition that eventually dismantled the country’s repressive colonial era security laws. And in Brazil, President Bolsonaro is looking increasingly shaky ahead of the October 2022 election, with his political reputation marred by mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic troubles.
Looking to the democratic column, it has no monopoly on competence. A general Western failure to contain the social and economic disruptions of the 2008-9 financial crises led to President Trump’s election in the United States and a period of extended political uncertainty in the UK, France, and Italy, among others. And neither are a number of these countries paragons of clean government.
The United States has always been a controversial global champion of democracy – given the frequent inconsistency of that objective with more immediate national security interests. However never more so than now when efforts by President Trump and his supporters to overturn the November 2020 election results, and the violence at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. For the first time since the civil rights movement, it is fair to ask: Is America a democracy? At the very least its democratic institutions are under sustained attack from those seeking to limit access to voting through burdensome registration requirements and hyper-partisan gerrymandering. There are significant imbalances in congressional representation: By 2040, 30 percent of the population could control 68 percent of the seats in the Senate. Republican presidential candidates have won a majority of votes just once—in 2004—since 1988 and, yet, they assumed the presidency in 2000 and 2016. Should we see a return of Trump, or a close ally in 2024, the consequences at home and abroad could be momentous.
At the Open Society Foundations, in the United States we help fund voter registration efforts and supports legal groups such as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Legal Defense Fund that contest state measures that make it harder for African Americans and others to vote. We are also proud to fund groups that are investigating and challenging the way that corporate America has allowed disinformation on our social media channels to subvert and spread hate through our political discourse.
The democratic governments of the world need to do more to address the global factors that lead to democratic governance being pushed to the breaking point in the first place. The main channel for this effort lies through multilateralism—and through the United Nations. It is not just the first barrier against unconstitutional coups; it is where the solutions to contemporary transnational border problems need to be sought. It is core to the claim of modern competence in government.
So far, Washington’s return to the international stage has not been sufficient to galvanize a multilateral system still recovering from the damage inflicted by President Trump. The three summit meetings of the G-20, the G-7, and the COP26 all fell short of delivering on commitments to curtailing fossil fuel use. International efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—whether through access to vaccines, or to emergency economic support—have been handicapped by the pursuit of national self-interest by the rich and powerful states. At the same time, the domestic political weakness of the Biden Administration has circumscribed its capacity for global leadership: At COP26, for instance, hopes for ambitious U.S. climate action were damaged and undermined by the deadlock in Congress over Biden’s green infrastructure spending plans.
These failures damage already vulnerable economies, fueling political conflicts and crises, and deeply discrediting our systems of global governance. They cast shadows on the credibility of the democratic states that were the principal architects of the multilateral institutions after the catastrophe of World War II.
At the United Nations and its agencies, we are increasingly seeing intensifying competition between the United States and China—which took full advantage of the Trump hiatus—a struggle that threatens to derail international cooperation into a rerun of Cold War confrontation. China has also gained ground globally through its apparently comparatively effective domestic management of the pandemic—providing fuel for those who argue that democracy cannot respond to profound crisis—and through its promotion of access to its own low-cost COVID vaccines in the Global South.
The answer here is not for the world’s democracies to seek to turn multilateralist forums into institutions that drive democratization. Rather, the democracies of the G-20 need to demonstrate global leadership—they need to show the capacity of democracy to respond to complex crises in ways that provide stable outcomes, and that do not involve suppressing problems that will only come back to haunt us later. Delivering successful outcomes will also require a concerted effort by all concerned to defuse and manage the relationship between the legitimate aspirations of an emergent China and the United States.
President Biden has characterized the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism as the challenge of our times—a challenge that only becomes more acute as the Climate Crisis threatens to intensify competition for resources both within nation states and across national boundaries. It is in turn mirrored and reinforced by China’s proffering to the world a new alternative vision of the future—of an authoritarianism reinforced by the state’s absolute digital control of all forms of self-expression. America’s immediate challenge is to demonstrate “democratic competence” at home. That is the first rebuff.
Democracy’s advocates must be able to show a more convincing vision of the future, in which democracies display the flexibility and resilience to negotiate the competing demands of our future crises without open conflict.
It is also clear that success will be well-nigh impossible without the renewed democratic leadership of the United States. That in turn needs American democracy to be on solid ground at home, and that’s where this struggle will be focused in the run up to November 2024.