Symposium | Democracy's Future: Abroad and at Home

The Future Of Democracy

By Nicholas Burns Anja Manuel

Tagged Democracy

How should the United States respond to the many challenges facing democracy both at home and around the world? This was the question that the Aspen Strategy Group debated at our annual meeting in October 2021 and that this publication, produced in collaboration with Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, seeks to answer.

Democracy is under attack around the world—from pervasive threats of mis- and disinformation, populist leaders weakening democratic institutions, China and Russia promoting authoritarianism as an alternate model, and the decay of bipartisanship and civility domestically.

A recent report from Freedom House noted that 2020 was the “15thconsecutive year of decline in global freedom” and “the countries experiencing deterioration [in freedom and democracy] outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.”

President Joe Biden has placed the battle of ideas between democracy and authoritarianism at the heart of his foreign policy agenda, arguing that America must prove at home that democracy is the best model to address today’s ever-evolving challenges.  Many are also calling for the U.S. to step up and resume its place as the champion of democracy around the world.

Later this week on December 9-10, 2021, the Biden administration aims to do just that by hosting the Summit for Democracy.

The essays that follow dive deeply into two interconnected facets of the challenges facing democracy – pushing back against authoritarianism around the world and shoring up our democracy at home. The authors are participants from the Aspen Strategy Group workshop this year. We are grateful for their ideas. 

We begin with Harvard University professor Danielle Allen who offers important historical context, arguing that deep crises such as COVID-19 pose a serious challenge for democracies, forcing each to ensure they have a healthy social contract, integrative policy-making, and education of the public on civic matters.

With this historical context in mind, we turn next to understand why authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. Strongmen are taking advantage of and spurring populist movements, from President Lukashenko in Belarus to Prime Minister Orbán in Hungary, President Erdogan in Turkey, and President Bolsonaro in Brazil. Mike Abramowitz, President of Freedom House, takes stock of the worldwide democratic decline and argues for a strong U.S. response.

Our Aspen Strategy Group Co-Chair, Joe Nye, and Elizabeth Economyturn our focus to China, which poses the greatest challenge to the democratic model. How can the U.S. best demonstrate the value of the democratic system given China’s rise as an economic, technological, military, and ideological rival? Against the backdrop of China’s new national security law in Hong Kong, Chinese aggression in the South and East China Seas, and Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100thanniversary this year when Xi Jinping espoused “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as the source of China’s “national rejuvenation” and warned that foreign powers that opposed it would “crack their heads and spill blood.”

We then consider the state of democracy in India, which as a member of the Quad, is a vital partner of the U.S. strategy in securing a free and open Indo-Pacific. Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment examines some of the illiberal policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and their implications for the U.S.-India relationship.

Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, rounds out the examination of illiberalism abroad, emphasizing the need for democracies to demonstrate their own effectiveness.

Finally, our authors analyze the need to shore up American democracy at home by bridging the partisan gap and restoring trust in our democratic institutions.The presidential election last year particularly laid bare the deep divisions in our country. One Pew Research poll from November 2020 noted that for both Democrats and Republicans “roughly nine-in-ten…worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”

Duke professor Peter Feaver highlights the intrinsic link between national security and domestic politics.

Kristen Soltis Anderson and Amy Walter share their insights into American public opinion, as well as the challenges facing the American democratic system.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, shares her vision for how best to reinvigorate and build trust in American democracy and protect the resilience of our democratic institutions. President of the Markle Foundation Zoë Baird then outlines the importance of an inclusive economy in a strong democracy.

It is our hope that this volume will help Americans and our friends around the world to bolster democracy at this critical time.

Many thanks again to our Aspen Strategy Group authors, to Michael Tomasky and his team at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions for helping to make this effort possible.

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Nicholas Burns is the Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy Group and Aspen Security Forum. He is also Goodman Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is Chairman of the American Ditchley Foundation and Chairman of Our Generation Speaks which brings together young Palestinians and Israelis in common purpose. He served in the United States Foreign Service as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). He worked on the National Security Council staff where he was Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Affairs and Special Assistant to President Clinton and, before that, Director for Soviet Affairs for President George H.W. Bush.

Anja Manuel is former diplomat, author, and advisor on emerging markets, and is also Co-Founder and Principal in Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, a strategic consulting firm that helps U.S. companies navigate international markets. She is the author of the critically acclaimed This Brave New World: India, China and the United States.  From 2005-2007, she served as an official at the U.S. Department of State, responsible for South Asia Policy. Earlier in her career, Ms. Manuel was an attorney at WilmerHale working on international and Supreme Court cases, and an investment banker at Salomon Brothers in London. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Stanford University, Ms. Manuel also lectured at Stanford University from 2009-2019. Ms. Manuel serves on a number of corporate and non-profit boards and is a frequent commentator on foreign policy for TV, radio and print press. She is a member of the U.S. Defense Department’s Policy Board, and the Director of the Aspen Strategy Group and Aspen Security Forum.

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