Russia’s war against Ukraine has awoken much of Europe and Anglo-Saxon democracies to the threat of growing autocracy and galvanized a new moral clarity and solidarity. Some democracy enthusiasts believe it may provide a window of opportunity for democracy support.
But it’s easy to make too much of the moment. Globally, many countries must remain quiet because of dependence on Russia and China, or fear of retaliation from them. But more want to stay out of what they see as great power politics, viewing the war in Ukraine as being less about regime type than a fight over power, territory, and spheres of influence. Others are disgusted by what seems to be a racial double standard behind so-called democratic solidarity. Why should predominantly white, Western Ukraine merit such focus when Russia was allowed to support Syria’s war against its own people with overt pushback mainly against ISIS, and when the war in Yemen continues with the United States allowing Saudi aggression?
Meanwhile, any strategy to support democracy must recognize that many of the countries that would be in the vanguard of such activity are losing their soft power. Far from being a beacon of aspiration, the United States is featured internationally for the self-coup of a sitting President, mass shootings, and a populace so polarized that it could not save a million of its citizens from COVID. France and the UK face deep citizen discontent. South Africa, Indonesia, and other rising democratic stars of a decade ago are struggling. India, the world’s largest democracy, has fallen to “partially free” in Freedom House rankings. In Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, and some smaller Latin American countries, large majorities no longer support democracy as their preferred form of government, though they are also ambivalent toward other options.
And yet, those who believe in the value of democracy need a strategy to address the 16-year democratic recession, which seems to be speeding up. Can we look to history for any guidance? In fact, we can. One of the most innovative chapters in democracy support occurred in a moment similar to our own. What can we mine from the last democratic paradigm shift to forge new strategies today?
The Helsinki Final Act and the Birth of Transnational Human Rights
In the summer of 1973, Watergate was unfolding in lurid detail on televised Senate Select Committee hearings. The scandal, along with the Vietnam War, jumpstarted the decline in U.S. democratic trust. There were deep societal divisions about the war and other matters, and the United States was in the midst of the highest levels of political violence it has experienced since the Civil War, following years of race riots and the assassinations over the previous decade of a President, presidential candidate, and civil rights leaders. Other democracies were also in dire straits: Italy was fighting underground fascists and suffering through its “years of lead,” and Canada was recovering from violent Quebecois separatism that led to a declaration of martial law just three years before. Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, and South Korea were still authoritarian, post-colonial Africa had largely fallen into dictatorship, and Indira Gandhi would suspend India’s democracy, jailing political opponents and censoring the press. Far from democracy inspiring the world, young people in the United States and European democracies were drawing inspiration from anti-colonialist movements with authoritarian predilections to transform their own societies.
It was in this soil that the Helsinki Final Act, also called the Helsinki Accords, was born. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe met from 1973 to 1975. The left wanted détente and de-escalation and thought the security conference would achieve the goal. The right felt that the meeting was a give-away to the Soviets, enabling their long-sought ambition to have the West recognize their post-World War II territorial gains (though the language was actually far more equivocal). Many felt as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did: Disengaged and derisive, he explained, “We never wanted it. . . . It is meaningless—it is just a grandstand play to the left.”
What no one expected in that state-centric era was that there was another player in international relations: people. Governments determined war, which was thought to be the main way to dislodge the Soviets. Few remembered the 500-year-old insight of Étienne de La Boétie: that tyrannical regimes could also crumble if enough of their citizens cast doubt on their legitimacy. Neither those who believed in détente nor those who wanted confrontation foresaw that ordinary individuals in Russia and the Eastern bloc countries would find in the Accords a tool with which they could have agency in their political lives and move their own countries toward freedom.
What Gave the Helsinki Act Leverage?
The non-confrontational framing of the meeting enabled a handful of nonaligned European states to take part. They hosted the talks in Geneva and later in Belgrade while upholding a process that required consensus of all parties. Including the Non-Aligned Movement’s post-colonial states might have made consensus harder to achieve. Instead, moderating by neutral countries like Sweden and Ireland that had a stake in European security (the goal of the conference) made consensus possible while offering a bridge to legitimacy with the Non-Aligned Movement. The final document was diplomatically toothless—but it had been signed by the United States, the USSR, and neutral countries, making it one of the few international documents with global legitimacy. In an era when Western and democratic soft power was weak, that broad international support for the Helsinki Act gave it global leverage
The document’s weakness, ironically, likely helped it get signed. It was not a treaty, so it did not need Senate ratification or ratification by other signatories’ legislatures. While it was unpopular on the right, its lack of force made it less problematic. By the time it was ready for a signature, Gerald Ford had become President, negotiations had been underway for years, and signing was simpler than walking away from such a broad diplomatic undertaking.
The Act’s unique definition of security incorporated respect for human rights, elevating them to the high-politics level. The Helsinki Act did not try to elevate democracy—an abstract and contested concept that could incorporate electoral autocracy or majoritarianism. Instead, it included both the civil and political rights favored by the West, and the economic, social, and cultural rights supposedly championed by Russia and nonaligned states. An emphasis on civil and political rights alone might have been rejected by the USSR or seen by non-aligned countries as hypocritical in the same way that current democracy talk strikes many as ignoring racial or ethnic double standards. Allowing space for critique on both sides of the rights argument allowed both superpowers to believe they had the upper hand and brought former colonies on board.
Soviet human-rights defenders recognized the opening. The Helsinki Act had given citizens of autocracies a lever. They met with U.S. Representative Millicent Fenwick, a progressive Republican from New Jersey, who soon after spearheaded legislation that created the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1976 to hear human rights concerns and amplify them on the international stage.
That international recognition offered the fulcrum, allowing brave individuals to pry their countries out of stasis and apply enough pressure to roll them forward. Almost immediately, dissidents created the Moscow Helsinki Group and soon after, the Lithuanian Helsinki Group for the Baltic region. Within two years, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia had built their own Helsinki Watch organizations, while Czechoslovakia established the important group Charter 77, which built on the act. These groups monitored and reported on abuses their governments perpetrated that violated the commitments of the Helsinki Act.
America’s government was a first mover of the amplification effort, though it ensured that the voices for the movement came from regular people inside autocracies and were echoed by regular people outside. Within a year, Norway and the United States had a Helsinki Committee and a Helsinki Watch, and within five years, Canadians and Europeans—including neutral powers like Sweden—had added to the clutch of local groups around the globe. The transnational, grassroots process with neutral country representation disarmed the Non-Aligned Movement’s moral equivalency and circumvented knee-jerk anti-colonial apologists. While it was easy to gain traction by criticizing American double standards, it was hard to critique Russian or Ukrainian citizens holding their own governments to principals on which their states had agreed. This was not a fight between superpower governments, with countries forced to pick sides between two regimes with blood on their hands. This was regular people, seeking to make common values real.
The Helsinki Act was not a silver bullet—multiple factors led to the demise of the USSR, from the war in Afghanistan to internal economic failure. Helsinki Group members spent many years under arrest or exile, quieted except as symbols until the USSR began to collapse in the late 1980s. But by showing that these regimes had no internal legitimacy and that the ideology failed to uphold its own claims, dissidents helped Soviet leaders realize that they needed to dismantle the system of repression while easing change internationally. Even without Helsinki, the demise of the Soviet Union would have dried its transnational financial support for other authoritarian movements. But with Helsinki, authoritarian moral authority and claims to developmental progress had disappeared long before. Thus, Helsinki played a significant role in enabling authoritarian leaders to fall like dominoes from Chile to Ghana, even though the focus of the Helsinki Watch groups was entirely on Europe.
Strategic Models 1 to 3
The Helsinki Act was arguably the third pro-democracy strategy the West had attempted since the nadir of 1942, when only 11 democracies remained on the planet.
Democracy support 1.0 consisted of the Marshall Plan. Massive funding helped European countries rebuild vital infrastructure via an application and project process that nudged recipient governments toward democratic institutions, deliberation, and delivering quickly for their populations to stave off extremist ideologies. The plan worked with the grain for governments and citizens who wanted democracy and knew how to erect a democratic governing system, but just needed some help.
Democracy 2.0 held from the mid-1940s through late 1960s. It consisted of covert support to U.S. and European newspapers, political parties, and unions to help polarized populations come down on the democratic side. The funding underwrote support for things like the European Union, where it battled Soviet-funded propaganda to the contrary. But in other cases, pro-democracy funding sat in uncomfortable proximity to support for anti-democratic but anti-communist parties of the right in China, southern Europe, and Latin America. When the activity was revealed in the late 1960s, the Johnson Administration concluded that the practice should end—though remnants of this strategy remained in various countries, continuing to align democracy support in too many minds with foreign interests and geopolitical ambitions.
The Helsinki Act inaugurated strategy 3.0. Local people, parties, and civil society organizations were the leaders in fighting their own recalcitrant or closed governments. Consolidated democracies would assist them with expertise, funding, and recognition while using multilateral platforms from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the Open Government Partnership to amplify local concerns and grant them universal validity. This model built off the German Stiftungen, the nonprofit foundations that by the mid-1960s were using government support for the four main German political parties to assist their ideological counterparts abroad. It continues through organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (where I sit on the board), its sister organizations for business (CIPE), unions (the Solidarity Center), and the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, as well as the European Foundation for Democracy and transnational organizations such as the Center for Nonviolent Organizing.
This model remains crucial and must continue. But it is running into at least five roadblocks severe enough that it requires a rethink.
First, mobilizing a citizenry for abstractions such as democracy, dignity, and human rights is still possible, as the Arab Spring showed. But after the Cold War, the strategy benefitted massively from the assumed linkage between democracy and economic development. Democracy still delivers higher economic growth with greater stability than any other political system. But that growth may not be evenly distributed: In Latin America and parts of Eastern Europe, democracy meant oligarchic economies. And while the economic success of China is an outlier among authoritarian countries, it is the important metric for its own billion and a half citizens, more than a sixth of humanity. It has succeeded in spreading its authoritarian development model as a non-democratic path to higher living standards. The delinking of democracy and improved economic quality of life makes it harder to convince ordinary people of the benefits of the system.
Second, authoritarian states have been closing civic space for a decade, clamping down on foreign funding and passing laws to make operating difficult. Such laws have returned countries like Russia uncomfortably close to the early days of Helsinki when dissidents were arrested, tortured, and exiled for their work.
Under totalitarian regimes, this level of suppression was expected, and dissidents became heroes. Today’s autocracies are careful to allow more room for private expression so long as it is not a direct challenge to the regime. Unlike the era in which dissidents were repressed but also admired for their bravery, modern authoritarians have succeeded in delegitimating civil society groups among their countrymen, forcing them to declare themselves foreign agents, and painting their ideas as foreign imports. Using preexisting jealousy and distrust of a professional and international class, this nationalistic argument has found fertile soil, particularly against professional NGOs in capitals that lack broad-based membership.
Third, people-fueled revolutions for universal aspirations need extra care when populations are polarized. It is possible to fuel popular democratic change amidst polarization, as Chile’s vote against Pinochet in 1988 and Colombia’s referendum on a constitutional reform in 1990 demonstrated. But what democracy means must be framed carefully to build broad-based support across polarized groups. Civil society organizations that are all on one side of a polarized divide cannot amass the needed breadth to win. And as the United States discovered in Democracy 2.0, covertly helping one side of a polarized public appears suspect to the other side. Nationalism means that overt help can discredit the very side democrats hope to assist.
Fourth, the trend toward leaderless movements in recent years bodes ill for civil society-led efforts to rebuild democracy. Democratic governments need politicians. If civil society leaders will not move from protest to politics—or will not even lead their own movements openly—there is no popularly known leadership class from which electorates can pick leaders. When major parties are discredited and no existing leaders appear palatable, outsiders look good. Anti-corruption drives have been particularly notable for how often they have been hijacked by populist authoritarians, from Silvio Berlusconi’s control of Italy following the Clean Hands clean-out to Jair Bolsonaro’s success after the infamous Lava Jato corruption probe. The post-Cold War era was a best-case scenario, when liberal democracy was the last ideology left standing. But even then, some democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe were stolen by oligarchs, while Georgia and the former Yugoslavia were first captured by illiberal nationalists. In polarized nations, outsider candidates span the ideological spectrum, with all choices potentially leading to further democratic degradation.
Finally, the Helsinki Act offered a strategy that did not put consolidated democracies on a pedestal. But its adaptation after the Cold War led to the creation of processes in which consolidated democracies provided funding and training to local groups in newer democracies, alongside a habituated implicit, and sometimes explicit, assumption of superiority. This posture is no longer viable. The United States is among the countries slipping the most quickly down the Freedom House rankings. The Varieties of Democracy project finds 20 percent of EU members are undergoing autocratization. Helsinki Watch groups could once count on solidarity from the CSCE in supporting and amplifying its dissident voices. As the United States showed under President Trump, support for democrats from the governments of consolidated democracies cannot be assumed. As more consolidated democracies backslide and affect the institutions of the EU, NATO, the UN, and other bodies of which they are a part, the multinational institutions that could offer leverage to a domestic, people-oriented strategy become less reliable.
Many democracies that see themselves as donors and supporters of the pro-democracy movement need shoring up themselves so they can continue to do this work at all, and so that they can do it credibly. Yet democracy programming falls under foreign policy and thus cannot easily be programmed to allow bidirectional learning within the “donor” country, while funding flows from donor to recipient states. Autocrats are ahead here: As they seek to undermine democracy, they do not distinguish between consolidated and newer regimes, but look for chinks in the armor across the board. Pro-democracy activists need to be able to strategize across consolidated and newer democracies, look at the strategies arrayed against them, and craft tactics together that will work against similar threats in different countries.
Conclusion: Democracy 4.0
The world needs not one democracy strategy, but many. The Helsinki Act chose to focus on the former Soviet Union. It ignored China, then embroiled in the Cultural Revolution, and the military dictatorships and hybrid democracies of Latin America and many post-colonial states. But by choosing the Soviet Union, which fueled authoritarianism in many countries and whose model offered an alternative, its reverberations were felt more broadly. A focus today on China and to a lesser extent Russia would be comparable. These are the two countries that are offering alternative models, funding, and military support to other autocrats. But many backsliding democracies are failing for reasons of domestic politics. Democracy support must have different theories of change crafted to meet the challenges of autocratization in consolidated democracies, backsliding in newer but once-solid democracies, coups in some of the least consolidated democracies, and the unique difficulties presented by China and Russia.
For each of these targets, the democracy community must determine what lever could provide democratic portions of domestic societies with some clout today. What fulcrum could democrats in foreign countries provide to amplify universal demands without generating blowback? Which foreign countries should be part of this project, and how should governments be involved at all? Where populations are polarized, how could the pro-democracy community use the lessons of Helsinki to generate positive progress toward a more democratic shared future? And most importantly, how do we work together on the challenges that democratic countries often share? Considering the lessons from the democracy community’s last paradigm shift provides a lens for seeing what we need next.