Rising authoritarianism and ethnonationalism at home and abroad underscore both the value and vulnerability of open, inclusive democracies. While cracks in the glass of our own democratic house provide compelling reasons not to throw stones, they should also refocus our attention on our generation’s responsibility to refortify the foundations of an open society.
The twentieth-century democracy agenda, for better and worse, was captured by President Reagan directing the Soviets to “tear down that wall.” Today, Americans should instead signal that we stand ready to help build, as partners, the foundations of inclusive, prosperous, and open democracies. Established and emerging democracies alike face incredible challenges from the disruptions of technology, pandemics, migration, global networks of hate, climate change, and a fragile global economy. These countries need a hand, not a wagging finger, and we need to lead by example. This framework for advancing democracy should rest on two simple pillars. First, nothing hits harder at authoritarianism than showing that open societies provide a better life for their people. Second, we need established and emerging democracies less to choose sides in a new Cold War with China than to be partners finding common solutions to a shared aspiration of inclusive, prosperous, and open democracy.
The United States Most Effectively Combats Authoritarianism by Demonstrating that Inclusive, Open Democracies Deliver a Better Life for their People
When the Iron Curtain fell, countries choosing a sociopolitical model saw ample evidence of open societies—whether social or capitalistic democracies—delivering expansive rights and opportunities, while closed societies were collapsing under stagnation and repression. America’s flaws were well known—particularly the systemic mistreatment of African Americans and our penchant for backing repressive governments. But the world had also seen courageous movements for civil rights, women, and workers successfully move the needle closer toward “liberty and justice for all.” Moreover, quite frankly, the West just seemed to be more dynamic and fun, reflected in the movies and music beamed across the globe.
A generation later, though, countries saw a very different set of choices. I heard this consistently in the interviews I conducted during the early months of the Arab Spring. Egyptians repeatedly associated the American system (well before Donald Trump’s presidency) as close to the one they just overthrew—a kind of civil oligarchy that enriched the top 1 percent. I was surprised to hear people from Minya to Alexandria cite solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, decrying the radical inequality produced by crony capitalism. We see similar shifts in perceptions around the world in reaction to our epidemic of mass shootings and police abuses of unarmed Black men, Trump’s kleptocracy and racial demagoguery, and the attempted coup of January 6th. Where the United States of 1989 projected an expanding American Dream built by four decades of investment in the middle class, the America of this century has too often projected shrinking opportunity and eroding democratic stability.
And the logical alternative had shifted as well. An ascendent China was producing real and perceived success pulling millions from extreme poverty into a middle class. Far from the late Cold War images from Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government had used these results, along with ruthless repression and high-tech state surveillance, to project national unity and momentum. In the meantime, American attempts to shine a light on Chinese malfeasance at home and abroad landed awkwardly, as the world had just witnessed the world’s strongest, freest country respond to the horrific attacks of 9/11 by adopting the police-state policies and alliances with dictators that the United States so often condemned in others. As someone advocating for human rights in Africa and Asia during that period, I can bear painful witness to how neoconservative foreign policy shredded the democracy agenda and handed leaders like Putin and later Xi more than enough fuel to douse its remains.
We have no tool more powerful for advancing democracy and freedom than showing that existing democracies deliver a better life for all of their people. In this regard, President Biden has offered the most ambitious democracy agenda in decades. He has set out to rejuvenate American democracy at home and build a more inclusive American Dream. Imagine the signal it would send globally if the bipartisan voices who rightly decry Chinese leadership had embraced one of the most important ways to confront their influence in the world—by making America the land of opportunity again.
President Biden came of age witnessing the policies that made America’s middle class the envy of the world. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower advanced an industrial policy, as a matter of national security, to distribute manufacturing and people, and train workers for the new economy. This included the GI Bill, Interstate Highway System, investment in science and tech, and support for home ownership. The labor movement guaranteed greater returns to workers, and the civil rights movement greater democratic and economic opportunities. Corporations and the richest Americans paid their fair share in taxes and typically saw their profits linked to the purchasing power of a growing middle class.
Knowing this history, Biden decided that the country did not need another 2009 stimulus that jolted the economy back to its former fragile strength but rather a “Build Back Better” agenda to revive and expand the American Dream for a new era. For the first time in 50 years, the White House advanced serious industrial policy—for the computing sector, green energy, and antitrust enforcement that could revive competitiveness in countless sectors, from transportation to agriculture. Too often covered as a laundry list of reforms, this was a comprehensive strategy to make America affordable again, from prescription drugs to child and elderly care, to doubling the federal minimum wage.
Parallel with this, the Biden Administration pledged to restore and strengthen America’s democracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and Freedom to Vote Act, currently stalled in the Senate’s filibuster, would renew traditional protections and addresses the growing set of threats to election security and safe voting. Similarly, the House has passed legislation to combat the corrupting effect of money and foreign interests in our politics.
Free and fair elections, followed by the peaceful transfer of power, are foundational to democracy. When those foundations are threatened, history teaches us that those responsible must be held to account to deter future erosion and invite greater violence. I served as Senior Advisor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone when we faced the question of whether indicting Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator responsible for much of the war and its worst atrocities, would restart the war or finally bring it to a close. While our decision to proceed created short-term risks, the rule of law provided a legitimate accountability mechanism that removed the threat of Taylor and deterred other actors who had previously profited from stoking the war. Two decades later, Charles Taylor remains in jail, and neither Sierra Leone nor Liberia has ever returned to war.
The bipartisan January 6 hearings have revealed that some of President Trump’s closest advisers raised the threat of future prosecution, and it deterred key actors from collaborating. If those who participated are not held accountable, those warnings will fall on deaf ears next time. The value of bipartisanship in demanding accountability at home should apply to condemning those who hobnob with authoritarians and ethnonationalists like Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro. The establishment right has pushed back on those embracing Putin’s line on Ukraine and joined with Democrats in responding to potential threats of the Xi government, but this pushback against powerful ethnonationalist and authoritarian sympathizers must be seen as a consistent bipartisan priority.
The Biden Agenda, too often covered (and communicated) as a laundry list of policies, collectively amounts to a grand strategy to rebuild the American democracy and dream. Aside from using military force, any effort to check abuses by the Chinese government or its influence abroad must begin with showing the world we represent a better approach to our citizens. Rebuilding a better American Dream is a good priority regardless of foreign policy, but our global influence will decline precipitously—regardless of our threats and lectures—if we are not seen as the preeminent system providing the best possible lives and rights to our people.
Partners, not Professors Lecturing About Democracy
Plenty of nations around the world still want our support and partnership, but they do not want the lecture. We need to do more of calling them into the in-group—fellow countries eager to be inclusive and open democracies and struggling with similar challenges. The resurgence of a nonaligned bloc reflects a fundamental failure to frame inclusive democracy as a shared aspiration with ourselves as partners in it.
Democracy is difficult under the best of circumstances, but particularly challenging amid pandemics, financial shocks, waves of migration, seemingly stateless capital concentration, and climate change. At home and abroad, the real and perceived failures of democracy to deliver create ripe conditions for the rise of authoritarians who claim they alone can do so. Helping emerging, imperfect, and eroding democracies to produce results for all their citizens is as vital as the traditional priorities of accountability and transparency, elections and a free press. Modernizing the democracy agenda is not just about a change of posture but also establishing priorities to match the greatest challenges we all face today.
The twentieth-century framing of democracy, too often still prevalent in U.S. public debate, is that it is something we in the United States have perfected and now export to the world. In practice, acknowledging our flaws and challenges makes us stronger, and our partners more open. As a diplomat, I gained far more legitimacy and leverage by raising our democracy challenges at home and asking if our aspirations were shared. When asked about the shooting of unarmed Black men in America by governments we were pressuring not to shoot protesters, I could say that I had joined protests in Baltimore after the uprising. When confronted with arguments about the need for draconian safety measures, I could speak about death threats I faced from Tea Party activists, along with an attempt to blow up my family’s house.
How strenuously one condemns China or advocates for intervention in Iran is not a meaningful measure of one’s commitment to freedom and democracy. Having admittedly done my share of traditional “name and shame” human-rights work, such statements from administrations and members of Congress now feel like the bullies on Twitter who rightly get accused by the right and left of “being performative” or “virtue signaling.” We have far less evaluation of who and what approaches have been effective in producing results.
Take, for example, the recent elections of left/center-left governments in Chile and Colombia (voters are to choose a new president in October in Brazil, where Lula is favored to win). Traditional Beltway discourse would suggest coming down hard on these regimes about free trade, cooperation with the war on drugs, and not getting too close to China, Cuba, or the Palestinian cause. While these national interests are parts of our foreign policy, the question of posture and priority is whether we start out as partners in trying to make multiethnic, open democracy work and whether we are vested in their success. The future of the Americas could be defined by common commitments to open democracy, addressing climate change, and collective strategies on migration. The recent Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection was a good example of how an issue core to our national interest has matured from a United States vs. the rest to a collective security understanding.
This approach suggests the need to invite new voices into foreign policy circles, namely those who are working domestically on issues of racial equality, the care economy, and antitrust. This reflects the need to frame this agenda as promoting what I call IPODs: inclusive, prosperous, and open democracies.
Diversity is our strength, but when Russian agents looked for vulnerabilities to exploit for their 2016 election interference, they focused in on race and, more specifically, rising white male grievance. Foreign agents did not create this problem any more than Trump. The project to build and sustain a truly multiracial democracy with equality under the law has few successful historical precedents. When we are seen as succeeding, we offer lessons to an increasingly integrated world.
Ethnonationalists and authoritarians draw on hatred of an internal or external “other.” Equality amidst diversity must move from the margins to the core of the modern project of democracy. Where, for example, our current primary national interest in Colombia is the war on drugs, we should instead see in the new government a partner in making inclusive democracy thrive. Similarly, the murder of George Floyd sparked not only historic protests here but also expressions of solidarity against anti-Blackness around the world. When the United States is seen as hearing and trying to answer these cries at home, we become partners to all aspiring for the same around the world.
Democracies are increasingly squeezed between nefarious Chinese trade practices, neoliberal corporate protections that erode the tax base needed to invest in education and infrastructure, and by the World Trade Organization’s overreach into curbing legitimate environmental, public health, and industrial policy. They are seeing inclusive prosperity give way to radical concentration of wealth that too easily translates into concentrated political power. They are struggling with automation and now AI eliminating traditional pathways toward growth of jobs and wages.
Too often, U.S. policy is stuck in the era of free trade agreements being the hammer for which everything looks like a nail. We prioritize unpopular and even counter-productive corporate trade policies over expansion of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which has turned U.S. companies from some of the most hated to most appreciated abroad. The world has moved on from neoliberalism, but Foggy Bottom often remains its final devotee. President Biden has put together some key components of industrial policy at home, though he should do more to unleash those who understand the real global economy, like Secretary Janet Yellen and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, to break through the outdated conventional wisdom that too often stymies inclusive prosperity and better relations with the global South.
A free press, free speech, personal privacy, and freedom of assembly are paramount to an open society, but how do these principles apply to the digital age? How do we protect them when the public square is privatized or protect independent media when Facebook aggregates their revenue streams? How do we protect personal freedoms when our data is captured, commodified, and even weaponized? What does due process mean when accountability is sought in the privatized public square? How do we protect free speech when anonymous threats can do so much to silence the vulnerable and even the empowered? What happens when the Chinese government can weaponize any data on 5G or Tik-Tok, or some tech billionaires decide to join forces with a growing China? Open societies need a new consensus across democracies and across the aisle on what constitutes a truly open society in this era and how we can cooperate to build and protect it.
Inclusive, prosperous, open democracy remains a shared aspiration for much of the world. From Hong Kong to Chile to Turkey, protests reflect a universal desire to be heard and represented, to assemble and hold accountable those in power. Authoritarians like Putin have had success painting democracy as a veneer for neocolonialism, and the neoconservatives handed them ample material. But when the United States demonstrates that open societies deliver a better life, and when we engage as partners in the incredibly difficult project of inclusive democracy, those critiques lose their sting.
Applying This Framework to Addressing China in the World
The current Chinese leadership and the expanding capacity of surveillance technology represent grave threats to open societies. At the same time, we must recognize the risks inherent in creating a new Cold War when the world needs cooperation to address climate change, migration, and pandemics.
The old approach would be to saber-rattle China, focus on its abuses, and force countries around the world to side with us against tyranny. With the Chinese government having much to offer transactionally, the tough talk is reduced either to a self-fulfilling prophecy or a counterproductive virtue signaling by China hawks.
Take the evolving case study of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Initially, most countries were appalled by the crime of aggression and supported or sympathized with supporting Ukraine. The Biden Administration built a global coalition for sanctions and a European coalition for military aid without committing U.S. troops. Over time, however, much of the global South has moved into a nonaligned posture, caring more about the war’s impacts, like the global food shortage, than seeming to take sides with the United States in a great power struggle. The hesitancy I hear from foreign leaders is about priorities and precedent. Are they partners in solving shared problems, like food security, or pawns being pulled into a Cold War they cannot afford?
The aspirations for democracy and freedom are universal, but each generation and culture experiences and advances them in unique ways. As we face a defining moment for open societies, President Biden has wisely prioritized rebuilding a better American Dream and democracy as the greatest need not only at home but for countering authoritarianism globally. With considerable policy victories posted, the Administration must implement these not piecemeal but as a coordinated grand strategy. Second, any remaining democracy summits should set a new tone of partnership in the shared struggle of doing democracy right, with a new agenda of the greatest issues democracies face today, and a promise to be partners in paving a path to common aspirations.