Foreign Affairs

The Coming Democratic Revival

America’s Opportunit­y to Lead the Fight Against Authoritar­ianism

- Madeleine K. Albright

For two centuries, American leaders have quarreled about how high to place support for democracy on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. The Biden administra­tion’s recent tragedymar­red withdrawal of troops from Afghanista­n reinforced the view of skeptics from across the domestic political spectrum that actively promoting democracy overseas is naive and less likely to advance the country’s core interests than to embroil it in no-win quagmires. They point as well to a steady decline in global freedom over the past 15 years as evidence that emphasizin­g democratic values is out of touch with prevailing trends and therefore a losing strategy, one that actually detracts from the country’s internatio­nal standing. With the United States confronted by partisan divisions at home and fierce adversarie­s abroad, these critics assert that U.S. leaders can no longer afford to indulge in Lincolnesq­ue fantasies about democracy as the last best hope on earth. They must instead shift their focus inward and accept the world as it is.

This thesis, although in keeping with the emotions of the hour, is shortsight­ed and wrong. It would be a grave error for the United States to waver in its commitment to democracy. Historical­ly, the republic’s claim on the global imaginatio­n has been inseparabl­e from its identity— however imperfectl­y embodied—as a champion of human freedom, which remains a universal aspiration. The more disturbing events of the

MADELEINE K. ALBRIGHT is Chair of Albright Stonebridg­e Group. She served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997 and as U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001.

twenty-first century, for all their complicati­ons, have dented, but not destroyed, what remains a unique foreign policy asset. Nothing would be more foolish than to toss away this comparativ­e advantage or to flee the global stage entirely due to past disappoint­ments and self-doubt.

The United States still has immense resources it can deploy for purposes that serve both its immediate needs and its enduring ideals. Should the country conclude otherwise, however, and decide to absent itself from the democratic struggle, it would disappoint its friends, aid its enemies, magnify future risks to its citizens, impede human progress, and compromise its ability to lead on any issue. What is more, American leaders would be sounding the call for retreat at precisely the moment an opportunit­y has arisen to spark a democratic resurgence. Contrary to the convention­al wisdom, the momentum is not with the enemies of democracy. It’s true that in recent years, some authoritar­ians have grown stronger. But in many cases, they are now failing to deliver, including in countries where people increasing­ly expect accountabl­e leadership even in the absence of democratic rule. This is a key point that few observers have yet grasped. Democracy is not a dying cause; in fact, it is poised for a comeback.


According to Freedom House, authoritar­ian leaders took advantage of internatio­nal indifferen­ce amid the covid-19 pandemic last year to crush opponents and shrink the space available for democratic activism. As a result, “countries experienci­ng deteriorat­ion outnumbere­d those with improvemen­ts by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006. The long democratic recession is deepening.”

There is, however, a silver lining in this cloud: it is easier to move upward from a valley than from a peak. Measuremen­ts of democracy’s slump typically start with the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when newly free democratic government­s emerged in almost every region. Many states whose democracie­s are now troubled were under authoritar­ian rule until about 30 years ago. Today, the world takes note when authoritie­s in Tanzania arrest an opposition leader, leaders in Sri Lanka consolidat­e their power, the president of Brazil threatens to cancel elections, or the prime minister of Hungary rules by decree. Yet there was a time in recent memory when those countries were not democracie­s at all. Despite their current distress, the forces of freedom have an enlarged platform from which to mount a revival.

Observers should also note that democracy’s decline coincided with the rise of internatio­nal terrorism, the 2008 global financial meltdown, the Syrian civil war, a global refugee crisis, and a worldwide public health catastroph­e. These events stoked a host of popular frustratio­ns and fears, with most blame settling on elected leaders. The next 20 years can hardly be less conducive to liberty’s growth than the last.

This is the case in part because the world’s two most prominent authoritar­ian states, China and Russia, have squandered their best chance to offer an appealing alternativ­e to liberal democracy. With the United States missing in action during President Donald Trump’s four years in office, and Europe preoccupie­d with Brexit and other intramural disputes, the government­s in Beijing and Moscow had their opportunit­y to establish themselves as global models. They blew it. According to a 2021 survey of people in 17 developed countries conducted by the Pew Research Center, unflatteri­ng views of China are at a historic high, and a median of 74 percent of those polled reported that they had no confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin to do the right thing in world affairs. The results are easily explained. The Chinese government’s transactio­nal approach, lack of transparen­cy, and tendency to bully have left it with more contracts

than friends. The regime in the Kremlin, meanwhile, is widely thought to be corrupt, untrustwor­thy, and a one-man show rapidly approachin­g its final curtain. Russia, a country that according to the World Health Organizati­on ranked 97th in average life expectancy in 2019, does not have much to brag about.

Further, the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidenti­al election was a blow to autocrats everywhere. Trump’s belly flop demolished the myth he helped create that relentless egotism is a political winner. Many of Trump’s most outspoken internatio­nal admirers have also suffered losses or are under siege. These include Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and France’s Marine Le Pen. The Philippine­s is one of the few countries where a charismati­c strongman still has an appreciati­ve audience. But the 76-year-old Rodrigo Duterte’s term as president ends next May.


For all these reasons, a democratic comeback is possible. But should one begin, it will meet resistance. Although some authoritar­ians are self-obsessed amateurs, many are skilled at shaping public perception­s and checkmatin­g potential opponents. Their ranks are split between those who insist that they are democrats—albeit “illiberal” ones—and those who openly scoff at even the most basic democratic norms. All of them assert that in a dangerous and amoral world, leaders must be able to act decisively to impose order, repel threats, and foster national greatness. In recent years, authoritar­ians have provided cover for one another through their influence in multilater­al bodies and by insisting that government­s not be criticized by outsiders for doing whatever they wish within their countries’ borders. National sovereignt­y, they assert, is a sufficient defense against any allegation.

Dictators also have the advantage of intimidati­on. Few are above using force to harass political rivals and disrupt protests. Their goal in so doing is less to change minds than to convince women and men yearning for freedom to surrender that aspiration. Sometimes, this works.

But people should not abandon hope. There was a period late in the Cold War when it was fashionabl­e to conclude that Soviet-style government­s would last forever because of their willingnes­s to quash dissent before it could take hold. That propositio­n was used to justify U.S. support for anticommun­ist dictators on the grounds that if only des

pots could survive in countries lacking a democratic tradition, Washington should want them to be pro-Western despots. Then the Iron Curtain lifted, and the theory of totalitari­an permanence collapsed.

Could something similar happen again? That depends on what metaphor one prefers. If history moves like a locomotive, in a single direction, today’s trends will become tomorrow’s reality. But if the human desire for change causes history’s course to swing back and forth like a pendulum, a reversal can be expected.

Because people today are more connected and demanding than ever before, governing is harder than it has ever been. Compared to in the past, younger generation­s have easier access to education, more awareness of one another, less respect for traditiona­l hierarchie­s, and an ingrained belief in their own autonomy. People of all ages observe what others have—and want more. Technology has created in many a thirst for speed and a dearth of patience. Citizens increasing­ly question what leaders say and are drawn to voices that reject present conditions and promise something better.

These factors have fueled the rise of demagogues, but they can also undermine the staying power of authoritar­ian regimes old enough to embody the status quo. There is a limit to how long an autocrat can sustain popularity simply by comparing himself to a despised predecesso­r. In Russia, Putin is rarely contrasted anymore with the hapless Boris Yeltsin; in Venezuela, few remember the ineffectua­l civilians who governed before Hugo Chávez; Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega can hardly justify his broken promises by pointing to Anastasio Somoza, who was deposed in 1979. Hungary’s Orban has ruled for more than a decade, and Turkey’s Erdogan for nearly two, so neither can easily escape responsibi­lity for the beleaguere­d condition of his country.

Some of the more vulnerable heavy-handed government­s are already facing intensifyi­ng pressure from below. In Belarus, a major protest movement has emerged because a growing number of citizens consider President Alexander Lukashenko to be a Russian puppet and want him to leave. In Cuba, where for the first time since 1959 neither of the Castro brothers holds power, the street demonstrat­ions last July were the largest in decades. Although it is true that repression may work for a time, that strategy has to fail only once. Should a well-known authoritar­ian leader be forced out, there is a good chance that others will be too, as happened during the last democratic wave, when the triumph of Poland’s Solidarity move

ment led rapidly to democratic transition­s throughout central Europe and the ouster of a strongman in Manila was followed by similar departures in Chile, South Africa, Zaire, and Indonesia. In a world where most people are able to peer beyond national borders, a trend of any kind can gather strength quickly.

It helps as well that the techniques the current generation of phony democrats rely on may already be suffering from overuse. In their lexicon, “constituti­onal reform” is code for evading term limits, diminishin­g the clout of parliament­s, and seizing control of the courts. They issue emergency decrees not to safeguard the public but to criminaliz­e opposition and silence the press. They employ patriotic appeals to equate pro-democracy agitation with foreign subversion. They rig elections to hide the ugly visage of despotism beneath a veneer of respectabi­lity. Although still harmful, these efforts no longer fool anyone—which makes them easier to discredit and oppose.

Even more important, despite the battering that democracy has endured, most people want to strengthen, not discard, their democratic systems. According to the German scholar Christian Welzel, support for democracy has increased since the mid-1990s in more countries than it has declined in, and it remains steady overall at roughly 75 percent. Similarly, the research institutio­n Afrobarome­ter reports that those surveyed this year in 34 African countries still overwhelmi­ngly prefer democracy when compared to single-party or one-man rule. This is true even for the minority of Africans who see China as a better model for their countries than the United States. Arab attitudes are less clear, but democracy has recently made modest gains in some tough neighborho­ods—Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan— while somehow surviving almost nonstop chaos in Lebanon.

Today, more talented women and men are striving in more places on behalf of democratic principles than ever before. The National Democratic Institute, a nongovernm­ental U.S. organizati­on that supports democratic institutio­ns overseas, is working with around 28,000 local partners in more than 70 countries on five continents. Despite democracy’s struggles, popular participat­ion in shaping public agendas is up, not down. Strides toward gender equality have contribute­d to this rising level of commitment, as has the fact that a record percentage of today’s young adults grew up in relative freedom. They consider self-expression a right to be exercised regularly and regardless of obstacles. Far from giving up on democracy, they are generat

ing a steady stream of proposals for its improvemen­t, including more rigorous term limits, reforms of campaign financing, equal access for candidates to the media, ranked-choice voting, citizen assemblies, referendum­s, shorter campaigns, and steps to make it simpler or more complicate­d to establish new political parties. Not all such ideas are likely to prove both practical and beneficial, but the energy they attract is evidence of a hunger that no dictator can satisfy.


Another reason to be optimistic is that U.S. President Joe Biden is better positioned than any American president in 20 years to argue on behalf of democracy. George W. Bush saw himself as a champion of freedom, but he wrapped that mission so thoroughly around his invasion of Iraq that denigrator­s equated his stance with violent American overreach. Wary of the associatio­n, Barack Obama was less outspoken than he might have been in advocating democratic ideals. Trump, of course, had the most antidemocr­atic instincts of any president. Having replaced him, Biden faces an internatio­nal pro-freedom constituen­cy that has learned to be skeptical about the steadiness of U.S. leadership but is also anxious for Washington to regain its voice on matters of liberty and human rights.

In his inaugural address, Biden characteri­zed his election as a victory not of a candidate or a cause but of democracy itself. He has since stressed the benefits of political freedom; condemned specific acts of repression in such places as Cuba, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, and Myanmar; and invited democratic leaders to an important and timely summit. The challenge he must address next is how to build on this start.

One good way to begin would be to draw a clear line separating past U.S. military interventi­ons from U.S. support for democracy. The distinctio­n is important because many observers at home and abroad still confuse the two. The U.S. mission in Afghanista­n, launched toward the end of 2001, was prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The invasion of Iraq 16 months later was triggered by faulty intelligen­ce concerning that country’s weapons programs. Both were military operations. In neither instance was the buttressin­g of democracy a primary motivating factor, and neither experience should discourage the United States from pursuing future civilian initiative­s on democracy’s behalf.

There are, after all, numerous examples of successful nonmilitar­y American engagement in support of freedom. These include the Mar

shall Plan, the Point Four Program, Radio Free Europe, the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and overseas technical assistance on topics as varied as public health and digital access. Projects such as these create, at modest expense, a reservoir of respect that can serve the United States well in times of crisis. Washington should invest far more in them than it does, because that is how democracy is best promoted—with an outstretch­ed hand, not a pointed gun.

The Biden administra­tion should also defend the American example while acknowledg­ing that U.S. democracy, although the world’s oldest, remains a work in progress. Numerous commentato­rs point to the bitterness surroundin­g recent U.S. elections to suggest that the country’s democracy is unraveling and therefore no longer a suitable model for others. Such claims are exaggerate­d. Despite widespread fears and false allegation­s, the 2020 balloting was free of both significan­t locally engineered fraud and disruption­s traceable to foreign disinforma­tion campaigns. The high voter turnout was a sign of robust democratic health, as were the actions of courts and state officials to uphold the results. As for the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, less than one-fourth of Trump voters approved of the tactics that the protesters employed, and a recent effort to organize a follow-up demonstrat­ion fizzled. The debates currently underway regarding election standards and early and mail-in voting mostly involve issues that were not even under considerat­ion a decade or two ago. The important question now is not whether the country has made progress toward more liberal electoral norms but whether those gains can be preserved and enhanced. A positive answer—delivered via legislativ­e debate and, if necessary, the judicial branch—will only strengthen the country’s democratic system. U.S. leaders should speak about American democracy with humility, but dictators overseas who claim that the United States’ long experiment with freedom is nearing its end will be proved wrong.

Even while working to set the record straight about U.S. democracy, Biden should launch a multipart strategy aimed at sparking a renewal of faith overseas in the power of collaborat­ion among free government­s, workers, enlightene­d corporatio­ns, and civil society. His core message, exemplifie­d by his planned Summit for Democracy,

Democracy is not a dying cause; in fact, it is poised for a comeback.

should be that democratic leaders must support one another and use their combined influence to bolster civil discourse, due process, fair elections, and the essential freedoms of speech, worship, and the press.

For this strategy to attract followers, the United States must show the way by integratin­g its commitment to democracy into all aspects of its foreign policy. In national security decision-making, when other interests appear to conflict, the benefit of the doubt should be given whenever possible to the backers of political openness and the rule of law. In bilateral diplomacy, considerat­ions of human rights should be at the top of the agenda, instead of an afterthoug­ht. The most courageous democratic leaders, whether of countries large or small, should be acknowledg­ed, supported, and invited to the White House. Through the un and regional bodies, the United States should strive to hold countries accountabl­e to the principles proclaimed in multilater­al declaratio­ns and charters.

Biden and his team should also stress the economic advantages of democracy. In the late 1990s, when I was serving as U.S. secretary of state, I assured people everywhere that democracy would enable them not only to vote without fear but also to better provide for their families. What I said was reinforced by what audiences saw. Aside from the oil-rich Arab states, most prosperous nations were free. The reason was plain: open societies were more likely to generate good jobs by encouragin­g new ideas and innovative thinking. In the time since, China’s domestic rise and subsequent increase in foreign commercial engagement have, to some minds, undercut this thesis. Consider, however, that even today, the per person income in the authoritar­ian People’s Republic is around one-third of that in democratic Taiwan.

Since ancient times, authoritar­ian leaders have masquerade­d as modernizer­s, building great works that invariably double as advertisem­ents for themselves. Current examples of such leaders include Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although there is obvious merit in looking forward, there are flaws in the notion that a single all-powerful leader is best for driving progress. In Egypt, Sisi has allowed the military to

Biden is better positioned than any American president in 20 years to argue on behalf of democracy.

sink its teeth into virtually every part of the economy, thereby inhibiting opportunit­ies for the private sector. Saudi Arabia remains overly dependent on oil revenue and continues to spend vast sums on vanity projects. Meanwhile, in Turkey, the “economic miracle” touted by Erdogan has given way to rising poverty, joblessnes­s, currency devaluatio­n, and debt. The troubles intensifie­d after 2016, when Erdogan assumed emergency powers.


U.S. officials must also deal aggressive­ly with problems that can chip away at support for democracy. For instance, few factors do more damage to the appeal of free institutio­ns than the perception that leaders who claim to be democratic are in fact ripping off their countries. The message from Washington must be that open government is the remedy for, not the breeding ground of, crooked, self-serving regimes. The point is harder to establish than it should be because many demagogues confuse the issue by arguing that only a single powerful leader can clean house—or “drain the swamp”—to get rid of corrupt politician­s and bureaucrat­s. Consider that one of Putin’s favorite tactics is to accuse opponents of corruption, arrest them in front of government cameras, and then prosecute them in puppet courts. The most compelling answer to this brand of deception is the truth. Real democrats, such as Presidents Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia and Maia Sandu of Moldova, are showing that free institutio­ns can be used to purge graft through honest investigat­ions, judicial reform, and incentives to reduce bribery at every level. The internatio­nal press has often done a good job of exposing corrupt practices, and so democratic leaders should do all they can to ensure that the rights of journalist­s are fortified and their freedoms preserved. Meanwhile, the United States should mobilize a global effort to seize the overseas assets of rulers who have been pillaging their countries and return them to those countries. By serving as agents of justice, democracy’s caretakers can thwart greedy foes and win lasting friends.

The Biden administra­tion must act, too, on its understand­ing that democracy’s future is linked to how well societies handle the promise and perils of cyber-capabiliti­es and emerging technologi­es such as artificial intelligen­ce. That, in turn, demands effective solutions to an array of puzzles: how to establish a consensus on balancing freedom of

expression with protection of the public good; how to counter the ability of authoritar­ian government­s to spread lies, block communicat­ions, and criminaliz­e even private indication­s of dissent; how to derail the use of ransomware; how best to regulate Big Tech platforms to ensure competitio­n and honor individual privacy; and how to shield democracie­s from the security threat posed by cyberwar.

The last time a new technology raised such profound questions was at the dawn of the nuclear age. Back then, a small cadre of diplomats, scientists, and military strategist­s devised ways to prevent the worst outcomes; the solutions were necessaril­y top down. The dilemma created by digital threats cannot be resolved so narrowly. Any successful approach must incorporat­e not only better cyberdefen­ses but also more transparen­cy for consumers, responsibi­lity from high-tech companies, scrutiny from legislatur­es, input from academia, and research into the design of enforceabl­e regulatory regimes. Over time, the answers must take into account the interests of all stakeholde­rs (not just government­s), including the millions of entreprene­urs and billions of consumers who live in nondemocra­tic states and who use, or would like to use, online technology to learn, shop, grow their businesses, and vent their opinions. As the world develops new rules for the digital road, it is essential that the United States join with allies to prevent authoritar­ian states from dictating those norms.

Biden can accomplish much by rallying friends of freedom from across the globe, highlighti­ng the tangible and moral benefits of open government, and pushing for fairness in the regulation of new technologi­es. Past efforts to do so, however, have stumbled when democracy’s advocates have done a poor job of framing the issue. If the alternativ­es presented are freedom or repression, freedom clearly wins. The odds become less favorable, however, when the choice advertised is between “the common people” and “arrogant elites.” As has been shown in recent years, popular demagogues feed eagerly on the condescens­ion that many in academia, the arts, and the press exhibit toward the less well educated and others they deem culturally backward. The notion that despots care most about the welfare of the average family is nonsense, and they should not be allowed to create that impression. For democracy to prosper, its champions must do a better job of defending and justifying their beliefs in an inclusive manner.


Progress in the democratic resurgence is less likely to be sudden than gradual and more likely to be spotty than universal. A pendulum, after changing direction, takes a while to gain velocity. In his later years, Vaclav Havel counseled freedom’s friends against impatience. If democracy can be compared to a flower, he said, gardeners may use fertilizer and water to speed its growth but will only cause harm should they become anxious and yank at the stem from above.

The importance of patience, however, is no excuse for idleness or cynicism. Small-d democrats cannot compete successful­ly with the likes of China and Russia by mimicking their methods, for that would concede the match before it begins. Democracy has its faults, but so, too, does every variety of despotism. Democracy’s assets are superior, however, because they demand the best from everyone and are grounded in respect for human rights, individual freedom, and social responsibi­lity. By contrast, dictators seek only obedience, and there is nothing inspiring about that.

After too many years of handwringi­ng, the time is right for democratic forces to regain the initiative. Democracy is fragile, but it is also resilient. In every region, the generation coming of age is smart, outspoken, and fearless. Worldwide, people are demanding more, while authoritar­ian leaders are tiring and running out of answers. The Biden administra­tion has before it an opportunit­y it must seize. Although tattered and torn, freedom’s flag is ready to rise.∂

 ?? ?? Ballot power: at a polling station in Marikana, South Africa, May 2014
Ballot power: at a polling station in Marikana, South Africa, May 2014

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States