What is Required for Democratic Renewal?

An Interview with Jonathan D. Katz

What is the significance of the 2021 Democracy Summit?

There has been considerable democratic backsliding globally, including in the United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere. This has been coupled with considerable effort by authoritarians—namely Russia and China—to remake the global landscape in their fashion. 

During the election period, President Biden had committed to holding a summit for democracy within his first year. There is a strong need to bring together democracies to discuss the renewal of democracy, without ignoring the reasons behind its regression, which include loss of public trust in democracy, closing spaces for civil society and media globally, and increased levels of corruption. 

A lot of these phenomena are perpetrated by oligarchs, autocrats, and their enablers. President Biden is responding to what he sees as a real danger to the health and future of democracy both in the United States and globally.

The Summit for Democracy is not a singular, one-off event—it is part of a year of action and commitment to host a second summit in 2022 or 2023. The purpose of the Summit was not just about diplomacy or to talk to each other about problems facing democracies, but rather, implement actions and policies, which we will hopefully see the results of soon.

In a recent op-ed from The Hill, Robert Manning said “in a complex multipolar world, the autocracy demon seems intellectually lazy, a simplistic binary substitute for communism”. What factors are responsible for the erosion of democracies—the influence of external authoritarian actors like Russia and China, or domestic issues and actors, or both? 

I do not think it is intellectually lazy to point to how the activities of authoritarian states, internationally, impact democracies and other countries. One only must look at the impact of hybrid aggression in countries like Ukraine, where Russia uses all sorts of levers to impact democracy and the transition in Ukraine—from energy to disinformation and use of military force. Russia is attempting to subvert the democracies of many countries through committing human rights violations, and further polarizing societies to sow division.

Similarly, China is using its economic might and growing military power to push a different form of governance, globally, that is not democratic and does not necessarily hold governments accountable or allow citizens to have a voice because, in China, there is no other voice but the Communist Party. Uyghurs, Hong Kong democracy activists, and threats to Taiwan—they are all targets of Beijing’s effort to crack down on dissenting voices. 

There are also pressing issues in many Western democracies that have not been solved, including social and income inequality, widespread disaffection, apathy, loss of faith in governmental institutions, and the feeling that governments no longer work for the people.

The Summit for Democracy was an opportunity to address these key challenges to put in motion policies seeking to restore the trust of citizens. President Biden has repeatedly stressed the importance of addressing these issues both at home and abroad. The current administration has outlined steps that we can take to address several of these challenges. For example, we are rolling out an anti-corruption strategy which can be an example for democracies globally, if there are the right resources, commitment, and leadership.

Steps also need to be taken in the year of action following the first summit. Countries, civil society, and the private sector can work to fulfill, monitor, and refine the commitments that they have made. We should measure these commitments, measure their implementation, and make sure that they are sustainable both in the short and long term. I hope that we will see governments taking the immediate implementation lead but also critical is the role of watchdogs including NGOs, free media, and citizens at the local and national levels. 

In the meantime, the number of autocracies is growing—we see autocratic leaders and their governments pushing back against efforts to establish freedoms, combat corruption, ensure free and fair elections, bolster independent media, and good governance. The repressive actions of Lukashenko in Belarus following a fixed election and crackdown on peaceful Belarusians is an example. In addition, Putin, a supporter of Lukashenko, is cracking down on his people—there are now hundreds of political prisoners, there is virtually no independent media, online media will likely be targeted next, civil society spaces are closing, and people are fleeing the country.

It is dishonest to suggest that autocrats do not play a role, but they certainly are not the only actors. There are domestic factors in democracies that contribute to the erosion of citizen trust and global interest in democracy as a successful political model. We all have a role to play in affirming and strengthening democracy. Poor governance, even in democracies, can quickly erode confidence, institutions, and trust. In the United States, a large percentage of Republicans across the country still believe that the presidential election was stolen, which is not the case. January 6th was a wake-up call for Americans that our democracy is not guaranteed. 

What does the renewal of global democracy require and what are some practical measures that can be taken in the now to medium term to reverse some of the democratic regression that is occurring?

The first step is to recognize there are a set of wide-ranging problems facing democracies as well as forces on the march pushing alternative forms of governance and policies that threaten democracy and human rights. I think these problems have been diagnosed and understood, including in Washington. The approaches of the Biden Administration and former Trump Administration are night and day. It took a long time—especially for many who were shouting over the last several years about the dangers of democratic backsliding, and the rising threat of autocracies—for this issue to get any attention, especially with President Trump embracing autocrats from North Korea, Turkey, Hungary, and globally. 

I joined a bipartisan effort through the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group in 2018, which was meant to address democratic backsliding, because we did not see any attention or interest in the Trump Administration. We were among many who saw America regressing from its role as the leading democracy and were also concerned about how this would impact America’s security at home and globally. 

Action is now needed to address these challenges to democracy. I think we have recognition now, which is why you saw 110 countries participating at the summit for democracy, plus civil society, and other democratic actors. Leadership is critical though. There is a palpable difference when there are leaders in power, like President Biden, that are interested in sustaining democracy and fostering it.

Trump was anti-democratic. His actions resemble those of an autocratic leader—attempts to shut down media or take advantage of electoral systems, which Trump is still trying to do to this day in the lead up to the next presidential election. There is a reason why Viktor Orbán and Mr. Erdoğan were not invited to participate in the democracy summit. 

We need to talk about how we can strengthen rule of law and build inclusive societies, as well as determine what that means for the economy, law, and justice. How do we rectify the wrongs of the past? I think this has become particularly challenging. The U.S, and many other countries striving to maintain or foster democracy, must reckon with their histories. 

Combating endemic, global corruption and empowering watchdogs that encourage transparency and accountability are important initiatives.

We must bolster independent media as well and ensure that investigative journalists have the resources and legal space they need to work within. Today, in countries like Russia, autocrats like Mr. Putin do not want to have independent journalists or political opposition looking at his governance and internal corruption—he wants to control that message.

Democratic renewal requires a lot, and it is hard. It is a daily commitment. You need an engaged and healthy citizenry, healthy governance, and the appropriate ecosystem for democracy to flourish. It must be a constant effort because there will always be challenges to democracy. 

Have disinformation and information technology contributed towards the decline of democracy, both in the U.S and elsewhere? What role will bolstering independent media have in the process of democratic renewal? 

Technology can be a double-edged sword. In countries like Belarus and Russia, democracy activists rely on technology to continue advocating for their needs, and see the global response to what they are doing. 

Technology used in the wrong way poses challenges and can be used to oppress citizens and weaken democracies, including free, fair, and transparent elections. We saw a recent Russian Duma election in which the online media, including some U.S. tech companies, were pressured to turn off Navalny’s Smart Voting App—Mr. Navalny of course is a leading Russian opposition figure and political prisoner, who received the Sakharov Prize in the EU for human rights. It is a problem if you have U.S. tech companies listening to and accommodating governments that seek to stifle freedom of expression.

It is so important to have free, independent media whether it is the United States or Russia. What we see globally is shrinking space for independent media and this impacts the ability to hold governments accountable, combat disinformation, and provide the critical services necessary for democracies to function. There has been a great need for transparency and accountability amid COVID-19, with misinformation about everything from COVID’s origins to the effectiveness of vaccinations. Unfortunately, some governments and officials have taken advantage of the COVID crisis to advance political agendas. It was brave journalists and civil society exposing the misdeeds of governments and other actors that are now being threatened. 

At the summit for democracy, one of the key announcements by the Biden administration and partners was support, through multiple avenues of funding, to address the legal challenges facing journalists globally, many of whom are faced with lawsuits in countries where laws have been put in place that may hold them liable financially and criminally. 

The U.S is providing this support. Several European countries, allies, and partners in the transatlantic space, and globally, are stepping up to support media. Through the release of the Pandora Papers, we learned how important it is to have journalists and networks, particularly investigative journalists, that can shed light on corruption and financial crimes.

What challenges would a Trump re-election (or the election of a similar candidate) pose to the progress that has been made in the past year to address democratic backsliding?

Trump’s re-election would dramatically set back democracy in the United States and globally. Look at what took place in the four years that he was in power in Washington and its impact on government structures, the U.S. election, and Americans’ trust in democracy, good governance, and our electoral system. We must remember that Trump was impeached twice and the abuses of power in his administration were unprecedented.  

There could not be anything more detrimental to the health of democracies than having a leader like Mr. Trump, or somebody else like him, that is willing to subvert democracy, rule of law, and the democratic will of voters to maintain power. It very much follows the same trajectory that we have seen in other autocrats and dictators use when they try to amass power at the expense of others to embellish themselves.

Jonathan D. Katz is director of Democracy Initiatives and a senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) based in the Washington, DC, office. Prior to joining GMF from 2014-17, Katz was the deputy assistant administrator in the Europe and Eurasia bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where he managed U.S. development policy, energy security, economic growth, and democracy, and governance programs in Europe and Eurasia.