FPRI's Conference Report: Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support

This conference, Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support, was co-sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Perry World House, the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.
Executive Summary
Democracy is under siege globally. The number of democracies spiked impressively after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989-91. But over the past decade, the quality of democracy has fallen in more states than it has risen. Our joint FPRI/Perry World House conference explored why global democracy was faltering, what the U.S. policy response should be, and how the case for continued support must be framed to retain the backing of a majority of Americans.
Panelists discussed three broad reasons for democratic backsliding. The first is the failure of democratization to produce greater well-being. Inspired by the example of the Western liberal democracies, people in the transitional countries saw democracy as a way to improve their lives. Instead, many have seen rising income inequality, corruption, and stagnating growth. These factors have fostered democratic disillusionment and created sympathy for demagogic alternatives.
Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support
A second cause is the Putin regime’s systematic assault on other nations’ democracies. Russia has leveraged linguistic, religious, cultural, financial, and personal linkages to promote illiberalism—with the goal of restoring Russian influence, facilitating monopolistic or corrupt business practices and undercutting liberal principles, particularly on Russia’s periphery. A similar mixture of propaganda, disinformation and other “active measures” has been used in Western Europe and in the United States, most notably in the 2016 election.
A third factor was the Obama administration’s approach to democratization. Although global democratic backsliding and increased competition from Russia and China were apparent by Obama’s second term, the administration was slow to counter these threats. Meanwhile, illiberal nationalist ideologies gained footholds across Europe and the United States.
There was consensus on the strong strategic arguments for continued U.S. support for democracy, but panelists also agreed that traditional tools and policy approaches require reform. Some see the “democracy bureaucracy” as wasteful, opaque, and inadequately targeted, thus requiring a major overhaul. Others stressed the need for a policy of triage that takes fuller account of differences among types of countries. In some countries, U.S. democracy assistance is futile or counterproductive, while in others, only indirect forms of democracy support are feasible. Yet, there remain many countries where the ground is fertile and democracy assistance is fruitful, and others where democratic governments face external threats and U.S. support is needed. Effective democracy support also requires a long-term mindset, and the United States needs to make more effective use of the UN and other democratically-based international institutions that the U.S. pioneered.
Panelists also discussed the issue of skepticism about democracy promotion in the Trump era, and concluded that it is essential to demonstrate why the health of democracy abroad is key to the “hard” national security interests of the U.S. First, there is a strong correlation between democratic countries and U.S. allies in the world. Given the resurgence of authoritarianism and its direct targeting of U.S. democracy, to abandon the cause of democracy abroad would be to ignore an existential threat to our own way of life. Second, the liberal order built by the U.S. after World War II has greatly increased American prosperity and security. If that system based on democratic values erodes, U.S. citizens will be less prosperous and less secure. Making this clear to all Americans is key to a long-term, bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting democracy abroad.
Please find the report in its entirety here: https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/09/conference-report-democracy-matter-...