Reversing the Tide
Towards a New US Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism
Report of the Task Force on US Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism
Freedom House, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Arizona State University McCain Institute
The rise of authoritarianism, coupled with the erosion of democracy, threatens global stability, America’s economic and security alliances, and respect for human dignity. In each of the last 15 consecutive years, abuses of human rights and assaults on core democratic institutions and practices have accelerated around the globe. This alarming confluence requires an urgent, bold, generational response that places support for democracy and countering authoritarianism at the heart of our foreign policy and national security strategy. US leadership in defending established democracies, supporting nascent democracies, and challenging autocrats—while putting our own house in better order—will necessitate a reordering of priorities, plans, and budgets.
The United States must adapt to the realities we now face. The United States and its democratic allies have not squarely addressed the strategic challenge posed by democratic decay and resurgent authoritarianism -- most significantly an increasingly repressive and aggressive China. There are opportunities to restore freedom and advance our interests despite fierce opposition. Indeed, the members of this Task Force feel strongly that the future of US national security and the future of democracy are so fundamentally intertwined that we recommend elevating democracy to become the “fourth D” of US foreign policy, alongside diplomacy, development, and defense. It must become not only a core, cross-cutting objective of our efforts, but central to how we pursue our goals, as an integral component of a US National Security Strategy.
Building on its interim national security strategic guidance, the Biden administration should set out a new strategy and high-level policy architecture focused on democracy and involving all aspects of the US government. This includes creating a multiyear plan with bipartisan support to build US capabilities and the necessary alliances that will jointly carry the flag and share the burden. Our aim is a partnership among governments, civil society, citizens, and the private sector to confront challenges to democratic values and institutions. These alliances can then grow in number and resilience.
All over the globe, we see people struggling for liberty and equality. Now is the time to reverse the rising tide against freedom. Democracy’s strengths are the very attributes that authoritarians most fear: the inherent demand for self-examination and criticism, and the capacity for self-correction without sacrificing essential ideals.
This report is both a call to action for US leadership and a roadmap for a practical, bipartisan path forward. We propose seven interrelated strategies:
Strategy 1: Elevate support for democracy and countering authoritarianism to the heart of US foreign policy and national security.
This ambitious but urgent project requires a deep reordering of priorities, capabilities, and budgets. Elevating and mainstreaming democracy as a central tenet of domestic and foreign policy must encompass all elements of US power—economic, social, technological, diplomatic, developmental, military, intelligence, and law enforcement. President Biden should issue a Presidential Decision Directive (PDD), declaring support for democracy at home and abroad as a core value and core national interest. The PDD should direct the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council to develop a National Democracy Strategy that articulates a detailed multi-year vision of domestic and international policy to strengthen and advance democracy and counter authoritarianism. It should align with a new National Security Strategy. The president should also establish a National Democracy Council to create, coordinate, and oversee the implementation of the National Democracy Strategy. The new council would facilitate much closer coordination between foreign and domestic policy, and reform and elevate development as a key element of the democracy strategy.
Strategy 2: Forge new leadership on democracy and human rights, creating a big tent to strengthen and build new democratic alliances.
The United States should embrace a “diplomacy of democracy,” making democracy and countering authoritarianism a priority for US diplomatic engagement. That prioritization should include galvanizing an international coalition to push back against authoritarian threats and reinforce democratic governance. Our fundamental approach should be one of partnership and solidarity with governments, civil society organizations, universities, the private sector, and citizens working to confront these challenges together. President Biden’s Summit for Democracy should be used to convene allies, define purpose, and drive ambition and resources. There must be a serious “price of admission” to the summit that will require participants to make concrete and serious commitments to invest in democracy domestically and globally, with a multiyear calendar of work going forward.
Strategy 3: Scale up investment in the pillars of open, accountable, inclusive, democratic society.
The Task Force urgently recommends that the United States and its partners dramatically increase investment in the pillars of open, accountable, inclusive, democratic society: free and fair elections; independent media; and a vibrant, active civil society. All have come under significant pressure in the last decade, and the response has been insufficient. The Biden administration and Congress should create a new Center for Integrity in Elections that works closely with elections officials and bodies in the United States and overseas to safeguard the integrity of elections. To counter the damaging trends imperiling independent media around the world, the United States should invest in a large-scale Enterprise Fund for Independent Media to promote free expression and quality journalism internationally. We also recommend that the United States focus especially on women’s equality and youth inclusion as a powerful force for change by creating a Women’s Political and Civic Leadership Initiative and launching a Young Leaders Coalition for Democracy. Finally, and crucially, the United States should develop a much more robust strategy for supporting and protecting human rights defenders around the globe.
Strategy 4: Lead in developing a strategic digital technology policy agenda for the democratic world.
The digital transformation of society has dramatically altered the context for democratic governance. Without more concerted values-based leadership, the internet will increasingly become a tool for state and nonstate actors to sow chaos and discord, and for authoritarians to assert greater control over their citizens. Rebuilding international support for a global, open, secure, and reliable internet will require a concentrated diplomatic focus and strong US leadership. The United States should elevate protection of an open internet and human rights as a strategically important dimension of digital technology and cyber policy. It should also dramatically step up digital technology and cyber diplomacy capabilities aimed at defending democracy and human rights. This would include appointing an ambassador-at-large for technology diplomacy, creating a new Bureau of Cyber Security and Emerging Technologies, and establishing a State Department office in Silicon Valley. We should rally democratic governments around a shared vision of the open internet, a democratic approach to regulating digital technologies, and a strategic agenda for technology policy and investment. This should include a comprehensive strategy to stem the spread of technologies that can be used for repression and authoritarian governance.
Strategy 5: Develop a strategy to rebuild trust in the information environment and to counter the spread of disinformation, online hate and harassment
Rapid changes in the ways information is created, manipulated, disseminated, and consumed have shaken people’s confidence in the integrity of information—facts, science, and news—with profoundly troubling effects. The rampant spread of intentional disinformation, state-sponsored propaganda, unintended citizen-spread misinformation, and online hate and harassment are interfering with basic democratic processes. The United States should develop a strategy to counter disinformation, online hate and harassment, appoint a senior official on the National Security Council staff to lead this effort, and, as an early step, task an assessment to better understand the nature and impact of these fast-evolving trends and threats, and the effectiveness of related US programs to address them. In addition, the United States should invest in building global societal resilience to disinformation, online hate and harassment. USAID should step up programs in digital and media literacy and cybersecurity education. The US government should increase engagement with likeminded democracies and companies to provide internet access, with a particular emphasis on marginalized communities, women, and youth. Finally, the United States should also establish a Global Task Force on Information Integrity and Resilience, bringing together like-minded democracies with civil society and the private sector.
Strategy 6: Make combating corruption, kleptocracy, and state-capture a national security priority.
Any serious effort to promote democracy and counter authoritarianism must include measures to combat corruption and kleptocracy, which have become business models for modern-day authoritarians. Corruption and its weaponization by authoritarians harms effective governance, undermines economic growth, and weakens the rule of law. It corrodes public trust, and is interwoven with security issues like organized and transnational crime, terrorism, human rights abuses, and conflict. Unfortunately, repeated global vows to combat corruption have not been translated into effective action. The United States should make combating corruption, kleptocracy, and state capture a fundamental pillar of the National Security Strategy, and design a whole-of-government approach to implement it. We should prioritize an anti-corruption agenda across international bodies that includes calling upon the Financial Action Task Force to establish a new set of anti-corruption standards, to be enforced by rigorous mutual assessments. We should distribute foreign aid and security assistance in ways that help reduce corruption, and leverage the private sector toward these objectives through mechanisms that promote investment in countries showing progress in countering corruption.
Strategy 7: Harness US economic power to support democracy and counter authoritarianism.
As the world’s largest economy, the United States should exert its leverage by proactively aligning international economic and democracy policies to counter authoritarianism and promote inclusive and sustainable economic development. Transparency, the rule of law, human rights, accountable governance, and inclusion are building blocks of democracy and indispensable for long-term corporate success. The Biden administration should reframe trade and development policy to that end. The United States should focus on negotiating economic agreements that set high standards for governance and democracy and move international labor standards to the center of US trade and international economic policy. We should also use development finance, US leadership in multilateral development banks, and a series of country compacts to boost inclusive growth and a sustainable recovery; incentivize democratic governance; and avoid debt traps, while demonstrating that democracy can deliver. We should issue clear expectations that American companies will demonstrate support for human rights throughout their operations and supply chains.
Elevate support for democracy and countering authoritarianism to the heart of US foreign policy and national security.
Forge new leadership on democracy and human rights, creating a big tent to strengthen and build new democratic alliances.
Scale up investment in the pillars of open, accountable, inclusive, democratic society.
Lead in developing a strategic digital technology policy agenda for the democratic world.
Develop a strategy to counter disinformation, online hate and harassment.
Make combating corruption, kleptocracy, and state capture a national security priority.
Harness US economic power to support democracy and counter authoritarianism.
LETTER from the Convening Presidents
An alarming global decline in respect for democratic freedoms, coupled with rising autocracy, is undermining our international partnerships and endangering US national security.