America’s place in the world and democracy’s place in America are inextricably linked.
The goal of an open and just society with free and fair elections, equal opportunity for all, protection of rights, and equal application of the law—no matter one’s wealth, office, or skin color—is the heart of the ever-unfinished American experiment. It is the question at the center of every pivotal moment of American history.
While this yearning for liberty and equality may define the American dream, it is not uniquely American. From the Haitian revolution to Tahrir Square to the streets of Belarus and Hong Kong today, the spark of freedom shines brightly in every corner of the globe. Nor do the failings of American democracy define us or democracy itself. It is our response to these shortcomings, our resilience in the face of adversity, that has thus far guided our path.
Even as we struggle to safeguard America’s own democracy, we also know that America’s success has always been wrapped up in the success of other free nations. When we stand with those who share our values of accountability and respect for individual dignity, we elevate those things that we hold most dear—an equitable, just, peaceful, prosperous, and healthy planet.
But America and its allies face grave peril unless we recognize and respond to a dangerous truth: the global retreat of democracy has reached a crisis point. After its rapid proliferation in the second half of the last century, democracy is in retreat in every region of the world. 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.1 This democracy depression has been evident across the democratic spectrum, from the most established democracies, including the United States, to countries on every continent. In some countries, internal threats including extremism, populism, polarization, and corruption are undoing the tenets of free and open societies. The failure of some democratic governments to deliver inclusive economic growth and equitable services is undermining faith in the very idea of democracy. In others, external attacks from aggressive authoritarians on elections and the media are strengthening would-be dictators. In many countries, the combination of internal inequities and external aggression is driving democratic progress into the ditch.
Geopolitical trends are exacerbating the challenge. As democracy ebbs, aggressive authoritarians falsely promise order, security, and prosperity, while actually delivering subjugation, persecution, and corruption. China’s regime is using economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to undermine democratic governance and advance its influence in Asia and beyond. Putin’s Russia foments division and insecurity in established and struggling democracies, especially those close to its borders, viewing the spread of democracy as an existential threat. In both cases, they seek to advance their interests by undermining the rules-based liberal international order that the United States and its allies have superintended for three-quarters of a century, and which constrains their ambitions.
- 1Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy under Siege,” March 3, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege.
Democracy’s opponents use the tools and values of democracies as weapons against us and their own people. They interfere in free elections and free markets. They use technological innovation to undermine free speech and trust in information. They corrupt international institutions formed to foster peace, prosperity, and human rights. To weaken confidence in the efficacy of democracy, they capitalize on its failures and the transgressions of duly elected political leaders who fail to uphold democratic values in office. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon for autocrats, who exploited the public health crisis in their countries to expand their authority. Flawed responses to the pandemic in leading democracies further shook public confidence in their elected governments’ competence, and our adversaries stigmatized those mistakes as proof that democracies lack the will to respond effectively to the worst crises.1
Countries with weak democratic foundations are now vulnerable to tipping into fundamentally undemocratic regimes. This includes an important array of America’s partners, like India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and the Philippines. Other key countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are undergoing state capture by corrupt elites, or submitting to outright authoritarianism. In a recent survey of democracy experts, most expect democracy and human rights to decline further over the next five years.2
What’s more, America’s ability to inspire the defense and expansion of democratic values globally has been called into question. Attacks on long-standing democratic norms, including former president Trump’s effort to overturn the last election with unfounded claims of widespread electoral fraud, which fomented the mob attack on the Capitol, have damaged America’s standing around the globe.
Allies and critics alike will note that the United States has its own democratic repair work to do. The original sin of legalized slavery continues to resonate powerfully, as seen in the widespread upheavals over racial justice that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Even as the United States remains an incredible bastion of opportunity and social advancement, pervasive inequality for women and minorities continues to deliver lower pay and assets, poorer health outcomes, and lower educational attainment for tens of millions, thwarting the American dream and undercutting our economy and democracy. Yet as it undertakes these self-improvements, the United States must not shy away from strong global support for competitive, fair elections, the development of checks and balances and independent institutions, and other cornerstones of enduring democracies. Our support not only expresses our founding principles and way of life, it furthers our national security interests.
The members of this Task Force, many of whom have served in Democratic and Republican administrations, are united in the conviction that the ambitious agenda we recommend will be more likely to succeed if the United States simultaneously addresses shortcomings domestically and approaches the global challenges with humility and in solidarity with other nations addressing similar challenges. The ultimate power of US influence rests on the foundation of a just, thriving, and prosperous democracy at home.
This strategic challenge posed by resurgent authoritarianism and democratic decay has not been squarely addressed by the United States and its democratic allies. In recent years, the United States and our friends and allies whistled past the challenges of the democratic world with self-assurances that time will consign our non-democratic competitors to the dustbin of history. Democracy’s reputation suffers from the travails of weak governments where democratic values and institutions lack deep roots, as well as from the enduring difficulties challenging established democracies—inequitable and slow economic growth, racism, unequal justice, and political paralysis. Skepticism that democracy is the most effective political model for these times is gaining ground around the world, particularly among younger generations.3
We cannot take for granted that democracy’s virtues are self-evident. We must make the case that democracies deliver dignity, security, and prosperity. Economic growth is stronger over time and more inclusive in democracies. Governments and economies are more dynamic and less fragile than authoritarian regimes, where stagnation is confused with stability and corruption is often hidden. Democracy engenders constructive international cooperation and peaceful competition rather than violent confrontations. Democracies are better allies and trading partners. Democracies adhere to the rule of law and form alliances based on shared norms of international behavior. Famines and genocides do not occur in robust democracies.
China’s techno-authoritarian, state-capitalist model is gaining adherents. Competitors see China’s rapid ascent as an economic, military, and diplomatic power as evidence the model delivers, or at least as reason not to challenge it. The right response to those who say democracies are chaotic and ponderous isn’t false bravado. It is the honest admission that democracy is messy, and often fails to produce rapid responses to pressing problems. But democracy possesses self-correcting properties that brittle authoritarian regimes do not. The answer to democracy’s shortcomings is more responsive democracy.
When the failings of autocracies become more than their societies can bear, the regime cracks down or breaks apart. Citizens of democracies can effect change by regularly holding their governments accountable for their failings. Dissatisfaction, even alienation, occurs within democracies when “throwing the rascals out” through elections doesn’t produce the change the public seeks. But accountability is still democracy’s greatest strength. For authoritarian regimes, accountability is democracy’s greatest threat.
This generational challenge to the very bedrock of America’s foreign and domestic policy requires an equally profound response. We must rise to this moment. The United States and its allies must react urgently not only as an expression of our democratic identity, but also because it imperils our vital interests. Our security and prosperity are threatened by democracy’s retreat and authoritarianism’s spread. Effective international cooperation to preserve peace and stability, to respond to global economic downturns, and to fight environmental and public health crises requires governments that are transparent and inclusive, accountable to their people, and respectful of human rights. We must also harness the powerful engines of a free society for these purposes—our capacity for innovation, our economic strength and ingenuity, our great centers of learning and research, and the tapestry of media, civil society, and artistic communities that advance thought and human connection.
There are opportunities to restore freedom and advance our interests despite fierce opposition. The distribution of power may limit American reach, but this is not a bipolar world between democratic America and authoritarian Russia and China. Several of the most successful responses to the current pandemic have come from governments in democracies like South Korea and Taiwan. Newer democracies like Indonesia are engaged in nascent debates about the importance of democratic norms to their international identity. Surveys continue to demonstrate that democracy is considered the most effective form of government.4 And as the tragedy in Xinjiang illustrates, businesses are beginning to recognize the consequences of allowing their supply chains to run unfettered through repressive economies. The popular hunger for freedom expresses itself even—or especially—in the places where it is most challenged. There are many recent examples of citizens braving danger to resist authoritarian regimes and insist on a say in how they are governed. Protesters in the streets of Yangon, Khartoum, Hong Kong, Minsk, and Moscow demand justice and accountability. They offer powerful reminders that democratic values aren’t merely the attributes of an ideology in competition with others, they inhabit the human heart.
- 1Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, “Democracy Under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom,” Freedom House, October 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/democracy-under-loc….
- 2Repucci and Slipowitz, “Democracy Under Lockdown.”
- 3Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, “Closing the Generational Divide on Supporting Democracy,” George W. Bush Institute, May 5, 2020, https://www.bushcenter.org/publications/articles/2020/05/democracy-talk…; Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (2016): 5–17, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/FoaMounk-….
- 4Richard Wike et al., “Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy,” Pew Research Center, October 16, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2017/10/16/globally-broad-support-fo….
"All over the globe, we see people struggling for liberty and equality. Now is the time to reverse the rising tide against freedom."
The erosion of democracy, coupled with the rise of authoritarianism, jeopardizes global stability, American economic and security alliances, and respect for human dignity. It 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. This must impact the choices we make in other policy areas. Defending established democracies, supporting nascent democracies, and challenging autocrats will necessitate a reordering of policy priorities, plans, and budgets, and an adaptation to the realities we now face. Indeed, the members of this Task Force feel strongly that the future of the United States’ 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 also central to how we pursue our goals.
To respond to this moment, the United States must strengthen our alliances. We must resume our preeminent leadership role in the cause of democracy and human rights, developing a “diplomacy of democracy” to build and manage alliances that share that cause as their central purpose. To do so credibly, we should exercise humility. Our aim is not the reclamation of a unipolar world, but a partnership with governments, civil society, business and the private sector, and citizens to confront challenges to democratic values and institutions—alliances that can grow in numbers and resilience.
We should, therefore, organize a broad coalition of democracy’s defenders at home and abroad, who recognize that the core values of democracy and a sincere commitment to its global success are not optional. The Summit for Democracy President Biden has proposed should serve as a vehicle for uniting allies in shared purpose, setting goals, and identifying resources for a multifront campaign. The means of creating and convening the Summit should themselves be a testament to inclusion and accountability. A serious investment in strengthening democracy and resisting its adversaries at home and abroad should be the shared commitment that all participants bring to the Summit.
As we build stronger democratic alliances, we should be mindful of experiences where we lost credibility because our rhetoric prioritizing freedom and democratic change was not aligned with our actions. We must also face the certainty that holding abusive leaders to account will conflict at times with other priorities that we have with powerful rivals such as China, and with difficult partners, such as Saudi Arabia. In these instances, we need to challenge the assumption that, in the long run, democracy might be the lesser goal. We must be transparent when we favor priorities that do not support democratic governance or advance human rights. Likewise, for regressing democracies that are important allies or regional powers, such as India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and the Philippines, we should seek to maintain valued relationships without equivocating about holding fellow democracies to democratic standards. We should also acknowledge and address the internal strains on our own democracy, and link the progress of reforms at home to efforts abroad. The central idea of the American project—that free people govern themselves—must be upheld. And we should stand with those who claim their right to do so wherever they are opposed, despite difficulties it might entail for other policy concerns.
We believe that the United States is fully capable of meeting these challenges. Responding to the crisis of democracy must be a top national security priority. Building on its interim national security strategic guidance, the Biden administration needs to set a new strategy and construct high-level policy architecture focused on these issues. It should be a multiyear plan with bipartisan support that builds US capabilities and the necessary alliances that will carry the flag and share the burden. We must invest in significant new tools and partnerships with a long-term agenda. We propose seven interrelated strategies for focus: elevating democracy as a core policy priority through a Presidential Directive and a National Democracy Strategy; revitalizing our diplomacy to support democracy; strengthening the pillars of democracy, including free and fair elections, independent media, and civil society; integrating the development and regulation of technology with shared democratic and human rights values; countering and curbing the poisonous flood of disinformation; combating corruption and kleptocracy; and using economic statecraft to support open societies and inclusive economies.
"The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means."
This report is both a call to action and a roadmap for a practical, bipartisan path forward. Nearly 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan delivered his famous Westminster speech on democracy, setting in motion the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy and other instruments that have driven US and global investment in the advance of democratic values in almost every country in the world.1 The world has changed dramatically over these four decades. We face new challenges and opportunities. It is time to take a fresh look at the US and global infrastructure for supporting democracy and countering authoritarianism, fortify it with substantial new resources, and recommit ourselves to a vision of long-term transformation that seeks basic rights and freedoms, dignity and equality for all.
- 1Ronald Reagan, “Address to Members of the British Parliament,” Palace of Westminster, London, June 8, 1982, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/address-members-british-p….