Recommendations for Democracies
Democracies face challenges at home and abroad. A crisis of confidence in open societies is sapping faith in democracy as a system. Domestic attacks on key institutions—the judiciary, the media, and electoral mechanisms—are undermining the foundations of democracy. At the same time, a global assault on the norms of democracy, led by an increasingly assertive China, challenges their spread around the world.
Only by strengthening democracy at home, and standing together in its defense around the world, can democracies protect their values and preserve their ability to expand freedom globally. The following recommendations are intended to provide a framework for democratic countries as they pursue these twin goals.
Strengthening and Protecting Core Values in Established Democracies
- Respect human rights at home. Attacks by elected leaders on democratic institutions—including the press, an independent judiciary, and due process of law—undermine faith in democracy around the world. Democratic leaders should demonstrate respect for fundamental norms at home, including by welcoming media scrutiny and fact-based reporting as an aid to good governance, enforcing robust protections against corruption and conflicts of interest, easing rather than obstructing citizens’ participation in elections, and dedicating the time and resources necessary to ensure that all migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers receive fair and proper treatment under the law.
- Invest in civic education. To protect freedom domestically and build support for an informed foreign policy, it is essential to foster a stronger public understanding of democratic principles—especially among young people. In the United States, new legislation could require each state to develop basic content and benchmarks of achievement for civic education, including instruction on the fundamental tenets of democracy. In the absence of new legislation, the US Department of Education should, to the extent possible, make funding available to states for civic education that focuses on democratic principles.
- Strengthen laws that guard against foreign influence over government officials. Legislative proposals requiring greater transparency about officials’ personal finances and campaign donations, more rigorous standards for the disclosure of conflicts of interest, and the establishment of a clear code of conduct for engagement with foreign officials can help insulate governments from foreign attempts to subvert democratic institutions. In the United States, this could include passing legislation to enforce the principles of the constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, closing loopholes in rules on reporting foreign influence, and modernizing financial disclosure requirements for elected officials.
- Invest in elections infrastructure to guard against foreign interference in balloting. In the United States, funding should focus on replacing outdated voting machines, strengthening cybersecurity for existing systems, and improving the technological expertise of state elections staff.
- Require social media companies to report foreign efforts to spread online misinformation and propaganda. Social media companies that operate in the United States should be required to report regularly on efforts by foreign governments and nonstate actors to manipulate American public opinion and undercut democracy by spreading disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda on their platforms. The US government should assess which entities would be the most appropriate to receive these reports, since this information is of interest across jurisdictions, including to intelligence agencies, Congress, the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice. The US government should carefully decide on the types and sizes of social media companies required to comply, the data they must submit, and appropriate penalties for noncompliance. The entity receiving the information should report findings regularly to the public and should make the data publicly available to researchers, while ensuring the protection of users’ privacy.
Defending and Expanding Democracy around the World
- Invest in alliances with other democracies, and in multilateral institutions. Confronting authoritarian and antiliberal trends globally requires a united front among democratic nations. Democracies are a beacon of freedom that others emulate, and their policies help to shape international standards. By vocally emphasizing their shared values and coordinating their aid and public diplomacy efforts, democratic countries can offer a consistent, attainable alternative to repression and coercion. They can reinforce this collective effort and constrain the behavior of autocratic powers by investing in multilateral institutions. Starting from the assumption that a country’s individual sovereignty is threatened by deep cooperation with allies will only isolate democracies from one another, leaving them weaker and less capable of meeting the challenge of resurgent authoritarianism.
- Confront abuses of international institutions. Illiberal leaders have grown more brazen in their attempts to manipulate international institutions for their own ends. Among other tactics, they have exploited Interpol to pursue political dissidents in exile, blocked civil society participation in multilateral bodies, and engineered the insertion or deletion of key phrasing in documents that affect international law and governance. (For example, China’s use of the phrase “mutually beneficial cooperation” in a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council could be interpreted to mean refraining from criticizing another state’s human rights record.) Democratic states should firmly oppose such efforts, ensuring that dissidents are not wrongly handed over to their persecutors, and forming alliances within international bodies to prevent authoritarian regimes from warping the original missions of these institutions and undermining the fundamental rights they were created to uphold.
- Encourage and protect journalists and freedom of the press. A free and vibrant media sector is a foundational element of a healthy democratic system. Citizens should have access to fact-based information—both in traditional news sources and on social media—in order to understand how their governments function and to hold their leaders accountable for their words and actions. Democratic governments can help protect media freedom by reaffirming the critical role of the press in furthering good governance, transparency, and the rule of law, pushing back against anti-media rhetoric that aims to strip journalists of legitimacy, supporting programs to strengthen the technical capacity of journalists around the world, and ensuring that attacks on journalists are prosecuted.
- Be prepared to promptly challenge preelection rights abuses. Crackdowns on the political opposition and other perceived opponents of the government often occur before elections. The international community should be especially vigilant when monitoring preelection periods in countries where internet blocking, media restrictions, suppression of protests, or arrests of opposition candidates are likely. If such misconduct occurs, international leaders should immediately and publicly condemn the action, press the government to reverse course, and work to assist the victims. Specific responses could include publicly calling for the release of those wrongly imprisoned, sending embassy officials to monitor court proceedings, and—in extreme cases—issuing emergency humanitarian visas for those under attack.
- Impose targeted sanctions on individuals and entities involved in human rights abuses and acts of corruption. In the United States, a law known as the Global Magnitsky Act allows authorities to block visas for and freeze the assets of any person or entity—including private companies—that has engaged in or supported corruption or human rights abuses, providing a measure of accountability for the perpetrators without harming the general population. Countries with similar laws should robustly enforce them, and legislatures in countries without such laws should seek to pass them.
- Emphasize democracy-strengthening programs in foreign assistance. Democratic governance is a key component of economic development and a basic necessity for long-term success, requiring active public participation. In addition to critical institution-building efforts—such as strengthening the rule of law, bolstering judicial independence, and ensuring free, fair, transparent, and inclusive elections—democracy programs should prioritize engaging and empowering local citizens so that institutional investments are effective and sustainable. A recent poll in the United States conducted by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center found that 71 percent of respondents are in favor of the US government taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.
- Focus on countries at critical junctures. These include countries that have experienced recent expansions in freedom, such as Angola, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Ecuador, as well as countries in which democratic progress is threatened, such as Senegal, Tanzania, and Tunisia. Foreign assistance for these countries should prioritize and incentivize democratic reforms designed to consolidate gains, address threats, and prevent backsliding. Policymakers should engage in high-level public diplomacy to signal international commitment to democratic progress, and assist democratically inclined leaders in delivering the tangible expansion of political rights and civil liberties. Consistency and predictability of both funding and diplomatic engagement are critical to long-term success for states at tipping points.
Recommendations for the Private Sector
The internet and other digital technologies have become ubiquitous as a means of accessing information, communicating, and participating in public debates. Consequently, technology and social media companies play an increasingly important role in sustaining—or weakening—democracy. They have a special responsibility to be mindful of the impact their business activities may have on democracy and human rights. Private companies should:
- Adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This includes avoiding commercial relationships with authoritarian governments that force them to violate fundamental rights. Instead, companies should commit to respecting the human rights of their customers and workers. As part of this effort, they should conduct periodic assessments to help them fully understand the effects of their products and activities. Upon completion of these assessments, companies should develop actionable plans to remedy any evident or potential harm. Given its unique position in authoritarian settings, the technology sector in particular should refuse business arrangements that require either active complicity in or passive acceptance of political censorship and information controls.
- Use internal expertise to help counter Chinese state censorship and protect the public. The technology sector should assist users in China by developing accessible tools that keep pace with innovations by the Chinese government and complicit Chinese firms. For example, leading international companies could develop mobile phone applications that enhance digital security, enable the sharing of images in a way that evades artificial intelligence–driven censorship, and incorporate circumvention capabilities into apps focused on other services.