Johns Hopkins University Press

Adverse political developments in both established and newer democracies, especially the abdication by the United States of its traditional leadership role, have cast international democracy support into doubt. Yet international action on behalf of democracy globally remains necessary and possible. Moreover, some important elements of continuity remain, including overall Western spending on democracy assistance. Democracy support must adapt to its changed circumstances by doing more to take new geopolitical realities into account; effacing the boundary between support for democracy in new and in established democracies; strengthening the economic dimension of democracy assistance; and moving technological issues to the forefront.

When the Journal of Democracy was founded, international democracy support was entering a takeoff phase. A rapidly expanding community of governmental, quasi-governmental, and nongovernmental organizations was taking up the challenge of fostering democratic outcomes in the dozens of countries around the world moving away from autocratic rule. They included the aid agencies and foreign ministries of many Western democracies as well as political-party foundations; democracy endowments; election-aid groups; media-support organizations; rule-of-law groups; and democracy-support or elections-assistance units within various multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations and the Organization for American States. Tremendous energy and optimism infused the various components of this undertaking. These included the application of both diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks to encourage democratic change; a push within multilateral organizations to build a consensus around new democracy-related norms; and the development of a whole new field of international assistance aimed specifically at aiding in the assembly of democracy's institutional building blocks. Democracy promotion appeared central to the creation of a new international order, one defined by the global triumph of democracy and the predominance of Western transnational influence.

In the optimistic atmosphere that then prevailed within the growing democracy-support community, it would have been hard to imagine that a generation later the field would be in a state of grave uncertainty, or even crisis. Yet a sobering set of adverse global political developments has made this the case. For a number of fundamental reasons, international action to bolster democracy remains both possible and necessary. [End Page 114] But if the democracy-promotion community is to move forward from its current troubled condition into a better state, it must take a clear-eyed view of the factors that are driving the crisis and develop strategies that will make democracy support more effective in an increasingly inhospitable global environment.

At the center of the current crisis of international democracy support is the stunning abdication by the United States of its traditional role as the leader of this community. U.S. president Donald Trump, channeling multiple currents of public dissatisfaction—especially concerning the protracted U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dislocations wrought by proglobalization economic policies, and the sociocultural impact of high levels of immigration—has advanced a foreign policy of "America First." This outlook stresses the importance of national sovereignty for all countries and the need for the United States to look out for itself rather than worry about the interests or destinies of others. It also entails a transactional approach to U.S. relations with other states, one that has included frequent presidential praise for authoritarian leaders and criticism of democratic allies. The longstanding bipartisan commitment to advancing democracy globally as a critical pillar of U.S. foreign policy has little place in this framework. For decades, courageous democratic activists and struggling democratic governments looked to the White House for solidarity and support, but today it is more common for illiberal politicians and authoritarian regimes to do so.

Democracy support is sagging as a foreign-policy priority for many other democracies as well. Although they generally have not shifted gears as sharply as the United States, most Western democracies are following at least to some extent the U.S. example by adopting a more protective approach to foreign relations, focused on defending themselves against real or perceived threats such as surges of incoming migrants, terrorism, and trade wars. In broad terms, Western societies appear to be undergoing a historic shift away from projecting influence around the world and toward insulating themselves from external influences. Moreover, Western democracies are consumed with nettlesome domestic developments—including ever more contentious and divisive politics, the decay of traditional political parties, and the rise of illiberal alternatives—that are sapping their attention to the state of democracy beyond their borders, as well as their confidence that democracy is the best choice for others.

Compounding the effects of this drift within Western democracies are parallel problems in major non-Western democracies. When countries [End Page 115] such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey gained new weight in international affairs in the early 2000s, many hoped that these young democracies would become a source of renewal for the field of democracy support—both by serving as compelling examples of democracy succeeding in non-Western climes and by undertaking their own efforts to support democracy across borders. Initially, this optimism appeared warranted. Turkey, for example, seemed to be an attractive model of democratic success in a Muslim-majority country, and South Africa looked likely to become a leading light of African democracy. Moreover, these countries demonstrated increasing interest in cultivating democracy in their regions. Turkey began backing democratic change in the Arab world. India took steps to foster democracy in parts of South Asia, including Afghanistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Indonesia devoted significant diplomatic resources to a major annual international democracy gathering, the Bali Democracy Forum (launched in 2008). The U.S. government welcomed these developments, joining forces with India on large initial contributions to the United Nations Democracy Fund (established in 2005); with Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and others on the establishment of the Open Government Partnership (a collaborative effort involving governments and civil society, initiated in 2011); and with Indonesia on increasing civil society assistance in Asia.

Yet in recent years this promise has faded significantly as most of these countries have hit choppy political waters, whether in the form of Turkey's sharp turn toward authoritarianism, South Africa's struggle with state capture, India's slide toward illiberalism, or Brazil's election of an illiberal populist as its president. Having become symbols of democratic backsliding or stagnation rather than democratic success, these countries are now much less effective sources of inspiration and support for democratic development in their regions. And like many Western democracies, they are preoccupied by political tensions and conflicts at home, leaving them with less bandwidth for efforts to support democracy abroad.1

On top of all the bad news in both Western and non-Western democracies, there has been a surge in efforts by China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers to limit or reverse democratic progress in many countries.2 The leadership in Moscow has become convinced that democracy's gain is Russia's loss—not just in Russia's immediate neighborhood, but in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as well as throughout Europe and North America. Russia works actively to distort or destabilize democracy wherever the Kremlin sees that democratic systems are vulnerable, employing cyber tools, economic levers, diplomatic maneuvers, disinformation, and even paramilitary forces (as in Ukraine).

China's expanding role as a counterweight to U.S. global military and political influence is also of tremendous significance for democracy's future. Whether one views undercutting democracy as an express objective of Chinese foreign policy or merely a side effect of China's powerful [End Page 116] push to strengthen its economic and diplomatic sway, the political reverberations of rising Chinese influence are felt all around the world. With its developmental success, China also presents a governance model that offers an alternative to Western liberal democracy—a model that grows in credibility with every Western political or economic stumble. Russia and China are not the only authoritarian actors showing greater assertiveness on the international stage, with dire consequences for democracy. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among others, are busy influencing the political direction of countries of interest to them, often with antidemocratic effects. In Egypt, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed the harsh authoritarian rule of former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Elements of Continuity

These adverse winds are severe, but they have not yet capsized the ship of international democracy support. In today's political environment, democracy-assistance work often lacks high-level political backing and is no longer encased in a larger foreign-policy commitment to the international liberal order. Nonetheless, many of the institutions and people that have built U.S. democracy policies and programs over the past three decades are still at work. This includes diplomats working quietly to resist deepening authoritarianism (in Cambodia and Nicaragua, for instance) and to push forward where democratic openings have appeared (as in Armenia, Ethiopia, and Malaysia). The substantial body of U.S. democracy-assistance programming is still largely intact, thanks to a continuing bipartisan congressional consensus that has held the line on support for this sector against repeated threats of major cuts by the Trump administration.

Similarly, the inward foreign-policy turns taken by many other Western democracies have not—at least thus far—led these states to abandon their own organizations, initiatives, and funding dedicated to supporting democracy internationally. In fact, at least a few international democracy stalwarts, such as Sweden and Canada, have stepped up their commitments in response to the weakening resolve of their peers and the broader global democratic recession of recent decades.3 Even in troubled non-Western democracies, the policies and practices that reflect now-fading prodemocratic outlooks have not simply disappeared overnight. In India, for example, despite decreased democratic tolerance at home, the Election Commission—one of the most robust institutions of the country's democracy—still works to strengthen election administration in other countries.

These elements of continuity are encouraging. But continued high-level policy drift and public discouragement about democracy's global viability threaten to hollow out these valuable programs and policies over time. It is therefore vital to note that, despite the international political changes that have undercut policy makers' rosy post–Cold War [End Page 117] assumptions about democracy's future, international democracy support still has an important role to play for at least three critical reasons.

First, although democracy is troubled globally, it is not dying. The "third wave" of democracy that began in the 1970s and continued with the fall of European communism has crested, but democracy in developing and postcommunist countries overall has not so much retreated as plateaued. The number of democracies in the developing and postcommunist world remains at a historic high.4 Democratic openings, or at least some encouraging glimmers of democratic possibility, have emerged in recent years in quite a few countries, including Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Malaysia, and Sudan. The unexpectedly serious political woes of long-established democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom are unquestionably discouraging, but these troubles do not amount to democratic reversals. Illiberal populism has made gains in some countries in recent years, but it has also recently experienced setbacks, as in Ecuador, Greece, and Italy. More broadly, citizen attachment to democracy as the preferred form of government remains relatively strong in most regions.5 While authoritarian governments are asserting themselves more forcefully across borders, most of them face fundamental governance challenges of their own and uncertain long-term political prospects. Autocrats have watched with deep concern in recent years as large-scale protests and citizen movements demanding greater political voice, inclusion, and fairness have spread to countries all around the world.

Second, although the foreign policies of Western and non-Western democracies are shifting to a more inward-looking and protective gear, it remains the case that democracies enjoy greater security in a more democratic world. Most of the security threats facing democracies emanate from nondemocratic countries or countries that have failed to achieve any coherent governance at all. There is a clear connection between the advance of democracy and the decline of such threats. Of course, there are limited exceptions where democracies must forge alliances of convenience with nondemocratic countries in order to address particular security challenges. But over the last seventy years, the enduring relationships that create lasting frameworks of international order have been mostly based on positive relations among democracies. The current political churning within Western and non-Western democracies does not alter this fact.

Third, although international support alone is not sufficient to ensure democracy's global success, it is capable of making a significant positive contribution. Its importance for democratic outcomes has been proven in dozens of countries where elections are freer and fairer, governing institutions more representative, civil society sectors more vibrant, media sectors more independent and diverse, and elected local governments more empowered as a result of prodemocratic diplomacy and democracy assistance. The fact that the United States and its allies fell short in their efforts to transform the politics of Afghanistan, Iraq, [End Page 118] and Libya through military interventions and subsequent reconstruction efforts should certainly raise serious doubts about military-based regime-change policies. But it is not a basis for a generalized critique of democracy-support policies and programs, most of which take place in very different settings and have more realistic goals.

Moving Ahead

Whether international democracy support survives the current crisis will depend primarily on large-scale political factors. Of greatest importance will be the overall democratic health of the United States and other major Western democracies, along with the direction of their foreign policies—above all, whether their inward turn continues. Other critical factors will be the relative success of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to market democracy and the degree to which global power continues to shift away from the West. But the future of the democracy-promotion endeavor will also hinge on whether the community of engaged actors is able to evolve and to adapt democracy policies and programs to fit the changed circumstances. Steadfastness in democracy support is invaluable, but it must not become an excuse for avoiding the far-reaching reflection and debate necessary to ensure that democracy promoters do not keep doing the same thing over and over again, even as the ground beneath them crumbles away. A very preliminary initial agenda for such a rethink might highlight four key potential areas for change:

Taking account of the new geopolitical context

Given that a significant element of the geopolitical challenge from Russia and China consists in their negative influence on democracy globally, stepping up democracy support will need to be an integral part of the Western geopolitical response. Democracy diplomacy and assistance have traditionally focused on domestic processes of change within struggling democracies. In the future, these policies and programs will increasingly need to contribute to blunting or pushing back against negative transnational influences on local political developments. For example, given that authoritarian actors are reaching across borders to manipulate election campaigns and processes, how can international election assistance more effectively help to stymie such efforts? With nondemocratic powers working hard to discredit independent civil society actors and shrink space for civil society globally, how can civil society assistance equip local partners to push back? With growing efforts by nondemocratic actors to discredit independent media and manipulate the public information space across borders, how can media assistance do more to prepare local media to withstand such attacks?

As democracy support confronts the need to engage more effectively against negative transnational influences, it must do so in a careful and nuanced fashion. The record of the last thirty years shows that when [End Page 119] democracy promotion becomes closely linked to geopolitical objectives and strategies, two dangers arise. The first is that of instrumentalization: Policy makers become tempted to employ the language and tools of democracy promotion to try to engineer support for specific political outcomes in other countries—such as getting certain strategically helpful or harmful leaders into or out of power—rather than to foster democratic processes and institutions. The second is that of heightened inconsistency: Geopolitically motivated policy makers tend to use democracy promotion as a stick with which to thrash geostrategic rivals while giving geostrategic friends a free pass. Both these dangers will intensify as democracy support becomes more extensively tied to efforts to counter the global projection of Chinese and Russian influence. Yet the centrality of such influence to the future of democracy is so great that democracy support cannot avoid greater engagement with geopolitics.

Effacing old boundaries

Democracy promotion was built on the idea of one set of democracies in relatively good shape helping another set of countries in their struggle to achieve democracy. Yet a defining feature of the new global landscape is the emergence in established democracies of serious problems that are strikingly similar to those afflicting developing democracies. The frequent talk these days in North America and Europe about citizen alienation from political elites, illiberal populism, polarization, and governance gridlock sounds just like political discussions in many developing or postcommunist countries.

The fact that the established democracies are experiencing serious problems does not disqualify them from supporting democracy beyond their borders. They still have much to offer in terms of accumulated knowledge and experience, along with useful financial resources. But this situation does create an opportunity, and in fact a need, to develop new types of democracy-building programs that work simultaneously on common problems in established democracies and in new or struggling ones. For example, an initiative to help domestic actors find ways to reduce political polarization might be carried out simultaneously in several established democracies afflicted with severe polarization, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, while also addressing the issue in developing democracies such as Bangladesh and Brazil. Learning from the different cases would be applied across regions, with no assumed one-way direction of assistance from the North to the South.

Effacing this traditional boundary in democracy support would help to renew the field's legitimacy by showing that established democracies are open to confronting their own shortcomings. It would also spark new thinking about where innovations might arise and who might help to propagate them. Making this shift would pose a significant challenge, however, given that existing democracy-support institutions generally have a mandate requiring them to work outside their own country or even outside the domain of Western democracies altogether. There is therefore a need either [End Page 120] to modify some of these mandates or to develop new institutions built to pursue a global approach of mutual democratic learning and action.

Strengthening the economic dimension

Various economic syndromes and shortcomings are important drivers of the democratic recession. These include the rise of economic inequality, economic dislocation generated by globalization, poor service delivery, and slow growth. Accordingly, greater integration of economic concerns into democracy support is needed. The democracy-support community has traditionally focused primarily on political issues, preferring to leave the economic domain to those parts of the international policy and assistance communities that concentrate on fostering economic development. Democracy promoters have hoped that, over time, traditional developmentalists would adopt a greater focus on democracy as they gradually recognized the centrality of politics to development. That has occurred, for instance, among some Northern European donors who focus on fostering grassroots participation as a way to boost both economic development and democratic processes simultaneously. But most developmentalists are still reluctant to embrace a democracy imperative. Many remain unconvinced that there is a clear linkage between democratic progress and economic success, and they are also wary of undertaking activities that might lead partner governments to view aid agencies as promoting a political agenda.6 It is therefore up to the democracy-support community to forge closer links between democracy objectives and economic ones.

Economic inequality is an especially critical area for drawing these connections. The rise of inequality in many democracies during the past two decades has been contributing to public alienation from political elites and to the political marginalization of some citizens. Although the specific policy levers that can decrease inequality are primarily economic ones such as revised tax policies, the path to enacting these kinds of policies is political. Thus democracy promoters should take greater account of how their work can help to reduce inequality. They can ask, for example: How can political-party strengthening equip parties to engage more effectively on issues of economic inequality? How can electoral-system reforms be designed to take greater account of concerns about economic and social justice? In what ways can media assistance help to further the reduction of inequality? Pursuing these and similar questions about other economic issues, across the spectrum of traditional areas of democracy support, can lead to new strategies for building democracy, as well as new partners in the endeavor.

Moving technology to the center

New communications and information technologies are among the most powerful forces affecting the global state of democracy. These technologies have an extraordinarily complex array of effects, including positive ones, such as expanding citizens' access to information and enhancing their ability to organize; negative ones, such as facilitating covert surveillance and other repressive activities; and uncertain ones, such as the massively increased time that people spend [End Page 121] interacting with electronic screens rather than with human beings. Democracy support has begun taking on a variety of technological issues. Some civil society assistance, for example, now includes training to help human-rights activists to beef up their digital security. Rule-of-law and other governance programs are incorporating new insights drawn from innovations in e-governance. Media-aid providers are taking up the challenge of combating domestic and transnational disinformation.

Yet on the whole, democracy promoters have been slow to come to terms with the impact of technological change and its importance for democracy. Instead, they have found themselves constantly playing catchup as new developments occur. In part, this is due to a lack of organizational capacity. Within the main U.S government agencies engaged in democracy promotion, the number of well-qualified technology specialists pales compared to the number of similarly qualified specialists working at a medium-sized tech company. The situation is somewhat better in some nongovernmental organizations, whose greater flexibility makes it easier for them to attract in-demand technology specialists, but the problem is prevalent throughout the democracy-support domain. In addition, only a few segments of the democracy community have deep knowledge of and ties to the technology industry and the burgeoning community of specialized tech-policy NGOs.

When democracy promoters do turn their attention to technology, their reflex has often been to try adding a tech dimension to each part of the standard democracy-building menu—a technological angle on civil society assistance, technology for governance, technology tools for political parties, and so forth. What is needed instead is something much more fundamental: putting technology at the center of both concepts and practice in the field of democratic development and assistance. This means starting from the assumption that contemporary societies overall, and politics in particular, have been fundamentally transformed by technological developments, and therefore the methods of democracy support need to be rethought and reworked almost from scratch. The core model of project support that still dominates a substantial share of democracy assistance is based on old-fashioned and slow processes of information gathering, design, and implementation that fit poorly with the tempo of contemporary political change. Aid providers sometimes attach new tech-friendly terms such as "curate" and "co-create" to their activities. But when we look past such labels, stasis is more striking than change in the overall menu of what democracy aid tries to do and how it does it.

The Greater Puzzle

In all four of the areas discussed above, some democracy promoters are making efforts to evolve and adapt. But across the community as a whole, major adaptations to the new geostrategic context, the realities [End Page 122] of democratic shortcomings at home, the press of economic challenges, and the overwhelming impact of technological change still need to be made. And these are just four of what is undoubtedly a much longer list of areas where innovations in democracy-assistance practices are needed to keep up with the speed at which the global landscape is changing.

It is possible that some of the pressures driving the current crisis in international democracy support may ease in the near term. The United States may at some point re-embrace, at least partially, a foreign policy that supports the political and economic foundations of a liberal international order. One or more of the major non-Western democracies may get back on a more democratic track. China or other authoritarian powers may stumble domestically and lose some international influence. But the world is not headed for a return to the positive conditions for global democracy that prevailed in the 1990s and gave rise to many of the foundational assumptions underlying the field of international democracy support. Understanding how democracy support fits into today's new, more turbulent and threatening international political landscape seems to be a puzzle for some policy makers and observers. But a much greater puzzle is why those who genuinely care about democracy, and benefit enormously from it, would consider giving up the struggle to propel its global advance at the very moment when the stakes are highest and the challenges are greatest. [End Page 123]

Thomas Carothers

Thomas Carothers is senior vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book (coedited with Andrew O'Donohue) is Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization (2019).


1. See Ted Piccone, Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2016).

2. For an overview of how Russia, China, and other nondemocratic powers are working against global democracy, see Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (New York: Penguin, 2019), 109–46.

3. On some countries stepping forward, see Thomas Carothers, "International Democracy Support: Filling the Leadership Vacuum," Carnegie Endowment, 18 July 2019.

4. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, "The Myth of Democratic Recession," Journal of Democracy 26 (January 2015): 45–58.

5. Richard Wike et al., "Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy," Pew Research Center, 16 October 2017.

6. Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont, Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment, 2013), 255–83.

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