New Thinking on Democracy at Home and Abroad

Sarah E. Mendelson
Content Type
Journal Article
The Ambassador's Review
Publication Date
Spring 2021
Council of American Ambassadors
The Joseph Biden Administration has rather famously committed to convene a Summit for Democracy, likely later in 2021 or early in 2022. The Summit has become, as some diplomats have suggested, “the talk of the town,” not only in Washington but also in multiple other national capitals. A cottage industry has sprung up debating the who, the what and the where. More focus is needed on the why — which, in turn, ought to shape the how. To my mind, albeit one preoccupied for over a quarter of a century with human rights and democracy, the why is rather straightforward. The alternatives — bending to the rise of authoritarians, or leaving unaddressed the weakened liberal international order that the United States originally helped create —are not in our or our allies’ national interest. Many democracies are experiencing intense challenges on multiple levels. Chief among these is the global pandemic, which revealed deep socioeconomic inequities in societies that have long been labeled “developed,” when in fact these democracies have not been delivering to many communities. Freedom House has now recorded 15 straight years of decline globally in democracy. The crises at home have been widely broadcast: the new Congress came under physical attack January 6 after a U.S. President attempted, as part of a protracted effort, to overturn the 2020 election and prohibit the peaceful transfer of power. How then the Summit for Democracy can help repair and revive democracy here and among our allies needs more consideration and detail. Numerous factors roll up to a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and refresh exactly how we advance democracy at home and abroad. New approaches, themes and methods can help revitalize strategy and policy. Such new approaches need to connect and account for domestic shortcomings and link progress at home to efforts abroad. In doing so, post-pandemic democracy promotion needs to reflect a comprehensive focus on rights that includes socioeconomic issues and sustainable development (e.g., democracies must deliver dignity). The Biden Administration ought to consider labeling the Summit “Democracies Deliver Dignity and Development” or the 4Ds Summit. The Summit can provide the road map for these new approaches while being informed and shaped by extensive consultations at home and abroad. Finally, new methods should include data-driven, human-centered design shaping foreign assistance as well as elevating local voices. Internationally, that would be a significant change to the dominant modalities, largely Congress-driven, supporting specific types of institution building, such as central election commissions. Such work will undoubtedly continue, given support in Congress and among the U.S.-based NGOs that receive the funding (notwithstanding the damaged credibility of our democracy). At a minimum though, demonstrably demand-driven assistance ought to supplement this older business model in order to better deliver to populations, listening and responding to the multitude of needs.
Development, Diplomacy, Authoritarianism, Democracy, NGOs
Political Geography
North America, United States of America