Meeting

The State of Democracy Around the World

Monday, January 8, 2024
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Speakers

President, Freedom House; CFR Member

Senior Fellow, University of Southern California; Founder and Principal, MDO Advisors; Board Member, National Democratic Institute; Former Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights, National Security Council (2021–22) (speaking virtually)

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure; @Yascha_Mounk

Presider

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; @robbinscarla

Introductory Remarks

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Renewing America and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Over four billion people in more than three dozen countries will have the opportunity to vote for new leadership in elections in 2024. Panelists discuss the strength of democracies in the year ahead and the challenges they face, including polarization, nationalism, and curtailed political freedoms.

This meeting part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Meeting Series on Democracy.

FROMAN: Well, good evening, everybody. My name is Mike Froman. I’m president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And welcome to today’s meeting on “The State of Democracy Around the World.”

We’re delighted to be joined by three experts on the subject: Shanthi Kalathil on video, thank you for joining us; CFR’s own Yascha Mounk, senior fellow here; and Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. And Carla Anne Robbins will be moderating the discussion.

I’m particularly excited to be here tonight, because this meeting marks the formal launch of a series that is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. That project was begun in 2021 and came to the—to fruition thanks to the foresight and support of Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and her late husband, CFR member, Ambassador Carl Spielvogel. Over the past three years, the project has established itself as a leading source of nonpartisan research and analysis on the state of democracy and democratic reforms around the world with a wide range of publications, events, and programming. So thank you to Barbaralee, who is on virtually, and to the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation. This initiative has now been extended another five years and this new phase will focus on inequality, polarization, populism, and new technologies, especially AI, and how those are challenging democratic governance and institutions.

And frankly, it couldn’t come at a more important time. With the start of the Bangladeshi parliamentary elections yesterday, this is the biggest election year in history. Over half the world’s population will have the opportunity to participate in elections in 2024. More than eighty national elections will take place, including in eight out of the ten most populous countries in the world, including the United States, Mexico, Indonesia, India, Russia, the EU, and Taiwan. But a thriving democracy depends on more than just whether elections occurs. And I don’t want to take the thunder away from Michael Abramowitz but I’m going to cite some Freedom House statistics.

Of the countries undertaking elections this year, only forty will have fully free and fair votes. And according to Freedom House, freedom around the world has declined for the seventeenth straight year. For the first time in over two decades, there are more dictatorships than liberal democracies. And at the same time, on the good news side, the weaknesses of autocracies—whether it’s Russia’s being mired in Ukraine, China’s flagging economy, troubles of Venezuela—they’re all becoming increasingly apparent, the weaknesses of autocracies.

In 1790, President Washington called the nascent U.S. democracy the last great experiment for promoting human happiness by reasonable compact in a civil society. The experiment, of course, hasn’t always been perfect, but we’ve come a long way and there’s still much to be hopeful for. And with that, let me turn it over to our presider, CFR senior fellow Carla and Robbins.

Welcome.

ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Mike. And thank you, everyone. So welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting in the state of democracy around the world. I’d also like to welcome the over two hundred CFR members around the country in the world who are participating in this meeting on Zoom. So, as Mike said, I’m Carla Robbins. I’m a senior fellow here. Recovering journalist. I’m also co-host of the Council’s The World Next Week podcast. I’m allowed to advertise here.

So, our colleagues here, you all—Mike’s introduced them as well. So I think we’ll get started. We have a very fast-paced program, and a limited amount of time. And we’re going to chat up here for about twenty-five minutes and then we’re going to open it up to the members for questions. So, as Mike said, this year we’re going to have a lot of elections there. The EU as well is going to have their elections. The count goes around sixty to eighty, depending on how you want to count. Some of them are national elections. Some of them are, you know, for heads of state, some of them for parliaments. So elections don’t by any means guarantee democracy, as Mike also noted.

So, Mike, can we start with you? I know your 2024 Freedom in the World Report doesn’t come out until the end of February. And I also know that you don’t give out pre-embargoed versions, because I’ve tried to get them from you before. (Laughter.) But you had a very interesting stat last year. You noted that there were thirty-four countries in which democracy advanced. And you also noticed the thirty-five countries that declined was the smallest recorded number since the negative pattern began. So not everything was bad. So my question is, among the scores of these elections being run this year, which are the ones that your analysts are going to be monitoring most closely to see? What are the bellwether ones?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, as Mike said in his opening remarks, democracy is not just about elections. It’s about the rule of law. It’s about having an independent judiciary, independent press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, all the other things that we rate in Freedom of the World. And, you know, over the last seventeen years we’ve been in this, what many have called, a democracy recession, where democratic societies have been weakening and authoritarian societies have been sort of on the rise. And that’s been—so every year for the past seventeen years, Freedom House has recorded more countries declining in respect for political rights and civil liberties than those improving.

Last year was interesting, as you alluded to, because we kind of—the gap kind of narrowed. And it seemed that maybe things would be turning the corner. And so we’re not going to know for sure until we unveil on February 29. (Laughter.) So we’re going to have a great launch event on February 29. But I think—so there’s a lot of things that are going to happen in the next year that we’re going to be paying attention to. Number one would be the impact of social media, disinformation on elections. That’s one of the major things that’s different now than thirty years ago when I covered politics, you know, at the Washington Post. That authoritarian actors, would-be authoritarians are kind of weaponizing the internet really to undermine democracy. And so this is happening not just in authoritarian societies but also with respect to democracies. That’s one thing we’re looking at.

I think number two would be the role of the media in kind of covering these elections. I think that’s interesting. We’ve talked a lot about kind of news oases in the—in America, where local news has been kind of eviscerated for a variety of different factors. This is a global phenomenon. You know, who are going to be kind of the referees, you know, for governments for these elections? I think that’s a big open question. There are some countries where the fact that there’s going to be an election is kind of farcical. I think about Russia, right? There’s an election in Russia. We kind of already know what the result is. But there are a lot of other countries that we’re going to be watching very carefully.

I always say that the number-one country that I’m looking at is the United States. (Laughter.) Really. I think it’s important not just for democracy within the United States but in terms of the kind of—for the fate of global democracy. 2021 January 6 was something that was a terrible event inside the United States, but it was watched around the world, right? And people saw what happened in America. We work with human rights defenders all over the world. And they were saying, what’s happening in your country? And so I think that the reality was in 2020 it was a very fair and free election, very robust election. But for some reason, we don’t have to talk about it right now, but there was widespread unacceptance of the election results. And that, sadly, has continued. So I think really one key question is whether there’s going to be a free and fair election, and whether people will accept the results of the election. I hate to say that about the United States, but that’s sort of where we are.

The final thing I would say, Carla, is I think you got to be generally hopeful about elections because elections can surprise you. I think about when I was a young reporter, what was the one of the biggest stories in the world in 1986 was the ouster of the Marcos regime, who did everything he could to kind of hold on to power, to stuff the ballot boxes, to cheat, to throw people in jail. But he lost. He lost an election. And so even if authoritarian powers or people try to tilt the elections, they can always succeed. And that’s what I think—so I think there’ll be surprises this year, I’m very confident about.

 

ROBBINS: So there are things here I want to follow up on, and I want to get deep and talk about disinformation and technology. But before that, just to follow up on this was—with Yascha. Since Mike didn’t answer my question, I’m going to pose it to you. (Laughter.) Which elections are you going to be watching closely? Which are the places where democracy—

ABRAMOWITZ: I said I’d watch the U.S.

ROBBINS: Well, that—obviously, the U.S. And there is a demonstration effect, quite obviously, that’s important. Which elections are you going to be watching most closely as sort of the bellwethers for the state of democracy? And I suppose you had written in the Atlantic about how incredibly important these parliamentary elections were in Poland. And they turned out well. So maybe not all doom and gloom. What else are you watching?

MOUNK: I’m going to try and answer your question not more interestingly but more specifically than Mike did. (Laughter.)

ROBBINS: Thank you very much for that.

MOUNK: And if I don’t, you can punt it on to—

ROBBINS: Right? Someone will answer my question.

MOUNK: But I think, you know, some of the most important elections this year, I would say, are in India and United States. So India is obviously the largest democracy in the world. And it is a country that is under—where democracy is under real assault, I would argue, from Narendra Modi. Free speech has been severely restrained in India. It is a country in which the liberal element of liberal democracy is, I think, under real threat at the moment. At the same time, these do remain very meaningful elections. Modi lost a number of state elections over the course of last years. There is a real opposition party, that is allowed to campaign, allowed to present itself. So it is a free but somewhat unfair election.

And I think whether or not Modi gets reelected is going to influence the fate of what really for the last seventy-five years has been the most positive surprise in the democratic world very significantly. India is not a country that most political scientists would have predicted in the late 1940s would sustain itself as a democracy because of its vastness, because of its regional differences, because of its poverty, because of the number of people in the country at the time who were illiterate, and so on. It has been an inspiring example of democracy. But it is now in one of its most dangerous phases in its history. And so I think that election is going to be of particular significance.

The other election, and Mike did say that, is, of course, in the United States. And I’m going to be watching that for two things. A, whether we do manage to get through this election with a real modicum of social peace, whether we are going to avoid violent clashes in the run up and perhaps in the aftermath of the election. Whether all participants in the election are going to accept the result that comes from it. And since my funding doesn’t depend on Congress, I’m also going to be a little bit more explicit than Mike. I think it also depends on whether or not Donald Trump wins.

Donald Trump has refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election. Is much more explicitly opposed to some of the basic mechanisms of our democratic system than he was in 2016. Would, if he was reelected, have a much larger number of loyalists who he could put into key positions in the administration. Would have much more complete control over the Republican Party than he did in 2016. And so I think a second term of Trump in the White House would be much more dangerous, much more challenging to our democratic institutions than his first time in office was.

But you did also talk about Poland. And I want to put the positive surprise of last year, the fact that, you know, in an unexpected way, unexpected even to some of the leaders of the Polish opposition, they were able to remove this populist government from office after it had seemed to concentrate its power and its hands for about eight years. I want to put that in the larger context of where we stand with the threat of authoritarian populism. Because when I look at Mike’s data from Freedom House, right, one of the striking things about the last seventeen years at this point, eighteen years at this point, is the democratic recession as a whole. Is the fact that democracy has been challenged around the world.

But I think the most surprising part of this is that even countries that political scientists would have argued fifteen or twenty years ago are safe from democratic erosion, or places where democracy had consolidated, were under real attack during those years. And so one way we thought about this is that the rise of authoritarian populism—often on the right, but not just on the right, also on the left and sometimes the political center—was this new threat to the stability of supposedly consolidated democracies even in places like North America and Western Europe.

And so for the last seven or eight years for debate has always felt like, well, will these populists start to win every election? And when we win elections, will be destroyed democracy? And then all of these countries are going to turn into these dictatorships? Or is this just a wave that’s going to crest, that democratic opposition’s going to be able to fight back against them? And then perhaps this crisis moment will turn out to have been a chimera. And I think it’s time to give up on that easy, one or zero dualistic distinction, because what we’re seeing in country after country after country is that when populists win, they don’t necessarily manage to concentrate all of the power in their own hands. Sometimes opposition movements can, against great odds, win back power, oust the most dangerous populists from office.

But when they do, that’s not necessarily the end of the story. Because populists can then reform in opposition and win again the next time. And so rather than thinking of this as one moment of crisis for democracy, I think we have to recognize that populists have become an integral part of our political system. And that in most places, this not going to end either with full scores from Freedom House or terrible scores from Freedom House, but with something in between. Neither a clean democracy nor a straightforward dictatorship, but rather a political system that is compromised, in which those in power have given themselves privileges and powers that favor their reelection, in which contestation of the rules of the game is as important as the contest within the rules of the game. But places in which the kinds of elections that we’re going to see in half of the world over the course of the next twelve months remain genuinely meaningful, nevertheless.

ROBBINS: Thank you, both of you, for that.

So, Shanthi, can we talk about how much technology is changing this process here? We’ve heard a lot about AI and how it could possibly pose an additional risk to elections, magnifying disinformation. How much are you worried about it? What are you watching for in this space this year?

KALATHIL: Sure. Thank you, Carla. And thanks to the Council for hosting this conversation. I apologize for a little bit of background noise. We’re trying to get rid of that.

Before I get to the issue of technology, let me just take a step back and maybe build on something that Mike Abramowitz said at the beginning, which is, you know, we’ve focused a lot on the elections this year, and rightfully so. We have a number of major elections and major events. But what the elections really do is serve to focus attention on all these underlying issues, which are measured by Freedom House, which are measured by other indices.

They get to the strength of institutions. They address the closing of civic space. All these other important factors that then are magnified and highlighted during election periods. And so while we look at the elections themselves this year, what it’s really doing is forcing us to look at all these underlying issues, and hopefully to start addressing them. So I think that’s a key trend for this year, which is, you know, we are really going to have to pay attention to all these underlying factors. And I would really highlight the role of institutions here. And, again, the role of civil society. And, in particular, closing civic space around the world.

Second, I think—and, again, I’ll relate this to technology in a minute—but for many years now one of the factors that affects democracy is the transnational dimension. And one thing when we look at indices like Freedom House’s, and V-Dem, and others, we tend to look at things on a country-by-country basis. But, you know, really what we’re seeing are systems that connect all the countries in those indices, the democracies and the autocracies. And we saw this throughout the ’90s as we pushed globalization and trade and the spread of technology. We assumed that democracies would naturally, hopefully, flow and impart their values to the autocracies. That democratic values would flow along those pathways. And that the interconnections between countries would ultimately privilege democratic systems.

And I think what we came to realize over the past decade is that authoritarian values can also easily flow transnationally. Freedom House, of course, has done a lot of pioneering work on transnational repression. It’s just one way in which I think you can start to see these linkages between autocracies and democracies that I think we have to pay attention to. And when we just look at elections, in a country-by-country way, we can lose sight of those interconnections.

And I think—getting to the point of technology—I think that’s one element that does—it really focuses attention on these interconnections, because the technology space is global. It does serve to knit countries and political systems together. And when we’re talking about grappling with these issues around technology, it’s something all countries around the world are facing, as well as different actors—non-state actors as well as governments. We’re still, I think, seeing and trying to figure out what the ultimate impact of the rise of synthetic media is going to be on elections and on political systems. I know we’ve all been following this with a great deal of interest.

And I certainly am not going to prognosticate about the ultimate impact, but I think the fact that we—I would argue democracies and, you know, everyone really can’t predict what that outcome is going to be, but we certainly can try to be prepared. And I’m a little worried that we’re not really as prepared as we could be when it comes to trying to deal with the impact of synthetic media, of, you know, the new types of generative artificial intelligence, the ways that that can impact trust. And I think this can cut in a number of different ways. You know, people have talked about whether there can be election surprises.

For instance, a generated audio recording, and we’ve seen this already over the past year, that drops the night before an election. And how do you push back against that with so little time? Or generated video, how do you push back against that? And what are some of the ways in which you can build more trustworthiness into the information system? But in order to deal with that, I think we have to both anticipate those events and then start figuring out ahead of time what are the best ways to guarantee integrity in the political system in the event of these kinds of tech disruptions?

The other element to technology that I would quickly highlight is that, you know, it’s not just about the information space and information integrity. I think the technology space is changing the way that we live democracy in general. We’re talking about the ways in which I think populations’ behaviors can be predicted, anticipated, in which policing and security is anticipating these things, in which surveillance is changing in both democracies and authoritarian regimes. So even as we focus on synthetic media, I think we need to take a step back and look at how all these issues come together. And again, it’s not easily predictable.

To try to wrap this up on a slightly more hopeful note, as I know the—you know, Mike Abramowitz and others have tried to do, I think there are many groups that are really grappling with this now, that are trying to put in the research, the policy recommendations. I think all of us that are concerned about democracy have to take this seriously. And if we believe that democracy is important, we must make this a priority.

ROBBINS: Thanks. I want to turn it over to the members and as well as people—members on Zoom. But just very quickly ask all three of you, the role of the United States in all of this. Some of this is demonstration effect, but we also have a long history of being an arbiter. We call balls and strikes about elections. Do we have the standing to do this anymore? Are we playing that role? Are countries turning to us? And also, in terms of technology itself, are we giving the sort of support to other elections that we used to do so that countries can do what they need to do to hold free and fair elections?

ABRAMOWITZ: I think the short answer is, yes, we are. We are trying. I think, for some of the reasons that we alluded to in the previous comments with respect to January 6 and perhaps the Iraq war, you know, we’re an imperfect tribune. But I think—I do think that if the United States steps back from, you know, advocating for free and fair elections, I think that has a very terrible effect.

I mean, I think that one thing—it’s, like, a small thing that I think about a lot of times. It’s that what do you do when a dictator or someone wins a flawed election? It’s important what the United States says. Is the United States going to congratulate, you know, Vladimir Putin for winning? Is it going to congratulate Prime Minister Modi? He will likely win that election. I think it remains to be seen. I anticipate that most people—you know, that he will win a solid majority of the vote, if I were to predict now. But does that mean that he treated the press well, that the minority rights are respected?

And so I think—I think people do still care about what the United States says. And so I think that’s important. The United States, you know, spends $2 (billion) or $3 billion a year on supporting democracy efforts around the world. The work of the National Endowment for Democracy, where Shanthi used to work, you know, does great work. I mean, I think one of the—to support human rights defenders, journalists who are doing work in very challenging areas. I still—yes, I think there’s a lot of—we should not be apologetic about it. I think one of the—to me, one of the great lessons of the United States is our resilience, right? We make mistakes, some of them terrible, but we come back from them. And so I think that’s what also gives me hope.

ROBBINS: So, Yascha, in Europe—is the EU doing intrinsic damage by enabling Orbán? (Laughter.)

MOUNK: Well, I think the laughter from the audience may answer that question. I do think that Orbán poses an existential problem for the European Union that still hasn’t been fully recognized. So, you know, one of the striking things is that until a few years ago Orbán’s party Fidesz was a member of the faction of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, which is to say the center-right mainstream Christian democratic family of party in Europe. The party that, for example, Angela Merkel’s CDU in Germany belongs to. So for a very long time these parties wouldn’t even take Fidesz out of the EPP. And throughout all of those years, the European Union continued to send some of the money to Hungary that Orbán used to channel payoffs to his friends. I mean, some of the richest people in Hungary now, I believe, Orbán’s son-in-law and his childhood friend. And a lot of that comes from EU structural funds and other kinds of EU money.

So there’s also an argument to be made that the freedom of movement within the European Union has actually been helpful to liberal forces in places like Hungary, because, of course, completely understandably, all of the young, ambitious people in Hungary who did not want to live in a corrupt semi-dictatorship decided to use their European passports to go and move to Berlin, and Paris, and, at the time, London, and make the careers there. That probably was a kind of safety valve that made it easier for Orbán to sustain his power within his own country. So I do think that the European Union has to grapple with the role it played in enabling those kind of forces.

And the reason why it’s an existential crisis is that—I am a United States citizen. I’m also a German citizen. And as a German citizen, I can understand the argument for why I should share my sovereignty with Polish citizens, and French citizens, and Portuguese citizens, in order for these countries to be able to solve collective problems and have a little bit more weight on the world stage. However, as a citizen of a democratic country, I find it very hard to understand why I’m supposed to share my sovereignty with a semi-dictator in Hungary. And that, I think, is a fundamental problem for the legitimacy of the European Union that hasn’t been solved. And so I do you think that these organizations need to think about how they can actually sustain the core democratic values on which were founded, whether that means being able to suspend the membership of countries that fall short of these expectations in a radical way or potentially exclude them. But because of the structural difficulties of EU governance, I don’t think that we’re anywhere close to finding that solution.

So, in effect, the European Union will transform from being a democratic club of countries that share real values to a regional trade bloc that, for what it is, then is asking its citizens to give up more sovereignty than I think they will, in the long run, be willing to.

ROBBINS: We can have a whole discussion about Article Seven at some point. (Laughs.) Although they don’t have the protection of the Poles anymore, which is an interesting question.

Shanthi, the last word before we open up to the members from you. I’m going to ask you a technology question, but you don’t have to answer in the technology space. There was a lot of preparation after the disinformation problems in the United States in the 2016 election, even the French sort of raced there. And they were—and Google gave money and all sorts of other newspapers prepared. Because people—everyone was ready for the Russians to do it. Is there an effort that’s going on this time around? It’s so much more sophisticated, the potential—what you were talking about, the potential for disinformation aided by generative technology. So do you see that we’re ready for this? Or are you just—are we in a really bad space going into these elections?

KALATHIL: So I think there are some groups that are certainly trying to get ready, and some governments around the world—you know, not just the U.S., but others—that are trying to prepare. I think, you know, there’s a potent mix of things happening. One is that, you know, unfortunately, even the term “disinformation” has become politicized. It can be difficult to talk about it in the U.S. context, and in other places. I think specifically when it comes to the types of information-based attacks coming from the large authoritarian regimes, like Russia and China, we certainly could be doing more, and we should be doing more to anticipate and get ready for that sort of thing, because we certainly have seen evidence that they’re able and willing to utilize technology to interfere in democratic processes.

I also think that this dovetails with the trend among the major technology companies to downsize staff that’s really focused on these issues. You know, their trust and safety teams have been really, really shrunk over the last year. And so the people that normally would be at the platforms keeping an eye out for that sort of thing are just not there anymore. So that’s partly why I’m concerned.

Now, the good thing is that I think around the world, there are tons of civil society groups that have really been studying this issue pretty closely. And they are trying to keep abreast of these things, to do their own analyses, and to make sure that there are good—that there’s good information flowing. But I definitely think that there can be more done, particularly when it comes to guarding against the types of information operations coming from these competitors, these strategic competitors that we’ve seen in the past. There can be more done there.

ROBBINS: And is it—are the Russians still the main players in this space? I mean, you mentioned the Chinese. I know the Iranians and the North Koreans occasionally get involved in this. But who do you think—you know, who are you most worried about going into this election season? I mean, we saw the Russians quite involved in Slovakia, but who are you most concerned about?

KALATHIL: I think it’s probably an all-of-the-above sort of combination. I think one of the trends that we’ve seen over the last year or two is that actually the attempts that have been coming from China, the ones that I’ve seen and, you know, I’ve seen in the public analysis of all of this, have been more sophisticated and have, to some extent, mimicked what we saw coming out of the Kremlin previously. So the point here is that you do see a lot of authoritarian learning. You see non-state actors learning from each other, you know, governments. That’s partly what is concerning, is that this is not a static space. You’re seeing constant evolution. And so the responses and the resilience has to constantly evolve as well.

ROBBINS: Thank you. So I want to throw it open to the members, and as well as the members online. So we have people with microphones, I believe. Yes. Gentleman here with his hand up. If you could identify yourself and—

Q: Hi. Thank you so much. I’m Jonathan Guyer, journalist and term member.

Within the context of the Gaza war, I’ve noticed the Biden administration has not been bringing up human rights or democratic issues as much. Secretary Blinken in Saudi Arabia today. Egypt just had an election. We’re not seeing, as far as I can tell, as strong of advocacy for democratic values when it comes to Jordan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, maybe in particular. How would you think about—you know, especially to you, Shanthi, who’s working on these issues, how the administration might be surfacing human rights, democratic values, in a more robust way in the Middle East context?

ROBBINS: Shanthi, you served in the administration. What do you think?

KALATHIL: Well—(laughs)—I’m not going to nitpick over the administration’s current personnel staffing and responses to these issues. I mean, I do think what I hear from them is an attempt to try to address these issues in the Middle East conflict. You know, could they go further? For my preference, I hope that they could continue to press on these issues. But I know how difficult it is to try to adjudicate these issues, particularly during such a complex conflict. So, you know, I do commend them when they—when they bring these issues up. And I really hope that they’ll continue to press on this front.

ROBBINS: Mike, Yascha? Quick response? Do you think they’re taking a strong enough position?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I think—and putting aside the Gaza conflict—I think in general you’ve seen from the administration—well, I think, you know, it’s a mixed record on this. I mean, I think, you know, Shanthi was involved. And I think we admired the president’s forceful, you know, defense of democracy, and the democracy summits creating—and I also think, by the way, his strong support of Ukraine is in part of democracy and human rights story too, standing up for the territorial integrity of a country that’s been attacked by a neighbor for no reason, a struggling democracy.

So I think, you know, on the other hand, you know, on Saudi Arabia, India, and China, there are other—there are other things that they’re thinking about as well. And so whether they’ve got—you know, our point of view is that I think it’s important to raise these issues forcefully, both in public and in private, and knowing that there are also other issues that are going to also be there. But I think it’s important for the United States, especially given who we are, to forcefully advocate on behalf of human rights and democracy.

MOUNK: If I may as well? So I’m a little torn on these issues, because on the one hand I do you think that American foreign policy needs to be values-driven, and that a natural way the closest allies to the United States should be countries that are democratic. That there is a level of partnership that we should probably reserve for other democratic countries. On the other hand, there are both strategic tradeoffs and questions about what actually is effective. The strategic tradeoff is that if you want to make the 21st century safe for democracy, you have to make sure that expanding aspiring autocratic states like Russia and China are contained. But in order to work with those, and in order to make sure that they are contained, you have to work with countries whose democratic credentials are currently in question.

So if you want to contain China, you have to have a relationship with India. But India, as we’ve been talking about, is not a straightforward democratic story at the moment. And so there I think—it’s just a very difficult genuine tradeoff about what you do. And then there’s a question about how effective it is to bring up human rights in those contexts. I think what’s often happened is that, you know, American secretaries of state or presidents go over to those countries, they signal that effectively a commitment to human rights is not a necessary condition for the forms of cooperation in which we’re going to engage in those countries, but they think that both on principle and for domestic political reasons they have to lecture them a little bit anyway.

And I suppose it makes us feel better because at least we brought it up, but it’s not quite clear to me what that actually accomplishes. So sometimes, I think, but we should either condition certain forms of cooperation on genuine adherence to human rights, or we may as well spare ourselves the hypocrisy and shut up. But the sort of middle path of bringing these issues up in a context where often our partners know that they just have to sort of bear through our lecture, but after that, you know, when it comes to concrete details, you know, geostrategic interest is going to determine the ways in which we do or don’t cooperate, that seems to me like a state of affairs that does more for our soul than it does for human rights around the world.

ROBBINS: I don’t know, I think that—I think it gives considerable succor to civil society groups to hear that the United States—certainly when meetings take place with presidents and visiting secretaries of state to give voice to the voiceless. I’m not sure if it’s as cynical as you suggest, Yascha. But, oh, I’m sorry. I’m the moderator. I’m not supposed to have an opinion on this. (Laughter.)

Do we have—do we have somebody on Zoom with a question?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Shelley Leibowitz. Ms. Liebowitz, accept the unmute now button. Apologies. We’re having some difficulties. So we will take our next question from Shirin Tahir-Kheli.

Q: Thank you very much for this interesting discussion.

I wanted to follow up on something Michael Abramowitz said in terms of the power of example that the U.S. offers. I recall that even in the heyday of democracy promotion, when there was a certain rhythm to what the U.S. did and asked others to do, it was hard for the U.S. officials as they traveled to meet with aspiring democracies or existing democracies, both in the government and civil society, to make the pitch. I mean, one met with skepticism but when got a good hearing. Do you think at this point, given what happened with the last election’s aftermath in the U.S. and the follow-on that occurred on January 6, and the thus-far lead-up to the 2024 election, has that been further eroded? I mean, if we make, this as currently we do, democracy and its importance in as an element of our foreign policy, has our task become much, much harder at this point? Thank you.

ROBBINS: Think the question is, does anybody trust us? (Laughter.)

ABRAMOWITZ: Yeah, the one point I would say is that the United States—we’re operating from a premise that the United States has always been a perfect democracy. I mean, during, you know, World War Two, we went off to defeat Hitler. And yet, you know, African Americans were denied democracy all over the South. And yet—

ROBBINS: And we interned Japanese.

ABRAMOWITZ: And we interned Japanese. So, America, I mean, that’s one of the incongruencies of being an American, that we have these great aspirations, but we imperfectly live up to them. And my point of view would be that if the United States does not speak boldly on these issues—understanding that sometimes there’s going to be other issues—it’s going to be hard for other people to do it. I think that’s what you see.

ROBBINS: Well, I mean, what I hear when I talk to people is profound anxiety and a yearning that we right ourselves. I don’t think people have written us off. I think people—every conversation I have with people is, are you guys going to keep blowing it? (Laughter.) You know, when are you going to—when are you going to get it back together again? And is Trump going to win? I mean, that’s basically the sort of questions that I hear.

MOUNK: Well, certainly, I think in Europe, most politicians, you know, they either need to radically change their geopolitical posture, their military policy, you know, seventy years of basic doctrine about who they are in the world, or they need to hope that Trump somehow loses. And so—because changing their entire geopolitical posture is actually hard, and a lot of work, and requires some thinking, they’re telling themselves that Trump can’t possibly win again.

But I think if Trump does win again, that is going to lead to a more profound crisis in the transatlantic relationship and a more profound rethinking of what Europe’s role is going to be in the following decades. Because, I mean, after 2016, they could say, all right, look, they might have gone a little bit nuts. It was one time. We’ll survive the next four years. After that, America hopefully is back. And we can sort of ignore this. And more or less, that’s what they did for four years. And that’s what they’re continuing to do now that this real prospect of Trump winning again is in the room. But I think if Trump does win one more time, that will really start to change the European posture, at least towards the United States.

ROBBINS: I know we have other questions, but I just want to—Shanthi, you’re on the board of NDI, the National Democratic Institute. I think this question that was asked—I mean, are you finding with NDI is having less credibility because of the experience of January 6?

KALATHIL: So I can’t speak to the granularity of NDI’s experience, but I know that NDI, you know, in general continues to believe in its mission, obviously. And I think there’s great receptivity to that mission around the world because it’s being driven by the partners around the world. People aren’t saying, oh, you know, we believe in democracy, but the U.S. is imperfect. I mean, really, this is driven by those partners’ own agency. And they’re saying, come support us in this mission. And that’s what democracy support organizations do. They don’t see themselves as driving the agenda. It’s really about those around the world who are trying to drive their own mission and drive their own agenda, their democratic agenda.

But I think ultimately, just to get back to how Mike put it, you know, if we waited for—(laughs)—if we waited for the perfect democracy to step up and lead this charge, we would be forever waiting. And I think democracy would just capsize. I think we have to come to peace with the fact that that the mission of supporting democracy is going to be spearheaded by imperfect democracies all around the world. Hopefully, those that are striving to use the mechanisms of democracy to correct themselves.

And that, to me, is what gives me hope, and why I think, you know, the U.S. and other imperfect democracies will continue to lead this charge, because democracy is capable of self-correction. That’s its most powerful argument. And I think to wait for a more perfect standard bearer, you know, is kind of a fool’s mission. We have to—we really have to, you know, be comfortable with our imperfection, but also, you know, have the humility to be able to get that message across.

ROBBINS: Thanks. So this gentleman, I think, here was next, and then—and then—OK.

Q: Thank you, again, for being here. Joseph Gasparro, RBC Capital Markets.

Any democratic revival, renaissance, will need to include young people. On one end of the spectrum, you could say they’re pretty disillusioned when it comes to traditional metrics, like voter turnout or party membership. At the other end of the spectrum, you could say they’re very active when it comes to their online presence or organizing marches and demonstrations, protests. So they’re mission critical, vital to revival in democracy. So how do we—how do we square that circle? How do we get more younger people more formally engaged, off the sidelines? As they say, you know, democracy is not a spectator sport. Thank you.

ROBBINS: Good question. Who wants to answer it? Are you the youngest person on the panel, Yascha? (Laughter.)

MOUNK: That says more about CFR than it does about me. (Laughter.)

ROBBINS: No drinks for you after this. (Laughter.)

MOUNK: Well, I think, you know, yes. Yes, to everything you said. Of course, we need to engage young people in our democratic process. That it’s a worrying sign when young people aren’t engaged in the formal processes of democracy, because it takes voting, it takes some form of political activism to actually make the system work and to sustain it. I want to perhaps speak a little bit more broadly to an illusion that I see at the moment in United States, but that I’ve seen so many times around the world, which is that the young people are going to save us—that young people have more pro-democratic attitudes; that, especially if you’re a little bit left of center, young people have the right political opinions and old people have the wrong political opinions; that perhaps because of young people the threat in particular from these authoritarian populists that is very strong at the moment is going to subside. And I just don’t think that the data backs that up in any meaningful way.

My concern about this started with some of the papers that sort of first got me into democracy space, in which, with my colleague Roberto Foa, we showed that the importance that people give to living their democracy has subsided over the last decade. And that has particularly subsided among younger people, that they are less invested in democracy and more open to certain authoritarian alternatives to democracy as well. We see that in the support for populist parties, which in certain countries like the United States is less among young people for various historical, cultural, and demographic reasons, but which in many countries is higher among younger voters than it is among older voters.

So, for example, far-right, populist parties in Europe, nearly in every country, have much stronger support among young voters than they do among older voters. In a country like France, in the last presidential elections in the first round Marine Le Pen on the right and Lean-Luc Melenchon, a populist on the left, had over 50 percent of the vote among younger voters, much more than among others. And so all I want to say is that part of the question is getting young voters engaged in these formal mechanisms of democracy. But part of it is also to persuade them of the importance of democratic norms and of the fact that these authoritarian populists, whether they be on the political left or the political right, are not in fact going to solve our political problems.

ROBBINS: Well, that’s depressing. (Laughter.)

We have a question right here? Thank you.

Q: Michael Skol with Skol & Serna.

A sort of a follow up to what you just said. The status of people who voluntarily vote for freely for populism, right or left, and then continue to support that populist when that person departs from democracy, what’s the problem there? You know, in my region I look for a look for—I looked at a parallel that’s extraordinary among Argentina, Venezuela, and the United States. And I’m still questioning why the hell Argentines, Venezuelans, and Americans vote for Peron, Chaves, and Trump. What’s to be done?

ABRAMOWITZ: I’m not sure there’s a silver bullet. But I do think—(laughter)—I mean, like, I think we have to actually stop thinking about this as something we’re going to solve in the next couple of years. I mean, I think there’s a reason for the rise of Trump, you know, Bolsonaro, and the others. And I think, you know, Yascha has gone over it and others in his book at great length about the disaffection over the economy ten to fifteen years ago that has continued, the inability of democracies to deliver growth. I think wokeness, which is—I’ll give him a little plug for his latest book—is also, you know, part of this. I think there are reasons why populists gain power.

I think we should focus on the problem not that populists sometimes take power, but that sometimes populists use being in power to hold on to power in kind of extralegal ways. I mean, that was what’s been going on in Hungary. You know, I think that’s what the—was going on in Poland, even though enough people in Poland had had enough of that, so they voted—they voted that party out. I think that’s really—I think democracy is a competitive thing. And I think, you know, going to the question about young people and what I worry about is that too many people think of democracy as something that is about the outcome, right?

That if you—that if you—that if you don’t get the outcome you deserve, the Supreme Court, you know, rules against Roe v. Wade, or if you don’t get the policy you want on climate change, then it’s an indictment of democracy. No. Democracy is like sets of guardrails by which we’re supposed to try to—it’s the only system I can think of that properly sets up guardrails. And I think what we should really be focused on is not the outcomes of elections, but making sure that elections are free and fair, and making sure that the institutions like the judiciary, the media, is strong. Because if you have those strong institutions and if you have—and if you have free and fair elections, I think the people should be able to take care of itself.

ROBBINS: And then there’s Argentina. (Laughter.)

ABRAMOWITZ: But no one seems to have solved that problem yet. (Laughs.)

ROBBINS: Right, so—

MOUNK: Just to expand on that for one second. So I think there’s two conceptual problems here, right? The first problem is that most people are very willing to sacrifice democratic norms and sometimes institutions to get outcomes they care about. And we see that across the political spectrum. So when you have a supply of politicians who say, look, in principle I’m not allowed to do this. So there’s this roadblock to what I want to do. But what we’re standing for is so important—so righteous, and so important, I’m just going to put those side constraints apart, and I’m going to deliver for you. A lot of people are very tempted by that.

And then the second problem is that most people don’t conceive of themselves as sacrificing democracy in that way. Even if they say, well, look, in order to get these objectives through we’re going to deviate from democratic norms, they like to portray themselves as defending democracy. And how I depressed you a moment ago, I’m going to try to depress you again. The most striking thing to me about the United States today is that one of the few things we can all agree on as Americans is that democracy is in danger right now. All right. I am going to make some assumptions about those of us on stage.

I think those on stage believe that the core threat here is from people like Donald Trump, who are unwilling to accept that the 2020 elections was free and fair, and delivered the rightful winner according to the choices that Americans made at the ballot box. There are other Americans who say, no, democracy is under threat because the 2020 election was stolen. And we have an illegitimate president for that reason. So we have very different views as to why democracy is in danger, but that threat to democracy is something we can agree on. And that shows you to what extent even the people who support politicians who are undermining our democratic norms often contrive to see themselves as defenders of democratic institutions.

ROBBINS: Shanthi, I want to bring you into this conversation here, but I want to ask you a question about when you were at the White House. Were there conversations about the threat to American democracy? Certainly I know that President Biden came in, and even the interim National Security Strategy talked about these things, and talked about how important it was to invigorate or reinvigorate American democracy for our own good, for the good of the world. Was there any understanding of why—how we got where we were, or what it was that we needed to do to recapture people who had lost their faith in our system?

KALATHIL: So, Carla, I think, you know, you highlighted the National Security Strategy. And I am not going to get into conversations within the administration about these issues. And for my part, I focused primarily on the international dimension not on the U.S. dimension. I will say that, in this context of this conversation overall, I think we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on U.S. democracy in this conversation. And maybe that’s natural. You know, we’re all here. We’re focused on our own election. But I would caution everyone to not—to not view global democracy solely through our lens, or even the lens of Western Europe and its experience. You know, as we talk about polls, young people and their support for democracy, if you look at—for instance, you know, I don’t have a comprehensive overview of all the polling done in this space. Some of the polls done by Afrobarometer and others in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, point to a lot of support for democracy among young people, even though they may, as Yascha has pointed out, be not—may be disenchanted with the formal mechanisms of democracy.

So all of that is to say that I don’t—I wouldn’t necessarily extrapolate from our own currently challenging experience to what’s going on around the world. I think that that can maybe color our analysis in ways that aren’t necessarily helpful. And maybe it will give us a little bit more optimism if we can focus on the aspirations of people around world, in particular young people who, I think, potentially could be pivotal. But since I know we’re wrapping up and, you know, I am hoping to try to, you know, focus on some of these more positive elements for the year coming up ahead, you know, one thing that in this conversation that somebody raised, I think maybe Mike, talking about how democracy can deliver. I mean, that’s obviously something that we talked about in the administration when I was in the administration, in relationship to the Summit for Democracy.

But as I’ve been thinking about this concept, you know, after leaving the administration and thinking about how to take that forward, I think that’s not necessarily a straightforward concept about how democracy can deliver. I do think democracy can deliver for people. But, for instance, when they see a positive outcome in their lives, they don’t think, oh, I’m going to thank democracy for that outcome. (Laughs.) I think if we believe in democracy and its capacity to deliver for citizens, then those of us who are interested in supporting it around the world have to make that explicit link. We have to show the connection between democratic processes and positive outcomes in people’s lives. That includes young people. That includes, you know, folks all around the world who live in democratic systems, even imperfect ones.

So, for me, that’s one of the things that I’ll be focusing on in the coming year, is to try to make that connection. And to—I think, to show that even though democracy may be imperfect—and we’ve certainly spent some good deal of time talking about its flaws—that, you know, it is the best system for trying to resolve some of the many problems that we have in our lives, the challenges that we see in our governance. It’s imperfect, but perhaps the only system that can really self-correct along the way.

ROBBINS: Well, I think that’s a great way for us to end here. I just want to thank Shanthi Kalathil, Mike Abramowitz, and Yasha Mounk. You all have their bios. Yascha, the name of your most recent book?

MOUNK: The Identity Trap. (Laughter.)

ROBBINS: OK. Just I promised him that we would—we would push that one out there. (Laughter.) So I want—thank you all for joining, and a special thank you to Dr. Diamonstein-Spielvogel for her foundation’s support of the project and making this evening’s discussion possible. Please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. And I invite those of you here to join us now for a post reception. And those of you home we encourage you to have reception as well. (Laughter, applause.)

(END)

Top Stories on CFR

Russia

Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.

 

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.