Panelists discuss democratic backsliding, the rights of marginalized populations living under authoritarian regimes, and the prospects for and obstacles against democratic movements around the world.
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LAFOLLETTE: Thank you, Sam. Good evening, everyone. Welcome to tonight’s session of the Young Professional Briefing Series, as Sam pointed out. I am Stacy LaFollette. I’m managing director of the meetings program here at the Council. And my department is the one that puts together programs such as this event tonight. So in pre-pandemic times, we do events in New York and D.C. New York is our headquarters, and we also have an office in D.C. And hopefully at some point we’ll go back to in-person events, where we hold hundreds of events in both of those locations.
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SCHRANK: Thank you so much, Stacey. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Young Professionals Briefing on the Future of Democracy, a bit of an urgent topic.
With us today we have a very distinguished panel of thinkers and practitioners. Yascha Mounk, who is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and associate professor in international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, and a prolific writer on this subject. Radhika Prabhu, who is senior advisor to the assistant secretary and executive director of the U.S.-Pakistan Women’s Council at the U.S. Department of State. She’s also a CFR term member. And Kehinde Togun, senior director of policy and government relations at Humanity United. And he is also an adjunct lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, and also a CFR term member. And I’m Delphine Schrank, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
Let’s start on this very big topic by first framing the issue. There’s broad consensus that we are more or less into fifteen years of what Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, has called “a consecutive decline in global freedom,” what Larry Diamond, the Stanford academic, has called a “democratic recession,” possibly because of three particular trends. As I see them, emboldened authoritarian regimes on the one hand. If they’re not sending tanks into the streets, they’re viciously cracking down on opponents. And we’ve seen brutal repression in a variety of countries—Belarus, Hong Kong because of China, Myanmar, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela. Second of all, populists who’ve perhaps been elected to power and riding high on support, but meanwhile steadily eroding democratic institutions, so democratic backsliding that’s more insidious. And then, third, a loss of faith in democracy in advanced democracies, such as at home, in the U.S., in Western Europe.
So first question to you, Yascha, I wonder if you could—you’ve thought an awful lot about this, written about it. How would—ho would you frame the challenge? How dangerous a moment is this? How should we be thinking about this?
MOUNK: Well, I mean, you’ve stolen my thunder a little bit, I think. It’s really significant when you look at these big figures from Freedom House and other places, we are in the fifteenth year of consecutive slide away from democracy. We are in a deep democratic recession. And in part because very populous countries like India are no longer classified as fully free, and I think for good reason they’re no longer classified as fully free. According to the latest report from Freedom House, fewer than one in five people around the world now live in free countries. So the headline news has been very bad for the last fifteen years.
But I think there’s an additional thing to really pay attention to here, because there’s a kind of way that academics used to think about democracy and its future until quite recently. I was in graduate school a few years ago—not all that many years ago. And broadly speaking, what I was taught was that, look, there are some dictatorships that appear to be stable. There are some very affluent countries, quite developed countries, that have never been democracies. And perhaps they’ll never be democracies. We don’t know. But with many countries, well, we tried to establish democratic institutions, and we failed. If your country has very little democratic history, if you’re a very poor country, democratic institutions will be quite unstable. And sometimes they stick, as they have for a long time in India, but often they won’t.
And so if those Freedom House figures only came from countries that were relatively poor, or only came from countries that didn’t have a very long democratic history, we’d say, well, that’s tragic. It’s tragic that Kenyan democracy is backsliding. It’s tragic that Thailand is further away from democracy than it was twenty years ago. But it doesn’t completely change our view of what the future is likely to hold. The thing that to me is the most interesting, if you think of 2010, this is a decade, is that what I as taught in graduate school no longer seems to hold. Because even when you look at the universe of affluent countries that have a long democratic history, you see that they are in real danger of veering toward dictatorship at this point.
That is true in places like Hungary that are really no longer democratic, even though political scientists once believed them to be consolidated democracies. And it is obviously true in a country like the United States, whose democracy appears to be under much more immediate and serious threat than we could have imagined something like ten years ago. And so for me one of the really important things that’s going on is the rise of these authoritarian populists that are able to put real pressure on democratic institutions and democratic systems that looked to be very stable until recently.
Now, very briefly, one small, very cautious note of hope is that I can start to see how a slightly more optimistic picture might start to emerge in the world of developed democracies. Some of the countries that looked like they were veering towards those kinds of challenges to democracy a few years ago seem to be more stable than we might have thought. Germany just had an election a few weeks ago—or, nine days ago—in which the moderate parties took the overwhelming share of the vote. It does not look, though it’s too early to tell, as though France is going to fall to a populist this time around. Sort of extremist parties across Europe have declined a little bit.
And of course, though he’s currently down in the polls, Joe Biden did end up winning against Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. And then when you look internationally, you can slowly start to see some of these wannabe authoritarian figures not being as successful in consolidating the power or sustaining the support of their citizens as we might have feared a couple of years ago. Delphine, AMLO, where you are in Mexico, has had his majority in parliament curtailed in recent elections. Bolsonaro in Brazil looks as though he’s very likely to lose his bid for reelection. Modi still seems pretty firmly in the saddle in India, but actually he did not win some of the states he hoped to win in recent state elections.
And so you take all of that together and you can start to see how an optimistic story might emerge. And it’s far too early to say that scenario is likely. I think it’s probably unlikely. But just not to depress you too much on a Tuesday night, I can start to see how an optimistic story might emerge. If we’re going to tell an optimistic story ten years from now, I can start to see what that story might look like. But we’d have fight very, very hard, and probably get quite lucky, for that to be the story we end up in.
SCHRANK: Thanks for that note of hope—(laughs)—but tempered hope.
MOUNK: I try!
SCHRANK: (Laughs.) Yeah. Kehinde, you worked a lot specifically—we can maybe zoom in on your regional expertise in sub-Saharan Africa. I know you also worked in the Middle East. Could you maybe tell us a little bit about, you know, countries that we don’t often hear enough about, frankly, from, you know, Nigeria, or wherever you feel like discussing where we’re seeing a particular challenge, and how you might frame that.
TOGUN: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me.
I think Yascha’s very much correct here. I do think that the democratic decline is across the board. And I think from my vantage point in sub-Saharan Africa, we see countries like Nigeria with the infamous Twitter ban, that’s now, I think, in its fifth month. And to me, those are not unique incidents, because we see them in other places as well, but I think it’s a response to a government that is in many ways inept and unable to actually respond to its citizens. And so what does it do? So rather than give the platform for you all to engage each other and engage us, we’re going to shut down this platform in the name of Nigeria’s corporate existence, right? And I think there are real issues there of a democratically elected government—elected twice, actually, right—would could be doing things differently, and has the mandate, but is choosing to suppress speech, suppress the press, right?
And then we see the reemergence in many other countries of coups. So the joke used to be that coups were of the—so 1990, right? But they’re back. Like, we’ve seen coups in Mali. We’ve seen coups in Guinea. We’ve seen a coup two weeks ago—a failed one—in Sudan. So I do think that there is this strain of citizens—and to me, these are all citizens who are wanting a response from their government and not finding it, and so we see the military sort of coming and saying: Let’s help you find these things, right? And so, like, there’s a receptivity from citizens to military takeovers that I think we sort of had not witnessed for a while.
And in many cases, they’re not—we should have a conversation of is that the right way to get the change that we want? The answer is no. I categorically don’t think that’s the right way to do it. But nonetheless there is an openness that I think not just dictators, but unresponsive leaders have created, whether it’s this opportunity for change through the barrel of a gun that we thought we were past. And I think the last piece I would talk about is sort of this—around internet shutdowns more broadly, right? So, like, this the Twitter ban is an offshoot of this, but in a country like Uganda during the elections we saw when there was a clampdown of using the internet because when the elections are happening, we don’t want people to communicate with each other.
So we asked the private sector to shut down the internet. And there’s sort of this—what I think is, like, merging of private actors and government actors. And of course, the private sector wants to stay in business so the answer is yes, right? So I do think there’s an acquiesce of the private sector as well in this democratic decline that we’re seeing. And we may debate whether or not they have a choice, but nonetheless I do think that that’s a practical thing that’s happening. So I do think that there’s a greater decline, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which is where I tend to focus.
To Yascha’s point on glimmers of hope, I do actually have some. And I think for me, it is the citizen engagement, right? Because I think that for what we’re seeing in many countries—we saw this in Nigeria with the End SARS movement of Nigerian youth, primarily, who were on the street saying this illegal—this illegal killing that you’re doing and this police—over-policing of us is not OK. So we’re going to go out and we’re going to protest. We saw this in Senegal. We saw this in other countries as well, where during a pandemic people were literally putting their lives on the ground to say that we’re not OK with this, right?
There’s, to your point, Delphina, the populism. I think that there’s glimmers of hope in there, but there’s also warning shots that I think we should all be concerned about, like if this is how citizens feel they can express dissent it’s probably not the right way. Well, I don’t know if it’s right or not. It’s not the ideal way in a democratic system, right? So maybe we want folks to convene and make change, but I guess I think that there’s a possibility that this trend—and it’s not just citizens on the street. It’s also citizens inside organizations that are actively organizing and representing citizens’ voices.
So I do think there’s some hope there. The question is now we—how they marshal that and how we support them in the process of finding things. But I would definitely argue that there’s a democratic decline, there’s a potential possibility of hope. But we are a long ways off from that actually becoming a positive step.
SCHRANK: So much to follow up on there. (Laughs.) But first, before we do, Radhika, let’s turn to South and Central Asia. I wonder if you could—the work that you do specifically working with women and marginal groups. Can you talk about perhaps the challenges that you’re seeing in your particular region of the world? Anything that you think we should really reflect on as we—as we move forward in this discussion?
PRABHU: Thanks, Delphine. And it’s great to be here.
You know, I look at—I work on these issues from a slightly different vantage point, which you alluded to, which is looking at women’s economic advancement and inclusion as a component of U.S. economic statecraft. So sort of the flipside, perhaps, of Kehinde’s point, working with the private sector as actors to support women’s economic inclusion, which we see as one key indicator for women’s participation in the social fabric of their communities and countries. And across South Asia, women account for only around a quarter of their formal economies in which they work, and obviously that has broad repercussions for economic growth and prosperity. And, you know, what we see as indicators for the capacity for women to really play a role as equal stakeholders in the political and social lives of their countries.
Central Asia, the countries have higher rates of female labor force participation and growing levels of political participation, but some are experiencing a regression in their labor force participation rates. So we’re really working on ensuring continued rates of growth of women in the economy, and in higher paying jobs, as a priority for fostering not only the continued economic growth of the region but also fostering stable democracies. They’re mutually reinforcing.
SCHRANK: Thank you. Well, a lot to discuss here. Let’s move into the area of sort of practice and policy. You all work in that specifically. Yascha, you’ve written a lot about—or, you wrote a wonderful Foreign Affairs piece quite recently even about how maybe we should be thinking instead about democracy promotion, more about democratic protection. Which almost sounds like, if I’m not mischaracterizing it, a sort of scaling back of ambition, despite this moment. But at the same time, you’ve proposed some really bold policies that you see the U.S. or the European Union could do to sort of really help with, you know, countries that are facing this backsliding.
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that. How do you balance this idea of democracy protection with sort of bold and very clear and concrete initiatives, rather than just relying on the rhetoric of governments or, you know, the Biden administration talking about democracy as central to its platform of foreign policy? And forgive me if I’m mischaracterized how you—you you’ve laid this out.
MOUNK: Well, you may have mischaracterized it, what I said, when my, you know, policy suggestions were exciting and bold. I’m not sure they quite live up to that hype. But other than that, what you said was exactly right. Look, I mean, when you think back to sort of the way I framed the background assumptions about the future of democracy earlier, democracy promotion makes a lot of sense in a world in which you think there’s a sort of heartland of democracy in which we didn’t have to worry about democratic stability. And broadly speaking, we can just assume that we’re slowly going to add to the number of countries that are stable democracies.
And so the question becomes: If you believe that in fact it is better for people to have their human rights respected and to live under democratic regimes, how can we go around spreading democracy to new parts of the world? And by the way, normatively I have absolutely no problem with that. If I could flip a switch and turn the whole world democratic, I absolutely world. I think there’s an odd relativism where people say, well, a lot of people don’t want that. But most of the time the people don’t get a choice. It’s the government that is stopping them from being democratic, not the people who wouldn’t want democracy. When you look at opinion polls around the world, people in virtually every country would like to live in a democracy, actually.
But we have learned how difficult it is to spread democracy, some of the attempts to do it by the use of military force have failed terribly, with huge costs. But also, other ways of trying to encourage movements towards democracy in various countries have not been as effective as we might have hoped in the years of optimism after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, and the sort of big third wave of democracy. You got until the mid-1990s, or so. And so I think we should scale down our ambitions not because there’s something wrong with the idea, but because we’ve learned just how difficult it is to do. And that probably there’s not all that much—there’s some things we can do—but not all that much we can do to help.
Now, at the same time, we’re also seeing that some of the strategically most important countries in the world, and some of just the most important countries in the world, because they’re some of the most populous countries in the world, now see democracy severely threatened. When you think of, you know, Brazil, India, arguably Mexico, Poland—those are some big, important countries whose democratic foundations are being attacked. And so the most urgent thing for those of us who want to preserve democracy for the 21st century is how do we actually make sure that these countries remain democratic?
And, by the way, geostrategically that puts any administration, including a well-intentioned administration like the one currently occupying the White House, into a real dilemma. Because you want to rein in the autocratic tendencies and the growing international influence of China? Well, you kind of need India on your side. And if you need India on your side, can you actually ensure that Narendra Modi does not destroy Indian democratic institutions? That is a real dilemma. And you have the same problem in Europe with Poland and Russia, right?
And so I make some suggestions about what that actually means in practice. I don’t know how exciting they are. But I think one of them is that we should distinguish clearly between true partners to the United States that have to be democratic, a kind of level of partnership that should only be accessible to countries that actually are committed to their democracies, and which countries may lose if they veer away from democracy in the way that Hungary, Poland, India, and other places now are? And a second tier which still has a strategic partnership, because international relations being what they are America can’t afford just to partner with democracies, but which clearly stresses a lower level of partnership, a lower level of alliance, because those values are not met, because we’re dealing with leaders who are actually undermining the democratic systems in their own countries.
I think that’s one of the things that a Biden administration should consider doing. And the upcoming summit of democracies, which I think is in real danger of becoming a technocratic talking shop about ten different agenda items without any real outcomes—and there’s a whole bunch of more granular suggestions in that article as well.
SCHRANK: Thank you, Yascha. Yeah, the tradeoff seems to be a big problem at the foreign policy level.
Kehinde and Radhika, but Kehinde starting with you, in your current job—and previously you worked directly within the sort of so-called democracy promoting institutions, if I may—you know, the NDI, National Democratic Institute. I wonder what role you see—what thoughts you have on the role of these sort of democracy-promoting institutions, how they can partner with civil society on the ground, and—you know, and how you do that. How you work with civil society actors, reformers, would be pro-democracy or rights activists, without compromising them in the eyes of a nasty regime, shall we say, or people that can then accuse them of being effectively foreign stodges?
TOGUN: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of my greatest fortunes was not being in a democracy-promoting organization during the Trump years. I think working at an NDI—and I can say that I no longer work there—(laughs)—would have been a very difficult thing when we had our own authoritarian-like leader in the White House. And when we talk about corruption, we talk about all these other things, that we were actually perpetuating at home as well. So I do think that there’s something there, though, of we’ve seen what the worst of the U.S. could look like—I think what the worst of the U.S. could look like, I hope what the worst of the U.S. could look like, right? (Laughs.)
And I think that’s there’s now an opportunity to say: We were almost there too, right? And how do we then engage with humility and how do we engage with partnership, right? So, like, I think when I was in with NDI, a lot of the work was around how do we bring trainers and how do we bring trainers and how do we sort of think of democratic traditions, and how do we help build that? I think NDI and sort of the national democracy family as a whole, and many of these democracy promoters or assistance providers, now operate—I think, they’re very different in a way of let’s not—we’re not here to be experts. We’re here to collaborate together. And I think that there’s a lot more that we can do ourselves, as we, the U.S. government, can also do to institute and inculcate this idea of we—there’s a lot of learning to be done.
There’s a lot of backsliding that has happened globally. How can we as world community rekindle this desire for democracy? I think the summit for democracy is an opportunity to not be so technocratic—I think of, like, the—what are the nuts and bolts and what are, like, the five steps to democracy? Because it doesn’t work that way. But there are real challenges. And so how do we all roll up our sleeves together and say: NDI, how do you support folks in the U.S.? And how do you support folks in Kenya? Because the issues are different, but there certainly are similarities. And there are propensities for backsliding in both places. So I do think that there’s an opportunity there, actually created by what we saw here in the United States, to operate differently and to begin to reimagine what our own assistance could look like, and what assistance we need ourselves.
SCHRANK: And continuing on with that, Radhika, you know, speaking of partnering with local forces, civil society, in your work specifically with women’s economic inclusion it’s not necessarily immediately obvious how that helps with democratic advancement. Perhaps it could sometimes be seen in conflict. Or perhaps I’m totally wrong. Could you talk about the connection between women’s economic inclusion and democratic advancement, and, indeed, if that’s part of the overall agenda?
PRABHU: Thanks, Delphine. You know, I think some experts may disagree, there’s a lot of discussion around this topic, but we really see democratic progress and women’s economic participation as being intrinsically linked. If you look at the World Economic Forum’s annual ranking of competitiveness that they do through their gender parity report, it looks at really building blocks for a healthy democracy and ranking economies. It’s access to education, access to health care, access to political and economic participation that goes into this composite ranking. So you really can see that, you know, investing in women’s economic participation through these different facets can lead to competitiveness, but also the building blocks of democracy and the civil society that we all want to see in free and open countries.
More broadly, women’s economic empowerment can help reduce a country’s income inequality. And that’s a key contributor to democratic instability among a myriad of setbacks for democratic progress—from political polarization to an erosion of social cohesion and trust in democracy. And an economy with high levels of inequality, in those economies you tend to see that people at the bottom tend to lack options to both gain wealth and participate in the political system. We know that gender parity in the economy—so removing the discrimination that holds women back—can add $28 trillion to the global economy and put resources into the hands of women.
Women vote with their pocketbooks and they make consumer decisions that affect marketplaces. Their investments in children and families improves health and education outcomes. And that paves the way for greater development and prosperity. And it’s a virtuous circle. The Bush School of Government and Public Service came out in January with a study where they highlighted that, you know, societies that recognize the value and protect women’s economic participation—so, access to inheritance, social, and land rights—tend to strengthen good governance and accountability, all decreasing the risk of democratic backsliding.
Of course, there’s a lot that needs to be done to enshrine and enforce these rights in countries around the world, including, sadly, in South and Central Asia. So, you know, one critical corollary to these efforts that we’re working on is women’s political participation. Unfortunately, in South Asia it’s the only region in the world where over the past two decades the average number of women parliamentarians has remained stagnant at around 20 percent, after peaking between 2009 to 2012. And as of two years ago, it had the second lowest share of women parliamentarians of all regions.
The World Bank has highlighted that countries with a higher share of women representatives at national and subnational levels of government tend to have more laws that equalize opportunities and benefits between women and men, girls and boys. And those are all really critical to not only addressing labor force participation rates across the region, but also those precursors to civic engagement and democratic progress.
SCHRANK: Thanks very much. It’s about time to open up for questions. I’m just going to take the liberty of asking one more of anyone. I wonder as, you know, I’m a journalist. I spend a lot of time on the ground in places where what I encounter—particularly in Mexico, Central America these days—is the buzzwords are even less about democracy, and more about corruption and impunity. And I wonder how much we’ve considered—I mean, Kehinde and Radhika—actually, all three of you have alluded to this, you know, the need to sort of deal with rule of law and inept government and the perception of that.
Have we thought enough about how to incorporate anticorruption initiatives into the advancement of democracy abroad? I mean, the Biden administration has said this is a key national security interest now, but at the same time there have been very clear anticorruption setbacks in the last four years. So maybe to you first, Yascha, and then Kehinde, and Radhika quickly, and then we open up.
MOUNK: Yeah. I mean, and of course, sometimes there’s a tension between democracy promotion and corruption, at least in the short term, which is to say that the democratic leaders you have in certain very unstable democracies are deeply corrupt. And that makes it very hard for those democracies to take root. But they’re also often the only people you have. That’s the dilemma that we faced in Afghanistan and that’s in many ways the dilemma we still face in countries like Iraq and elsewhere.
And of course, you know, it’s easy and right to say that, well, actually in the long run getting rid of corruption is exactly what you need to do in order to stabilize democracy. And that’s absolutely true. But, you know, as John Maynard Keynes said in the realm of economics, “In the long run we’re all dead.” And sometimes if you refuse to support the democratic leader you have because they’re corrupt, you may end up with no democracy at all. So it’s very hard to know what to do in those situations.
But generally speaking, you know, corruption and more generally a lack of output legitimacy, a lack of governments delivering for people in their everyday lives, is a big reason why democracies become unstable, why people particularly end up voting for (tyrant ?) populists. And the really perverse thing about it is that all of those people run on a(n) anticorruption platform. They say: Hey, the system is completely corrupt. You should sweep out all those oligarchic politicians because they’re all terrible. And, by the way, that’s often right in many countries of the world. But of course, the people who are then elected on these anticorruption platforms often turn out to be even more corrupt.
And in a study that I did with my colleague Jordan Kyle, we found, for example, that actually the countries ruled over by (tyrant ?) populists become more corrupt once they take power, even though virtually all of them campaign on an anticorruption platform. So you know, should we make anticorruption an absolutely crucial plank of America’s engagement abroad? And is it related to democracy promotion? Absolutely. What that means in practice and how to actually root out corruption is a really, really difficult question.
And since all of you, we have wonderful—250 or something participants. This is amazing. And you’re all very talented. So I have not read a good book on this. And one of you should go and write it. And that is, you know, what do the countries have in common that actually had really effective anticorruption drives? You know, there’s a few examples of those in the 20th century. Really not all that many. What do those countries have in common? Why did it work in those places and fail in so many others? I have not read a definitive book on that. So perhaps one of you should write it.
SCHRANK: Great challenge. Kehinde, do you want to briefly address this? Certainly, you talked about it in the Nigerian context.
TOGUN: Yeah, absolutely. So I think corruption is—I think Yascha’s right. It’s complicated, but corruption is a huge part of this puzzle, right? And I think what we haven’t quite figured out is how do we support homegrown opportunities to address corruption rather than the U.S. government saying to you: Address corruption, and here are the five ways to do it, right? I think that until we start to have these conversations, and folks understanding their own systems address corruption, we won’t get there. And if we think of elite capture as one of the biggest drivers of corruption, and elite capture is one of the biggest reasons for democratic backsliding, and corruption as a driver of conflict, it can have so many different tentacles. But those of us that we in the peacebuilding world, those of us that are in the democracy and governance world, like, there’s just—corruption is a common theme for all of us, right? But how we address it I think is a thing that we haven’t yet figured out.
I will also say that I think the tradeoff that we often make is also that we want to support security sector across the globe, because we think that’s one way to fight terrorism. That’s another thing there, like, then those who are capturing those funds, those who are capturing those equipment and resources, because we’re not focusing on governance, we end up focusing on, like, supporting the wrong people, who then use their big guns to attack their own people. So there’s a virtuous—unvirtuous cycle that we created if we don’t address corruption. But I don’t think we’ve figured out quite rightly how to focus on corruption and have homegrown solutions to address the corruption.
SCHRANK: Yeah. And Radhika, just briefly because I really should open this up to questions now. But given that you work with the private sector, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the role of the private sector and civil society and perhaps to looking towards corruption and addressing this kind of thing.
PRABHU: Certainly. I do work with the private sector and civil society quite a bit. I think Delphine and I, when we first talked about this session, I related a little bit about how I came into the State Department at a time when Secretary Clinton called—you know, what she called the participation age, where we looked at inclusion broadly as critical to economic growth. And I feel like I might be veering away from some of the good comments that my fellow panelists have made, but it really required looking beyond, you know, necessarily high-level government-to-government engagement to accomplish our goal, really looking to civil society and companies to start being real partners in efforts to bolster economic growth.
And that’s where, you know, it became typical for us to organize high-level events with women civil society leaders. And sort of at the time I joined State Department, that sort of raised a lot of eyebrows. It wasn’t typical. But really seeing that it’s time to widen the aperture on who we’re meeting with in order to really accomplish the goals and objectives that we have. And I think I can offer that through the U.S.-Pakistan Women’s Council, which I’ve been running for the past two years. That’s a critical vector of all the work that we do, working with our corporate members and civil society.
And we just launched an analogous effort in India last week, Samantha Power—Administrator Power did, the U.S.-India Alliance for Women’s Economic Empowerment. And it really allows us to reach, you know, beyond what might be the restrictions that we have as the U.S. government audiences and individuals around—in the countries that we work in. So I will stop there because I know we’re short on time.
SCHRANK: Yeah. It’s really interesting in terms of not just working with the status quo, but empowering forces at the grassroots, say, or—right.
Well, at this time—and I’m a little late; my apologies—I would like to invite the audience to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the question queue.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Martial Combari. Please remember to state your affiliation.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. Martial Combari with Nuveen Investment, currently with Metrus Energy focused on decarbonization.
I guess I have a two-prong approach. My first question is around some of the critics that said that democracy shouldn’t be the highest goal of governance, in the sense that it is clearly better than, you know, any type of dictatorial regime or monarchies. That there needs to be some type of injection of meritocracy when it comes to free and fair election. What is your response to that? And then, from a follow-up perspective, how do you think the government—you know, when you think about democracy, you know, a regime for—of the people, by the people, for the people, how should they feel when we have recent leaks like the Pandora Paper and, you know, follow the Panama Paper? How does that factor in? And should there be a little bit more accountability?
SCHRANK: Who wants to take that? Yascha, Kehinde? (Laughs.) Great questions. Yascha.
MOUNK: Yeah, so I’m happy to. Look, first of all, I think meritocracy is very important. It’s very fashionable to beat up on meritocracy. And Michael Sandel, my doctoral advisor, has a book very ably beating up on meritocracy. And I think that’s a real mistake. You know, he’s right to identify a certain self-satisfied and smug attitude among, frankly—and, you know, all of you, I’m afraid to say, count—elites like us. You know, I think Michael is right to say it’s very easy to feel like, hey, you’ve risen because you’ve worked really hard, and you’ve gotten into the right colleges, and you do a good job. And so you deserve the sort of relatively nice position that we all in one way or another have, and that many of you will achieve even more in the next years.
And so therefore, you know, to the victor goes the spoils. And let’s not have—be too worried about the rest of society. Let’s feel that we deserve where we’re at. I think it’s right to criticize that, and in that sense the sort of system of, oh, I’ve succeeded because of merit, even if perhaps sometimes I got lucky in various ways, so therefore, like, we worry too much about the others, or even look down on the people who haven’t succeeded in the right way. All of that is worthy of real criticism.
But if you look around the world, if you know countries well—like Kehinde knows Nigeria very well, even a place that works relatively better, like Italy, that I know very well, where young people don’t feel like if they work really hard and they really achieve they’re going to be able to get ahead, that is terrible for the people in those societies and it is terrible for those societies, because they are not using the best talent. People don’t have an incentive to cultivate their talents. And all of that is disastrous for economic growth and other things.
But I think in that sense democracy and meritocracy tend to go together. It is the alternatives to democracy that are even more anti-meritocratic, in which it is even more the case that the noble families, or the well-connected families, or the families that are part of the ruling tribe, or whatever else it may be, get to have all of the important positions in society. And those who happen to be born into the wrong position are not able to achieve. And so I think the answer within democracies is let’s make our countries more meritocratic than they are, not give up on the idea of meritocracy.
Now, obviously it is a problem that sometimes you end up with terrible leaders in a democracy, right? Often you look at the choice of your fellow citizens and you think: My God. That guy? Seriously? But, you know, you look at countries that have any other form of government, and they tend to be very poor as well. Aristotle said that, you know, if one person’s preeminent they should rule. But, you know, how do we make sure that person actually rules? In a monarchy, it’s a genetic lottery. And sometimes you’re lucky and the monarch actually is pretty smart and does well. But most of the time, on average I think they end up being a lot worse than the leaders that democracies would pick. So there’s a little bit of a tension there. Democracy doesn’t work great, but I think it is better than the alternatives.
And very briefly, to your other question, yes, of course, we need better accountability for democratic leaders. We need to close the revolving door between policy positions and private industry. We need to make sure that people of real political power don’t end up selling out. I’m currently in Germany. The still at this point last German chancellor, because Angela Merkel is still in office, Gerhard Schröder, is now a member of the board of Gazprom, a Russian state energy firm. That is an outrage. And these sort of things should not happen. We need to find laws to prohibit them and forms of accountability to punish people, yes.
TOGUN: The one point I would just add is just around—I think for democracies to actually deliver, the inclusion of marginalized population and ethnic minorities is a key piece, right? So we certainly need to have everyone agree meritocracy’s important, but it’s also this who is part of government and who is part of the system, right? Not just who is leading, but who actually has a voice. And I think in many countries—in too many countries the marginalization of people has become a tool of authoritarians. And I think that that’s part of this puzzle that we need to figure out as well.
And I also think, Delphine, you talked at the beginning about this—like, the loss of faith in elites and the loss of faith in democratic systems. I think that the Pandora Papers are a good example of why that continues to exist, right? So until we begin to close these loopholes and acknowledge our role in the West of, like, being the havens for a lot of what’s been pillaged in the developing countries that many of us work in, we are just—we’re going in circles. And the corruption question that we asked a few minutes ago can be turned back to us, and say: What are the ways that we are fueling corruption from home and actually hurting democracies for developing countries that are trying to become more democratic? So I do think that there is something between this elite capture and the Pandora Papers, and the loss of faith in democratic systems as well.
SCHRANK: Thank you. Let’s move onto the next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Raphaëlle Soffe.
Q: Sure. Thank you for your comments thus far. I just recently graduated from Harvard College in social studies, now at the London School of Economics, and most recent affiliation with the Deutsche Bundesbank in Frankfurt.
So my question is regarding the spillover effects of big tech action in the U.S. 2020 election. So sort of interested in your thoughts on how big tech intervention in the election influenced sort of broadly on the global scale the approach to democracy. So many experts have—attribute Xi Jinping’s crackdown on big tech to sort of the reaction to Twitter’s action to President Trump. So sort of you could also draw connections to Nigeria and their crackdown on Twitter. So any comments on that I’d really appreciate. Yeah, thank you very much.
SCHRANK: Kehinde, do you want to take that?
TOGUN: I can. I’m not sure I’m the best equipped for this. And I’m actually going to channel my friend Rose Jackson who’s at the Atlantic Council DFRLab here. But I think part of what we’ve seen in the last—at least, with our elections—and I think there’s a desire and need for the U.S. to actually speak with human rights values, right? To say we don’t just want to counter China, and we don’t want to just counter, like—or counter sort of technology—counter the authoritarian use of technologies. But more so, how do we actually create systems and create a framework for technology to be used and to be used affirmatively and speak with our own values in the regard.
So I think that what we saw Facebook, or with—yeah, the social media takeover of our elections is those things are—they can happen here too, right? So how do we begin to think of creating a structure or creating a frame—I guess, a framework for addressing these things? But, yeah, I don’t really have—unfortunately, I’m not a tech person, or I’ve not studied this enough to have fully-formed thoughts. These are just initial ideas.
MOUNK: Well, perhaps I can just add one thing there, because I think I may share what I’m detecting as Raphaëlle’s sort of premise in the question, which is to say that it’s very tempting to say, hey, let’s intervene. Let’s ban political figures who act in a deeply irresponsible way. Let’s suppress an article in The New York Post that we believe not to be factual. But it’s really, really dangerous. It’s really dangerous, first of all, because it’s doubtful whether we should give that much power over our collective public discourse to a few people in Silicon Valley that don’t really—that aren’t subject to any form of democratic accountability.
I find it really striking that I had long debates with my friends on the left four or five years ago about net neutrality and that it would be an absolute disaster to give, you know, private companies the power to give higher speed to video than to text, because it could somehow be used for these companies to influence public discourse. And now many of those same people are shouting for Facebook and Twitter to discriminate between this politician should be able to speak and this politician should not be able to speak, in a way that to me raises far greater risks about them potentially influencing our public discourse in bad ways.
Now, in this particular case I was a very stanch opponent of Mr. Trump, and I was very much hoping for Mr. Biden to win. And you know, broadly speaking, I think what Twitter and Facebook did helped the side that I was in favor of. But it is very naïve to think that that will always be the case, or that Facebook and Twitter and other tech giants may not use the power to censor people in order to, for example, defeat attempts to rein in the power if that becomes a realistic prospect in the future.
And then the second thing is that in this whole discourse about misinformation and disinformation, you need to be able to assume that the prevailing wisdom always will know what is, in fact, misinformation, disinformation. And it’s telling that one of the first big topics to which it was applies was debates about the origin of the current pandemic. And the prevailing wisdom of it has shifted in such a way that ideas which were very heavily censored on Facebook, and YouTube, and other platforms are now taken seriously at the highest level of the U.S. government. So that shows us the danger of that.
And then, thirdly, as Raphaëlle was implying, it makes it very easy for tyrants around the world to say, well, yeah, we may be banning the leader of the opposition, but, you know, that’s just what you did. This person is a terrorist, or this person is inciting violence, or this person is doing whatever, you know, spurious charge. We’re just doing exactly the same thing that you guys were doing domestically in your country. Now, it may be in bad faith, but it makes it very, very difficult to counter. And that, I think, does provide a fig leaf for tyrant leaders around the world in a way that’s also worrisome.
SCHRANK: Yeah, Yascha, just going to second that because, you know, in countries that are not democracies, the question of freedom of expression is barely—is still a huge challenge. So social media, regulating it, comes within that larger discussion, I think.
Let’s move onto another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Marissa Kardon Weber.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. I’m Marissa. I’m an attorney with Herischi and Associates in D.C. And I practice international criminal and human rights law, and I’m also a legal consultant on transitional justice issues.
So going to Delphine’s last question on corruption, I agree with something I think all panelists alluded to, about the difficult balance between the international community building up capacity of civil society and homegrown solutions with the international community not knowing when to take a step back at times, and maybe having an adverse effect on democracy-fortifying efforts. So I’m curious, whether it’s in economic growth initiatives or rule of law efforts, I’m wondering how you identify in your own work how to kind of toe this line, yeah. Thank you very much. Anecdotes appreciated. (Laughs.)
SCHRANK: OK, who wants to take this? Kehinde, I feel like throwing this to you again.
TOGUN: I was actually curious what Radhika thinks on this one, actually.
PRABHU: Well, it’s a really—yeah, no, it’s a really excellent question. And it’s something that we’re very mindful of, because in so many ways women’s issues can be instrumentalized by different political parties in one way or the other. You know, we see in some countries they’ve become in the political sphere equated with a Western agenda. And us advancing women’s empowerment therefore becomes advancing the interests of the United States. And then in other situations, you know, having a negative impact because opposition, though they may be very much in favor of gender equality, don’t want us to—you know, they come out against women’s empowerment, not because they’re against the issues but because they’re against the political party that happens to be working with us on something.
So it’s something that I can say—I know you asked for specific anecdotes, which I can’t unfortunately provide in this forum. But, you know, it’s—there’s a political economy in which we’re working. And being mindful of that and being mindful of the interests that—being mindful of the interests that our work on women’s empowerment might hurt, the way we work around that is by working with the local actors and making sure that it’s not the United States’ interests that we’re putting forward, but really longstanding advocates for these issues. And that’s sort of one way that we’ve sort of gotten around that very issue. But it’s a real one. And it hurts women when we don’t keep that in mind. Thanks.
TOGUN: And one example I would offer, so when I was at Partner’s Global we had State Department funding to do some corruption work in Nigeria and in Sierra Leone. And so we went in thinking, OK, so let’s help people understand the cost of corruption. And we said, OK, we’ll focus on passports, because clearly everybody needs a passport. (Laughs.) And what our partners in Nigeria said to us is only a sliver of people in Nigeria use passports because most people can’t afford to fly out of the country. (Laughs.) Right? So even that understanding alone of, like, how do we focus and where do we help enough people understand, right?
So when we entered it was focusing on drivers’ licenses and the corruption around drivers’ licenses, because as it turns out Nigeria has 120 million people—maybe more now—majority of them that are over the sort of age to, like, drive. And they want efficiency. And for that efficiency, they pay a premium, right? So if you actually help people understand, by paying this premium there are consequences in the long run. And that trickles down to sort of, like, the bribe that you pay to the police officer on the ground while trying to drive between, like, from one state to another state, right?
And I think then extrapolating upward of, like, if we look at drivers’ license corruption, how do we think about—like, OK, so it’s not drivers’ licenses. You’ll pay for other forms. All these other things that you do, they add up over time. So I think in those—in that example, in the course of those three years, we didn’t end corruption in Nigeria, as I think you all would imagine. But we certainly were able to help people understand that there is a cost to corruption, and that these consequences, individuals are part of.
So it’s not just this idea of—of course we should all talk about the fact that the police commissioner is embezzling money. That’s a problem itself. But you don’t want to only focus on the—but we don’t only want to focus on that. And we can talk about what are the individual actors and the roles that they play as citizens towards the corrupt environment that exists, right? While also making sure that we do want to create accountability upward, but that it’s sort of—like there’s a parallel process that happens. And we all can be complicit in that process. And then the elites take advantage of that process by—because we are all co-opted in that process.
SCHRANK: Let’s take another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Shahid Naeem. Mr. Naeem, if you can unmute yourself now.
Q: Hello? Sorry, I’m on my phone. Can you hear me now?
Q: Great. Thanks so much for having us. My name’s Shahid. I’m a policy analyst with Economic Liberties, which is an economic policy think tank.
I wanted to kind of continue on this theme of loss of faith in democracy and giving public power to private corporations. For the panelists, I’m very curious what role you see the role of consolidated corporate power playing in this push-pull on democratic institutions that we’re talking about. I think we’ve all seen, you know, a growing economic and political power amassed by our largest corporations, who are able to kind of defy regulation, block legislation that people actively want and need. You know, the Facebook hearings today touching on Facebook’s role in ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the Ethiopian civil war. And then other things, like, you know, two-thirds of Americans want the government to do more on things like climate, which is a global existential threat. But electeds have trouble delivering against energy giants with deep financial investments in oil and gas, that translate to political power. So I think essentially what I’m asking is: What role do you think checking corporate power should play in rebuilding global trust in democracy? Thank you.
SCHRANK: Good question. Radhika, do you want to take this?
PRABHU: Well, I think there’s two aspects to this. One is fostering accountability and the second is building constructive avenues for partnership. I mean, one thing that I have to say is, like, if you’re talking about economic growth, for instance—and I’m going to defer to Kehinde and Yascha on sort of the regulatory aspect of your question—those—you know, economic growth, it’s not something that the government alone can accomplish. You need the private sector to advance those goals and priorities. And the United States doesn’t control its private sector. I mean, that’s one aspect of a healthy, functioning democracy also.
So I think creating the boundaries around healthy partnership, I think it’s actually pretty critical. And I do think that the U.S. government has a pretty robust framework in order to accomplish public-private partnership. So I guess I might be the sole voice for advocacy around, you know, the private sector as a partner in these efforts, though I’m not—I’m not unaware of the need to regulate and have strong accountability. So on those two questions I want to turn to Kehinde and Yascha.
SCHRANK: Kehinde, Yascha, want to add anything?
YASCHA: Just very briefly I’ll make myself—since Radhika graciously volunteered to make herself unpopular, I’ll try and also make myself unpopular. I think—look, I agree with you absolutely that we need better accountability of the large corporations, I think in particular when it comes to things like both legal and illegal tax evasion. You know, the true scandal is all the legal stuff that large corporations do to say, hey, all of our profits come from our intellectual property. And our intellectual property happens to live in Bermuda, or wherever it may be. And so there’s nothing you can do. We absolutely need to take on that concentrated power.
I also think it’s very easy to blame corporations for things whose roots are much deeper. I’m a real skeptic that if Facebook disappeared today, as it did for a few hours yesterday, it would make any difference in the world. I think that, you know, the social media conversations are largely driven by where people’s passions are at and how people feel, much more so than by the relative regime or the particular framework, the particular design of these social media platforms. I think it’s very easy to say it’s Facebook’s fault when all the content on it is terrible, but really that’s because that’s what a lot of people are sharing, and clicking on, and so on. And so I think it’s—we’re making it too easy on ourselves to say, hey, this is about those corporations.
And when it comes to things like climate change, I mean, there’s been some really interesting polling on that where, yes, you’re right, two-thirds of Americans say we want action on climate change. And only about one-third of Americans say they’re willing to pay $100 in tax for it a year. So, you know, yes, absolutely there are big corporations with a stake in this who are trying to stop certain forms of climate legislation. But honestly, I think we’re deluding ourselves if we think that there’s a real grassroots demand for action on climate change, but it has a cost.
And that is not just propaganda or something like that. That the argument about climate change still hasn’t sunk in, to the minds of the average voter. Neither in the United States nor in Germany, where the Green Party was supposed to win, and so on, and young people were supposed to push it to victory. And it turns out that that among first-time voters in Germany nine days ago it was the center-right FDP that came first, not the Green Party. So I think, yes, you’re right that we need accountability for corporations. But I think the problems go a little bit deeper than that.
SCHRANK: Kehinde, want to add some final words? And then unfortunately I think we have to close out.
TOGUN: Yeah, I would just—I think I would echo both of those. I think I’m somewhere between Radhika and Yascha. I do think corporate accountability is necessary and I think governments have to play a role in regulating that, but I think Yascha’s absolutely right. We can’t—that’s not a solution. But corporations reflect society. And so until we figure out how to sort of, like, bound those two things, I don’t think we’re going to solve that. But I do believe accountability’s a necessary component, for sure.
SCHRANK: Thanks so much.
Unfortunately, at CFR we end completely on time, and I’m already two minutes over. So I’m afraid we’ll have to continue this discussion in other forums of CFR. Thank you so much for joining us today, and thank you especially to Yascha Mounk, Radhika Prabhu, and Kehinde Togun. And please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website.
TOGUN: Thank you.