The past four years have been a time of soul searching for those in the business of deploying U.S. taxpayer resources for the promotion of democracy, human rights, and good governance overseas.
The rise of anti-democratic populist movements, the spread of disinformation, and the erosion of overall global freedom meant that supporting democratic actors has never been more urgent. Thanks to the dedication of career civil servants and individual political appointees in the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, the U.S. government retained and crafted new initiatives that advanced important democracy and governance objectives.
Under the Trump administration, USAID implemented regional and global programs aimed at countering resurgent authoritarianism. USAID and the State Department promoted innovation in addressing the phenomenon of disinformation. Multisector initiatives like the New Partners Initiative built on longstanding efforts by USAID to augment direct investment in local changemakers.
Former USAID Administrator Mark Green and NDI President Derek Mitchell ask whether the U.S. can claim to promote democracy abroad when the country is in crisis at home.
During the Trump years, however, the contradictions between the U.S. government’s pro-democracy development policy on the one hand and the behavior and practice of the administration, on the other hand, were unprecedented, signaling a distinct lack of commitment to democratic allies.
The transactional and hyper-personalistic nature of the Trump Administration’s diplomacy meant that full-throated support for pro-democracy forces was conditioned on the interests and peculiar relational preferences of the White House. Thus, while the USAID administrator might decry the influence of malign authoritarianism one day, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán might be lauded by the president the next.
More importantly, the domestic political actions of leaders at the highest level of the U.S. government were consistently antithetical to purported objectives of the country’s pro-democracy development policy. Presidential tweets and executive actions sought to delegitimize dissent, promote conspiracy theories, and undermine electoral processes.
The design and implementation of U.S. democracy assistance was increasingly an exercise in cognitive dissonance. U.S. policymakers and implementors of democracy and governance programs were forced to convey a message of “do as we say, not as our leaders do,” while White House actions gave agents of authoritarianism a steady stream of public relations victories.
The past four years demonstrate that democracy assistance alone is not enough. Pro-democracy development policy must be packaged with consistent and robust pro-democracy diplomacy. And, America’s pro-democracy agenda abroad is only as strong as our commitment to democracy and pluralism at home.
Rethinking the rationale
Following the Trump administration’s exit, it is right and proper to wonder whether the U.S. government retains the standing to promote global democracy and human rights.
Any governance expert can point to countless and seemingly intractable weaknesses in the U.S. political system, many of which precede and will outlive the recently departed administration. These include low rates of voter participation, congressional redistricting that disadvantages communities of color, and the fact that the U.S. and some of its leaders remain major exporters of disinformation.
Weaknesses in our own system of governance, however, make it more important — not less — that the U.S. government champions democratic freedoms worldwide. As a country struggling to make good on our own democratic promises — and as a country influenced by the same trends that put pressure on democratic governance around the world — our interest in protecting and empowering champions of global democracy should seem clearer following the events of Jan. 6 and our shaky political transition.
The U.S. has the opportunity to recommit to a democracy assistance strategy that aligns with our values and interests.—
The next administration should advance a democracy assistance strategy that is simultaneously more assertive and humbler. Beginning with Biden’s planned “Summit for Democracy,” this agenda should focus on solidarity with democracy and human rights advocates based on our shared understanding that all democracies are hard to achieve, precious and fragile.
There are multiple opportunities for U.S. policymakers and implementers of democracy assistance to signal their commitment symbolically and substantively to a vigorous pro-democracy agenda that is based on common interests and mutual respect. Elements of such an approach could include the following:
• Ensure alignment of U.S. democracy assistance and pro-democracy diplomacy. A unified, whole-of-government pro-democracy policy will give democratic champions receiving assistance from USAID or other agencies the assurance that the full weight of the U.S. government is aligned with their values and interests. Full alignment of U.S. democracy assistance and diplomatic policies, however, requires elevating development within the interagency policymaking process.
The nomination of Ambassador Samantha Power, herself a noted human rights advocate and veteran diplomat, and her full inclusion on the National Security Council provides an opportunity to ensure there is minimal daylight between our development and diplomatic agendas writ large, including as they relate to our global democracy assistance.
• Justify democracy assistance based on shared vulnerabilities. Investments in global health and international environmental programming are routinely justified based on our shared vulnerability to infectious disease, climate change, and any number of other risks with recipient countries. Moving forward, we should likewise justify democracy assistance based on the common challenges we face in preserving democratic institutions and maintaining a healthy political culture.
• Embrace mutualism and exchange. U.S. government policymakers and implementing agencies alike should double down on programs that promote exchange among democracy and human rights champions, including initiatives that support learning between actors in the U.S. and countries in the global south.
This should include expanding established State Department National Endowment for Democracy fellowships and exchange programs. Implementers of democracy assistance programs should expand peer-to-peer mentorship and exchange initiatives — both south-to-south and south-to-north — as part of their empowerment toolkits. Exchange should be premised on mutualism, with an understanding that there is as much to learn by actors in the U.S. as anywhere.
The U.S. has the opportunity to recommit to a democracy assistance strategy that aligns with our values and interests and more effectively empowers our allies around the world. By foregrounding our own vulnerabilities and common struggles, we can provide an important and new basis of legitimacy as we redouble our efforts to support global champions of democracy and human rights.