Originally published in Forbes | January 18, 2021
By Sebastien Roblin
Since the 1980s, promoting democracy has remained a basic tenet of U.S. foreign policy, one supported by a network of partner non-governmental organizations and firms. And that stance, despite the persistence of certain infamous exceptions, has generally been maintained for decades with bipartisan support.
But though democratization surged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the mid-2000s democratic governance entered a prolonged global recession, with both young and well-established democracies backsliding into authoritarianism. For a variety of reasons, faith in the United States’ own democratic institutions has declined precipitously, culminating in the deadly insurrection targeting Capitol Hill on January 6 that sought to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
With those questions in mind, I spoke with Liza Prendergast, vice president for strategy and technical leadership at Democracy International, an organization that works with the U.S. government and partners in other countries to support competitive democratic elections, political party development, citizen engagement in politics, and election observation.
Prendergast has spent over a decade traveling across the globe developing and implementing democracy-related programs to support government officials and civil society actors in places ranging from Northern Ireland to Myanmar, Egypt to South Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago to South Africa.
In a wide-ranging discussion, we considered the present and future of American democracy promotion, the key global battlegrounds between democracy and authoritarianism, and whether there’s any hope that the U.S. can solve its own crisis of democratic legitimacy.
Sébastien Roblin: So I’d like to start by asking: why should we promote democracy abroad in the first place?
Liza Prendergast: First, it’s the right thing to do. People who live in free societies should advocate for freedom for people who lives in unfree societies. And the American people support it: a bipartisan study conducted in 2018 concluded that “71 percent of the public favor the U.S. government taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.”
But second, there’s also a very strong argument you can make that promoting democracy is in our interest. Democratic societies are less likely to go war with other democratic societies. Democratic systems also make better partners because countries that adhere to the rule of law are more stable, making them better trading partners and economic allies.
Roblin: How has the U.S. historically promoted democracy abroad? And what role do non-governmental organizations and firms play within it?
Prendergast: Democracy assistance as it exists today emerged as a key part of U.S. foreign policy and development assistance in the 1980s, particularly with Congress’ creation of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983. By the early 2000s, democracy promotion had solidified as an industry famously dubbed The Democracy Bureaucracy.
Democracy International, where I work, is dedicated to improving the industry itself by studying and sharing evidence about what works to support election commissions, democratic political parties, civil society advocacy, access to justice and judicial reform, constitutional development, and related issues. We also implement programs to support election observation, strengthen democratic institutions, empower women and minority communities to lead and engage in politics, and reduce political violence.
Roblin: What was the state of U.S. democracy promotion during the Trump presidency?
Prendergast: There are two aspects to this. From a programmatic standpoint, Congress played an important role in protecting traditional democracy funding, critically for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Endowment for Democracy.
This was hard-fought, given that the Trump administration proposed draconian cuts for foreign assistance in every budget submitted to Congress that were opposed by a diverse array of U.S. civil society, military, and religious actors. The long-serving head of USAID, former Administrator Mark Green, also championed democracy promotion from within the administration.
But from a rhetorical perspective, democracy—and democracy promotion—is best served when an acting head of state affirms pluralism and diversity, champions the freedom of the press and accurate journalism, accepts legitimate election results, and eschews political violence. Those are things we’ve struggled with in the last four years.
Roblin: So, what are the global repercussions of the Capitol Riot?
Prendergast: The riot significantly damages U.S. standing in the world primarily because legitimate elections that reflect the will of the people, and transitions of power from one government to another, are the hallmarks of democratic systems.
The legacy of a U.S. president encouraging political violence to overturn a legitimate election resounds in the halls of power abroad, emboldening autocratic leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
The U.S. reputation is sullied by these actions, but it’s also a watershed moment for Americans to apply at home the lessons we learned from 30 years of doing this work abroad.
Roblin: Since 2005, there has been a consistent trend towards declining rates of democratic governance globally. Is that likely to change?
Prendergast: That’s absolutely correct. The Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) Institute, Freedom House and others continue to show that democracy continues to be in a global recession. These trends predate the Trump administration and unfortunately will continue into the next.
Roblin: Ostensibly, a Biden presidency will see a return to a more typical U.S. approach to promoting democracy abroad. Is that expectation accurate?
Prendergast: Yes, we’ve seen that both from promises by the Biden campaign—a core tenet was to “reinvigorate our own democracy and strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us.” He has also promised to conduct a global summit for democracy.
In the short term, we can expect that the most immediate shifts include a reaffirmation of traditional democratic alliances, changes in rhetoric, and an influx of experts into government with clear experience working on democracy and human rights issues.
Roblin: Which countries today might be especially affected by efforts to support democracy in the near term?
Prendergast: The administration has a critical window in which to support the people of Belarus in their protests seeking to end the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
In Tunisia, despite hard-won gains during the Jasmine Revolution, there exists much frustration with the pace of democratic and economic reform. For democratization to continue, young people have to see the benefits of a democratic system—but currently they’re struggling.
Sudan and Ethiopia are undergoing political shifts that will likely solidify regional stability or regional conflict for generations.
Roblin: Sudan’s new government seems to have a positive agenda but it must share power with the military. Which way do you think it will go?
Prendergast: It’s still very much in flux. A lot will depend on how the new administration treats Saudi Arabia, and other allies and adversaries that have political interests in Sudan.
In response to your earlier question, in Venezuela, the humanitarian disaster caused by governance failure and political corruption continues.
Roblin: But in Venezuela the Trump administration offered significant support to the Venezuelan opposition. Yet today the government of Nicolás Maduro seems better consolidated in power, not less.
Prendergast: I don’t believe the context is ripe. But I do think the humanitarian context that is already untenable may destabilize the regime. It also depends on whether [enough] people demand a shift from within Venezuela. Because the democracy promotion industry must be humble, both because of the U.S. history in Latin America and because fundamentally, democratic change must come from within. Eventually a collapsing Venezuela could lead to a pivot in U.S. policy towards supporting a future transitional government.
Roblin: Having worked in states struggling with their democratic institutions, how would you diagnose the situation in the U.S. and its prospects in the post-Trump era?
Prendergast: This is the question of our time! I volunteer with Election Reformers Network, and their perspective is that “…we’re not a fundamentally divided people, but we need to fix our rules.” So part of it is grappling with the institutions and rules that structure our political system.
We need to try to reduce the extremes in our political system by getting money out of politics, and improving our electoral systems.
We need to be unequivocal in rejecting racism in the U.S. I think that any of the tools we use to diagnose challenges in countries abroad would, if turned upon the U.S., emphasize that we have a serious problem with racism in our country going back to its structural role in the founding of the United States.
We also need a civic revival in the U.S., essentially a Marshall Plan for civic education that reaches all people regardless of where they go to school.
I could talk about this topic for hours, but an additional area we need to address is the intersection between tech and democracy, as even this week we watch Google and Amazon change their approaches regarding Parler, and Twitter and Facebook reshape who and what they allow to reach across their platforms.
Roblin: But how do you fix institutions when the democratic tools you’re supposed to use are part of what’s broken? For example, in North Carolina the districts have been openly designed to give one party an advantage over another. How do you vote that out of power?
Prendergast: There are a few ways to do it. In some states you can get things done through referendum. That’s one of the ways Maine got ranked choice voting.
We also need to push for institutional reforms, not only rely on democratic norms. For example, overseas I wouldn’t hesitate to advise that any official who is responsible for adjudicating an election in which they are running for office is inherently problematic. In the U.S., state secretaries of state frequently do so, yet are called upon personally to uphold democratic norms as we’ve seen most publicly in Georgia.
So, we should take some of the burden off individuals by instituting reforms, including making partisan redistricting unacceptable.
Roblin: What would you say to critics of the very notion of democracy promotion? On the right, Realists and nationalists argue that sometimes U.S. foreign interests may be better served by a loyal military dictatorship than a democracy that could elect anti-U.S. parties to power.
On the left, some anti-imperialists argue that U.S. democracy promotion needlessly ratchets up tensions with China and Russia, or encourages military adventurism against less powerful countries like Venezuela and Iran.
Prendergast: I think these debates are actually very important and we need to treat each country on a case-by-case basis as the specifics really matter.
Broadly, I believe that all people who live in democratic systems have a responsibility to support the freedom of all who live in non-democratic states.
Also, American democracy promotors do not seek to export the American system, not only because of its flaws, but because democracy cannot be imposed. As has been demonstrated, democracy by “imitation” does not lend itself to success.
Roblin: Are democracies really more stable, though? For example, Washington seemingly preferred dealing with Egyptian military dictators over the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood.
Prendergast: Democratic countries are more stable than those that are not. And when a dictatorship crumbles, then you have a greater chance of violent conflict and disruption of U.S. interests.
It’s not wrong that in an immediate democratic transition, that whatever comes next is inherently sitting on a precipice, so context really matters. For example, Tunisians under Ben Ali were very well educated prior to transitioning to democracy. That reinforced communicating democratic norms, leaves an empowered and able citizenry demanding democracy, and helped enable political transition.
Roblin: So what are some international trends to watch?
Prendergast: Media freedom continues to be an issue with the unacceptable jailing of journalists around the world. There’s the role of social media and how it’s policed or not policed. And the more we turn to activism in online spaces, the more people are concerned with self-censoring in autocratic countries because they know they are being watched.
Authoritarian governments are also passing laws to restrict foreign funding for non-profit organizations. That may seem in favor of that country’s independence from foreign influence, but in fact it’s used as a tool to try to repress democratic actors and civil society.
One concern I’m hearing is that the COVID pandemic presents a serious challenge for democratic systems if autocratic governments claim they are better at fighting the pandemic. We don’t know if that’s even true for transparency-related reasons. There’s also concern authoritarian leaders may use access to the vaccine as a means to reinforce control over the public.
Roblin: I’d like to wrap up by asking: are there any key signs and indicators that those concerned about democracy in the United States should look at in the coming years?
Prendergast: I would start with looking back at indicators we’ve often ignored, save to occasionally express concern about them.
In non-democracy, those particular steps are ways of eroding democratic systems. Will we do anything about them? I think that’s the fundamental question for the American people.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.