In 2019, Freedom House recorded the 13th consecutive year of democracy in decline, the longest retreat since the organization began producing its flagship report in 1972. As the Third Wave slows, and while globally broad support for representative and direct democracy remains high, still some 40% of governments around the world are autocratic. Worries about authoritarianism and “authoritarianization” pervade the political science literature, op-eds, and international relations classrooms. The cause is still uncertain. An attractive alternative model emanating from China, parties shifting away from the center, a misguided sense of history, and general unhappiness with how governments are functioning have all been suggested. As have countless other thoughts.
Solutions to democratic downturn are equally lacking. Some called for a Global NATO. Others for a Concert of Democracies. Others still, are seeking out “the D10”—a multilateral organization akin to the G7 composed of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the European Union. The argument goes that a collective body of the world’s most powerful democracies (and indeed economies) should come together to set the global political agenda. It would include trade and foreign policy alignment, a venue for strategic consultation and agenda setting, and would serve as an example for budding and wannabe democracies. Indeed, the Atlantic Council and the Centre for International Governance Innovation already organize an annual meeting of the state policy-planning directors from those countries.
But thus far, formalization of such a multilateral (at the Foreign Minister or Head of State level) remains elusive. With so many overlapping institutions already in existence, it’s possible that interest is not high enough. Perhaps EU partners do not want Australia, Japan, and South Korea elevated to the same level of influence they enjoy. Maybe the global status of democracy does not yet warrant a global democracy collective. And maybe it does, but the domestic political will in constituent countries does not exist. Some combination provides the most convincing answer: it is just too big of an ask in the current climate.
Because of this, and the urgency of democracy’s decline, it’s time to narrow the ask. Despite the fact that the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Japan remain in the top five global aid donors, China is now the largest individual aid donor in the world. The U.S. plus any one of those three surpasses China, however. And the EU aggregate is nearly double that of China.
In the U.S., we have organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, and a plethora of like-minded NGOs spreading democracy around the world. In Europe and Asia, these organizations exist, but to a lesser extent.
At present, through the OECD, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) convenes Development Ministers and heads of aid agencies every two to three years to coordinate global aid priorities, largely based on need. Also at present, the four major Western aid agencies—USAID, DFID in the U.K., GIZ in Germany, and JICA in Japan—provide democracy programming separate from initiatives like economic development, sanitation and clean water programming, and agriculture and food security projects.
Given the urgency of democratic decline, the resurgence of authoritarianism / the rise of “authoritarianization,” China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and a host of other challenges to the democratic order, it’s time for DAC countries, particularly the big four donors, to more closely align their foreign assistance programs. Further, DAC countries should develop an entirely new framework for democracy promotion around the world. Democracy programming should be incorporated into projects as diverse as gender equity to infrastructure development to kids’ sports programming.
Meetings must be held annually, not every two to three years. Investment in researching the most troublesome countries and what can be done, should be undertaken. DAC countries should develop a comprehensive democracy education program, ranging from early childhood education all the way to elections training.
Certainly, China, Russia, Iran, and others will oppose this coordination and are likely to offer developing countries assurances that their aid programming will come with no political strings attached. Although this is a risk to the success of democracy programming coordination, fortunately for the democratic world, DAC countries overwhelmingly outweigh non-DAC countries in terms of dollars supplied.
Another potential drawback is that other autocracies will follow Russia’s example in designating externally funded NGOs as registered “foreign agents.” Or they could go the way of China and simply deny registration to human rights groups. This is a risk, no doubt about it. However, the countries that need aid most will more than likely accept it, regardless of political strings. There may be a brief interim period where certain countries cannot reconcile the democratic programming, but ultimately, they will give in. An important caveat here: democratic initiatives from DAC countries will only apply to development aid; it will exclude humanitarian aid.
Something must be done about the state of democracy in the world. Thus far, efforts fall short, due to either a lack of political will, or asks that countries simply cannot stomach. That’s why I’m suggesting we start small. That’s why it’s time for a multilateral development aid agency focused exclusively on democracy.