The United Nations has designated September 15 as “International Day of Democracy.” Its stated purpose is to enable the global community to “review the state of democracy in the world” and advance the goal of ensuring democracy may be “made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.”
It is likely that few circle this date on the holiday calendar. Many likely missed it entirely this year. But it is notable that the United Nations, an institution increasingly beset by large powers hostile to democratic values, dedicates a day each year to celebrate democracy and liberal principles as enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Given global trends, celebrating accountable, transparent, inclusive, representative governance, undergirded by civil liberties and the rule of law, should not be taken for granted. International Democracy Day offers an opportunity to reaffirm fundamental values and enduring truths, and reconsider a number of lingering myths that have formed around democracy - myths that threaten to benefit democracy’s adversaries, and corrode the confidence and resilience of democracy’s defenders.
Myth 1: Democracy is in decline.
Freedom House, the Economist, and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute report annually that national measures of democratic health have declined steadily over the past two decades. Economic inequality, corruption, and poor government performance are among the factors that are increasing popular frustration and eroding confidence in democratic governance. Democracies must deliver.
But the boundless sacrifice and resilience of people in Ukraine, Burma, Hong Kong, Belarus, Sudan, Nicaragua, Cuba and countless other places to defend their freedom and rights in the face of often brutal violence reflect the continued viability and power of the democratic idea. Few are scrambling desperately across borders to benefit from the “prosperity” and “security” of autocratic regimes.
What is evident is that people seek not less democracy but better democracy. What they want are governments that are less corrupt, more responsive, more transparent and accountable, more institutionalized under rule of law, and act in the public interest.
While democratic nations must not be complacent about challenges to democracy around the world, including in one’s own country, understanding democracy is not in decline as a desired goal but rather underperforming and under attack is essential to develop the necessary constructive response.
Myth 2: Democracy = elections.
Elections are critical processes within a democratic system, particularly in democratic transitions. They are the ultimate moment of political accountability, when the people’s voice is heard most clearly and powerfully concerning their preference on the direction of national affairs.
And like a good physical exam, they are moments when the democratic health of the body politic – political parties, civil society, the media, and government agencies alike - is tested and exercised to their fullest extent.
But those in the democracy support community recognize better than anyone that while necessary, free and fair elections are not sufficient to achieving true and lasting democracy. In a political system where sovereignty resides in the people, the people’s voices must be heard and their interests respected through democratic processes and institutions on a consistent basis, beyond election day.
Transparency, accountability, inclusion of all equally, and rule of law must become embedded into the national fabric, as must a culture of conversation, cooperation, toleration of differences, and compromise if democracy is to succeed.
What is true is that too many Western governments and aid agencies have viewed democratic transitions through the lens of elections, often declaring democratic success based on a single result. But democracy is never achieved through a single election or moment in time. Cultural conditions, deep-seated mindsets, and underlying political dynamics do not change in a day or even a year.
The desire for quick wins can lead to a failure to maintain critical international attention and assistance over the long run, undermining opportunities to solidify transitions, create political resilience, and prevent backsliding.
Myth 3: Democracy support work is a form of cultural imperialism.
Those involved in democracy support around the world recognize that while certain core principles are essential to any democracy, there is no single democratic model. As practiced for nearly four decades, democracy support is a global enterprise in which a diverse array of countries may share in good faith lessons learned from their own democratic experience with nascent democracies struggling to get their footing.
More than 80 percent of NDI’s 55+ country offices, for instance, are led by non-Americans, with country teams comprised mostly of local citizens who intimately understand local context and culture intimately, and are dedicated to their nation’s democratic future. The focus is on partnership and experience sharing, not “lectures,” that involve government officials and citizens alike, and address the nuts and bolts of democratic organization and practice.
The work is done transparently and without judgment, and with the understanding that democracy is not easy, forever a work in progress, but benefits from international solidarity and support.
The Iraq war poisoned many people’s perspectives on this work. Democracy cannot be supported, promoted, or forced at the barrel of a gun. As NDI’s former Chair Madeleine Albright liked to say, imposing democracy is an oxymoron. By definition, democracy to truly take root must be home grown, springing from seeds derived from, sown, and nourished in local soil over time.
Myth 4: It is hypocritical for Americans to promote democracy when U.S. democracy is in such disrepair.
It is a fair point that the state of American democracy has historic flaws, even failings, and is presently facing challenges that not only undermine U.S. security but also serve as a headwind to international efforts to support democracy worldwide. The United States, nonetheless, has long served as a beacon for countless people around the world seeking freedom and democracy in their own countries, and its current challenges demonstrate the truism that democracy is forever a work in progress.
Democratic activists around the world are not waiting for the United States to gets its house in order before seeking dignity and democratic rights for themselves. They continue to welcome the support and assistance of others, including the United States and U.S. NGOs. If anything, they seek international democratic solidarity more than ever.
Americans (and others) who provide such support do so in a spirit of humility and partnership, understanding that no democracy has all the answers or is perfect. Sharing experiences means sharing successes and failures so lessons may be learned. By observing the successful experiences of other democracies we may be inspired in turn to find ways to regenerate our own.
Failing to support those requesting democratic support and assistance in fact would be the ultimate example of cultural arrogance and narcissism, and serve only to embolden democracy’s adversaries against our own values and interests.
Myth 5: Supporting global democracy is an exercise in idealism, with little strategic value.
Democracy has proved in study after study to result in better national health, security, peace and development outcomes. One would think then that it would be considered a strategic priority, integrated into the fabric of every aspect of U.S. policy.
Yet despite rhetorical support, many policymakers and so-called “realists” continue to relegate democracy to the “nice-to-have” category.
But ignoring the practical impact of democratic norms on global peace, security and development, and the growing force of popular attitudes in the highly networked, citizen-empowered 21st century, is willful strategic blindness.
It is even more important as nations such as China, Russia and Iran increasingly promote their values and vision to shape a world safe for autocracy. These states understand the stakes for themselves of the democratic model, and are unapologetic in aggressively advancing their goals and interests. Democratic nations must do the same, with similar confidence.
That does not mean, as some assert, that U.S. foreign policy must divide the world into blocs or jettison relationships with non-democratic nations of strategic value. But it should be recognized that those relationships cannot reach the potential of those the U.S. maintains with democratic allies, and are fundamentally more tenuous due to our differing values.
Ultimately, failing to promote democratic principles sacrifices one of the most valuable strategic assets in the U.S. arsenal: our power to inspire and attract billions of citizens seeking for themselves the same rights and dignity reflected in the American ideal. Empowering citizens to fight corruption, demand justice, ensure government transparency and accountability, and defend their political, economic and social rights - in their own interest and in defense of their own sovereignty - can serve as a force multiplier against the global illiberal tide both within individual nations and the international system as a whole.
Myth 6: “U.S. democracy support work and Russian election influence operations are equivalent”
Americans must avoid succumbing to the false narrative that equates democracy support work with the malign efforts of Russia and others to undermine democracy around the world.
There is a fundamental difference between the transparent efforts of democratic practitioners to support credible elections, free expression, accountable governance, and civic unity, and the shadowy efforts of ill-intentioned state- and non-state actors to undermine the stability and integrity of democratic processes and inclusive societies worldwide.
The former (co-)operates in good faith at the invitation of host countries; the latter operates opaquely and subversively without license or constructive intent. The former promotes due process and is agnostic on policy or electoral outcomes; the latter subverts political processes and seeks self-interested outcomes. As former NDI President Ken Wollack has commented, it’s the difference between offering medicine and administering poison.
It is not surprising that autocrats seek to conflate the two activities given the danger democracy poses to their global power and influence. But no one should be fooled by autocrats’ continued efforts to distract, deflect and confuse to promote their malign self-interest.
International Day of Democracy may not be celebrated yet with picnics, fireworks or even solemn reflection worldwide, but given the stakes perhaps it should be. Ultimately, the biggest danger to a more free and democratic world could be a toxic combination of complacency and fatalism, and the lingering myths that support them.
Author: Derek Mitchell, NDI President
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.