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  • Roland Paris and Jennifer Welsh

The World’s Democracies, Including Canada, Face a Historic Choice

The World’s Democracies, Including Canada, Face a Historic Choice

By Roland Paris and Jennifer Welsh

The Globe and Mail June 4, 2021 There was a time, not so long ago, when democracy seemed to be the world’s preeminent political system. Today, however, it has tumbled from that great height. Organizations that track global measures of democracy, such as Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, report a marked deterioration in political rights and liberties over the past 15 years. Those democratic countries still standing, many facing their own internal challenges, seem unsure of how to respond. COVID-19 has only deepened this democratic recession, as elections are postponed in scores of countries, from Armenia to Zambia, and as governments around the world – and not just authoritarian ones – are using pandemic emergency measures to suppress their domestic critics. Meanwhile, China and Russia are extending their global influence through “vaccine diplomacy.” The stumbling response of the world’s most populous democracies – India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany, Britain, France and others – to the biggest public-health emergency in a century has added to this malaise. After years of backsliding and underperformance, the world’s democracies, including Canada, must make a historic choice. Will they work together to strengthen the effectiveness and appeal of democratic systems? Or will they risk allowing the democratic model to become, as United States President Joe Biden has warned, “a relic of our history”? The answer might seem obvious, but exactly what they should do is less clear. The recent history of democracy promotion is part of the problem, as the Biden administration itself has acknowledged. Its recent decision to leave Afghanistan has prompted sober reflection about what the 20-year effort achieved. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared in his first major speech that shoring up democracy would be an “imperative” for the new administration, he also renounced strategies aimed at overthrowing authoritarian regimes: “We have tried these tactics in the past … [and] they haven’t worked. They’ve given democracy promotion a bad name. … We will do things differently.” While it remains to be seen what “differently” entails, Mr. Biden has sent a clear message that the task of defending and extending democratic values should be a family affair, not solely a U.S. responsibility. Yet the family gathering he intends to convene by the end of his first year in office – a Summit for Democracy – may be fraught with difficult questions about whom to invite (Hungary? Philippines? Turkey?) and what kind of substantive policies it will yield. Dividing the world rigidly into democratic and non-democratic camps might also derail efforts to address global challenges, from climate change to public health, that require the co-operation of all countries. Nor is Washington in a strong position to lecture others about good democratic governance after years of executive overstretch, a contested presidential election and an attempted insurrection. Meanwhile, other long-standing democracies are struggling under the weight of economic, political and social pressures, including the continuing threat of illiberal populism in France and separatist sentiments in Britain. Non-Western countries are acutely aware that Western democracies have their own problems to fix. These realities suggest that humility must be a guiding ethic of any new democracy agenda. At the same time, we should not accept the myopic advice of some “realists” to soft-pedal democracy in foreign policy, which would simply open the door to further gains for authoritarianism. The challenge is to find an effective middle path between arrogance and self-abnegation, both of which are self-defeating. We call this a democracy support agenda, comprised of three main elements. First, existing democracies must get their own houses in order. Maintaining or regaining the trust of their own people in democratic institutions, and demonstrating that they work for the many (not just the few), is a necessary condition for everything that follows, as Mr. Biden well understands. He talks about repairing the United States – recovering from the pandemic, restoring economic health and investing in job-creating infrastructure projects and technological leadership – as his top foreign-policy priority. If these efforts devolve into beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism, however, they will both undermine democratic solidarity and embolden democracy’s critics. The “us first” approach of advanced democracies to COVID-19 has provided further ammunition to those who claim that democratic states are selfishly grasping for advantage at the expense of others. The world’s democracies urgently need to rediscover the power that flows from the pursuit of common interests and mutual benefits, not just among democratic allies, but with other countries, too. Second, democracies must nevertheless defend themselves and each other against authoritarian states’ attempts to disrupt their democratic politics or to coerce individual democracies. Some of this work is already under way. Canada, for example, hosts a Group of Seven “rapid response mechanism” that shares information about attempts to “undermine our democratic societies and institutions, our electoral processes, our sovereignty and our security.” Canada also persuaded more than 60 countries to sign a declaration against the arbitrary detention of civilians, an indirect response to China’s continuing detention of two Canadians on trumped-up espionage charges. Third, democracy support means assisting democracies that are in danger of sliding into forms of authoritarianism – a more realistic goal than older approaches to democracy promotion. Rather than embarking on quixotic quests to spread democracy everywhere, we should pursue the more limited but urgent task of halting the global democratic recession, by strengthening the legitimacy of democratic institutions, practices and values in places where they are now at risk. Ukraine and Taiwan clearly fall into this category, but there are others, including right in Canada’s own hemisphere, such as nearby Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. Indeed, nothing less than the legitimacy of democracy is now at stake. The first part of this legitimacy crisis is procedural – people do not feel represented, or they have reason to doubt that their representatives were duly elected. Political patronage and corruption continue to undermine confidence that democratic systems really do ensure equality of “voice” in decision and policy making. Again, this is not simply a problem for newer democracies in the developing world, but also for the richest and oldest ones. The democracy support agenda must therefore include a concerted campaign to strengthen what the University of Toronto’s Yasmin Dawood calls the “electoral ecosystem” of democracy: the interconnected network of institutions, processes and actors that all need to work together to deliver legitimate electoral outcomes. This ecosystem – which includes governments, political parties, voters, electoral management bodies (such as Elections Canada) and online platforms – has multiple points of vulnerability and therefore requires more than one defensive strategy. It can be undermined from without, by foreign interference or cyberattacks, but also from within, through disinformation and the erosion of democratic discourse and civic values. Responding to this challenge requires more than simple election observation missions or programs to strengthen political parties – the conventional toolkit of democracy promotion. Rather, it demands a more holistic understanding of what makes citizens trust election outcomes, along with an awareness of new technological threats to these perceptions. Although advanced democracies, including Canada, have begun to co-operate on strengthening their own electoral ecosystems and countering threats, they must now extend this collaboration to democracies elsewhere in the world. But this approach should be one of shared learning and mutual assistance among peers, not one of rich Western democracies teaching their “poor cousins” how to run their own affairs. The second dimension of the legitimacy crisis is more squarely about output: whether democracies can really deliver for their people. Popular support for democracy depends, in part, on its ability to meet fundamental human needs such as security, health and economic opportunity. Yet authoritarians have disparaged the democratic model precisely on these grounds – as a dangerously chaotic and ineffective system for dealing with emergencies, such as the global pandemic, and for producing economic growth and development. Basic governance functions such as tax collection, macroeconomic policy management and the provision of public services, are woefully inadequate in some fledgling democracies. But even in wealthier, consolidated democracies, the experience of COVID-19 has revealed critical governance weaknesses. Democracy must be made to work – and seen to work. A concerted campaign to strengthen these basic functions would help “vaccinate” some democracies against the false appeal of non-democratic alternatives. To date, however, Canada’s international programs for strengthening core governmental functions, including the delivery of public services, have been scattered across scores of projects and countries, diminishing their impact. Again, this should be a mutual learning exercise, with lessons drawn from all regions. Non-Western democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan, which proved both effective and agile in countering the pandemic, offer compelling examples of good democratic governance. The experiences of newer democracies such as Botswana, one of Africa’s best-governed and least-corrupt countries, may be more relevant than Canada’s for some teetering democracies. At the same time, Canada – in concert with others – should mobilize and offer stronger incentives for governments to maintain their democratic ways. For too long, Chinese investment in the developing world has had the opposite effect, rewarding authoritarianism, repression and corruption. Simply criticizing these practices is not the answer. Wealthier democratic countries should act collectively to provide well-funded, attractive and responsible alternatives, especially to fragile democracies. Finally, in countries where the primary threat to democracy is their own government – as in Hungary or Turkey – democracy support should focus on civil society actors and institutions that remain committed to democratic norms, including those that advocate for the rule of law and for the rights of women and minorities. Civil society is now at the frontline of struggles for democratic change and preservation. Time is short for Canada to articulate its vision for democracy support. The countdown to the 2024 U.S. presidential election is already under way, and no one can predict its outcome. Meanwhile, two of Canada’s closest democratic partners in Europe, Germany and France, may soon turn inward, preoccupied by pivotal national elections that will feature their own brands of populist politics. More immediately, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has invited four key democracies – Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea – to attend the G7 summit that he will host next week, where leaders will discuss the challenges facing open societies. Mr. Biden’s Summit for Democracy will follow some months later. Canada should use these occasions to lay out, and rally support for, its democracy-support priorities. Dispersing its efforts across a multitude of initiatives (always a temptation for governments facing complex choices) would only dissipate their impact. Canada must focus on a few key initiatives and specific partners, and devote the resources necessary to meet the challenges at hand. At the same time, the Trudeau government should promptly implement its throne-speech commitment to establish a Canadian centre dedicated to democracy and governance, which could serve as a hub of both expertise and democracy-support activities. Canada may not be a great power, but it is undoubtedly a great democracy. Now, at this watershed moment for democracy in the world, we must act like one.


Roland Paris is a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and director-designate of its Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Jennifer Welsh is Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University and director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies.


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