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Two strategies to salvage democracy and halt the rise of authoritarianism

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As I think about the world now and reflect on analyses conducted by scholars — Robert Kagan, among others — it is now a fairly common conclusion that our democracy here in the United States is at risk, and freedom and democratic values around the world are in retreat as autocracy is in the ascendancy.

Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report offers further proof of this conclusion. The report revealed that, in 2020, the global democracy gap was at its lowest point in 15 years.

Indeed, democracy in 73 countries declined and improved in just 28 countries, which constitutes a -45 democracy gap for the year 2020 (the number of countries that improved subtracted from the number of countries that declined). 2020 marked the largest democracy gap in 15 years, as well as the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

To paraphrase the report, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic and physical insecurity and violent conflict in 2020 shifted the international balance further in favor of autocracy, and at the expense of democracy.

Two separate works published recently make compelling arguments in different ways for the necessity and urgency of the U.S. committing itself to the causes of freedom and democracy. This is essential if America is to regain the moral high ground on the world stage.

The first work is an important article in Foreign Affairs by former secretary of State Madeline Albright, who argues compellingly that the U.S.— still the indispensable nation — must continue to advocate for freedom and liberty around the world.

Albright makes the case that, unless the U.S. does this, we lose our stature and position on the global stage, and ultimately weaken ourselves both internally and externally.

Needless to say, I could not agree more with Albright’s view on America’s pivotal opportunity to lead the fight against authoritarianism globally. At a time when our global position has seemingly been eroded by our hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, Albright’s words provide a useful directive for those who believe that the time for the strengthening of our traditional democratic alliances has passed.

I commend Albright’s piece, as well as the compelling nature of her life’s work.

A work that is equally important to me — but very different from Albright’s — is Peter Ackerman’s latest book, “The Checklist to End Tyranny: How Dissidents Will Win 21st Century Civil Resistance Campaigns.”

Ackerman has spent the last 50 years — as a strategist, a funder, a philosopher, and an activist — supporting the cause of freedom as a goal to reach. In his latest work, he provides specific steps that dissidents and activists might take to use the tools at their behest to produce democratic change and defeat totalitarian leaders through non-violent civil resistance.

For those who say that the U.S. cannot be involved in regime change, Ackerman has what I believe is a compelling and arguably unique answer. By training dissidents to organize in their own countries and to affect change themselves, we can help indigenous people affect political change in ways that do not involve foreign troops, coups, or other surreptitious actions. To that end, Ackerman makes the case that non-violence is invariably more successful than violent insurrection.

As a former chairman of Freedom House and a former investment banker, Ackerman is the rare individual who has had success in a multiplicity of realms but has dedicated himself quietly to the extraordinarily important task of reducing authoritarian rule worldwide.

Ackerman has also lent his efforts to activities in the U.S. that have worked to reform the political process here, and he has had early success in a number of states at implementing reforms to the electoral system to open up American democracy to independents and forces beyond the two major parties.

The reason I recommend Ackerman’s and Albright’s latest works together is I feel strongly that the U.S. must stand for something broader than our economic, cultural and athletic prowess. We must stand for enduring, timeless democratic values.

I think both works also appropriately underscore that there is an alternate path than the so-called “realism” of Henry Kissinger or the intrusiveness of democratic activists through overseas incursions that are often unsuccessful and frequently produce backlash.

Ultimately, Albright in her own way, and Ackerman in his, represent important forces in American life and in the cause of political, social, and economic change, and it is important to consider their latest works in tandem as the United States looks for a way forward to bring about positive change.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was an adviser to former President Bill Clinton when Albright led the State Department, though our paths have rarely crossed since.  I have also worked on a number of Ackerman’s domestic initiatives — though, none of his very successful foreign initiatives — and have not worked with him on any projects or causes recently.

My main point is this: Unless the U.S. stands for democratic values and seeks to empower people to achieve democratic results, we weaken ourselves fundamentally.

And if there is a path forward for the United States to restore global democracy and challenge our authoritarian adversaries, it is those advocated by these two extraordinary individuals.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of, “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags Authoritarianism Bill Clinton Democracy Michael Bloomberg Political theories Types of democracy Western culture

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