On June 18, Dr. Mathew Burrows and Dr. Maria Stephan hosted a private roundtable conversation about the next phase of the Strategic Foresight Initiative’s “Future of Authoritarianism” project; a monograph is due in summer 2016. The study would make the case that democracy assistance is a vital national interest. It explores how to balance that interest against others—such as stability and counterterrorism. The authors want to outline the role of outside actors in creating and supporting environments that enable civil society writ large and democratization; the monograph would identify a “toolkit” of effective methods with which to address the resurgence of authoritarianism. The conversation had three foci: the state of authoritarianism today; the modern language of democracy; and the dilemma of prioritizing democratization vis-à-vis national security.
The recent upsurge in authoritarianism is an indication that regimes are getting smarter and expanding their own toolkits. In some places, especially Arab regimes, authoritarians have started to suppress democracy by shutting down even informal exchanges, such as those between universities. Participants acknowledged this but also pointed out that globalization has provided us with more “touch points” not only in, but also around, authoritarian states. Positively, globalization also opens avenues for countering authoritarianism regionally through the creative use of regional mechanisms such as USAID’s regional hubs as part of the civil society innovation initiative.
On the language of democracy, participants agreed that despite the importance of accurate language, getting too caught up in defining democracy could be seen as a concession to those opposed to democracy. We have to be sensitive to how democratization has developed in different regions instead of proposing a one-size-fits-all form of governance.
On the final point of prioritizing democratization vis-à-vis national security, participants stated that a significant challenge to supporting civil society is a perception among US government policymakers that civil society support doesn’t work, that it results in chaos, and that the United States is in turn punished by authoritarian regimes. Although there is a sense that assistance and diplomatic efforts don’t work, the situation is much more complicated in actuality and positive case studies would be helpful to demonstrate the value of democratic assistance. The timeline for support is crucial here; it’s not the failure of assistance but a failure to weather the storm.
Moving forward, we need to concentrate on how to advance a more durable international liberal order in which our societies will thrive, not only with regard to security and prosperity, but also freedom and democracy. In an effort to bring this issue to policymakers’ attentions, we need to do four things: re-justify why democracy is important; acquaint it with nontraditional communities and spaces; update our strategy in light of developments in the Gulf states, Africa, and Europe; and better relate the subject to broad US interests, not just security.