COPENHAGEN – As democracies falter and authoritarianism rises, internationalist world leaders are scrambling to figure out how to save the democratic system and its values from external and internal threats. They all concede that democracies must face a reckoning: They must address the grievances of their lost constituencies or risk losing their historic struggle for greater freedom.
Last week’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit was the latest attempt to bring together former officials and experts to respond to the existential crisis facing what is alternatively referred to as the “liberal international order,” the “transatlantic alliance,” the “community of democracies” or, more simply, “the West.” Those attacks historically came from outside actors (Russia, China) seeking to undermine the spread of democratic systems, freedom, human rights, open markets and open societies.
Now, the more urgent and dire threats are internal, with nationalist or populist moments accumulating power and turning to autocratic behavior in Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy — and especially the United States.
“For too long we have assumed these values are unquestionable,” former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the summit’s opening. “We have for too long refused to see the naked truth. The truth is that democracy is in decline in every region of the world.”
Democracy faces a crisis of legitimacy. People are more prosperous and free than ever before but don’t feel their democratic governments serve them well. Meanwhile, nondemocratic regimes are exploiting free societies by using their open systems against them.
Several meetings of Western leaders have similarly diagnosed the problem, including the Munich Security Conference, the Brussels Forum, the Halifax International Security Forum and many others. My colleague David Ignatius attended an Aspen Strategy Group conference last week in Brussels called “Crisis across the Atlantic.”
In Copenhagen, the objective was to identify concrete solutions. The overwhelming consensus was that democracies have lost touch with their people, left many behind economically and fallen victim to their own dysfunction and corruption.
“Reform or die is a pretty good lesson for democracies to abide by,” said former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
Action to counter external threats to democratic systems is well underway. Former vice president Joe Biden and Rasmussen co-chair the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, which held its first meeting here in Copenhagen the day before the democracy summit. It’s meant to enable coordination between allies to counter Russian political meddling.
But when it comes to combating the internal threats to democracy, defenders of that system are still in the early stages.
Biden said in a speech at the conference that it is understandable why citizens in the world’s democracies have lost trust in their governments. These governments have failed to live up to their promises and left the door open for domestic anti-democratic forces to gain power.
“In ways that evoke disturbing echoes of the 1930s, frustrated and disaffected voters may turn instead to strongmen,” he said. “Demagogues and charlatans step up to stoke people’s legitimate fears and push the blame onto scapegoats.”
That’s a thinly veiled reference to President Trump, whose name was barely mentioned at the summit — at least in public. Democracy defenders don’t want their cause to be a partisan issue. Trump is so polarizing that focusing on him risks overwhelming the real debate. But there’s no doubt Trump’s disdain for European alliances, refusal to promote democratic values and cozying up to dictators is a huge part of the problem.
Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper implored the allies of the United States to heed Trump’s call for more burden-sharing. In so doing, he said, they will give the United States more reason to continue its role as the champion of democracy worldwide despite Trump’s attitude.
“If we want to see American global leadership, America’s Western allies need to do more to demonstrate they can be useful partners,” he said. “Otherwise, Trump’s ‘America First’ approach will be the norm in the future.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued this week that Trump is not trying to destroy the liberal world order, but is instead trying to “reset” it to align more with America’s interests. But by trying to “reform” the liberal world order unilaterally, arbitrarily and incompetently, the Trump administration is undermining its own stated objective.
In truth, the democratic system is only salvageable if the people in democratic countries want to salvage it. Advocates must not only clean up their act but also change their policies to respond to the demands of their constituents.
Internationalists must realize that migration affects people and communities and the current system for managing it needs fixing. Free traders must figure out how to deliver more of the benefits of globalization to more people — and sooner. Democratic leaders must reconnect with disaffected voters and listen to their concerns.
If responsible leaders don’t provide reasonable solutions to the failings of democratic governance, irresponsible leaders will take advantage and impose unreasonable ones, said former British prime minister Tony Blair.
“There is a mood of alienation, which, if unaddressed, threatens the spirit of cohesion essential to the functioning of democracy. And this is serious,” he said. “If I were an American Democrat, I would spend as much time figuring out Trump’s appeal as denouncing him.”
John Adams famously wrote, “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”
Time is running out for the defenders of democracy and democratic values to prove him wrong.