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New Thinking on Democracy at Home and Abroad


The Joseph Biden Administration has rather famously committed to convene a Summit for Democracy, likely later in 2021 or early in 2022. The Summit has become, as some diplomats have suggested, “the talk of the town,” not only in Washington but also in multiple other national capitals. A cottage industry has sprung up debating the who, the what and the where. More focus is needed on the why — which, in turn, ought to shape the how.

To my mind, albeit one preoccupied for over a quarter of a century with human rights and democracy, the why is rather straightforward. The alternatives — bending to the rise of authoritarians, or leaving unaddressed the weakened liberal international order that the United States originally helped create —are not in our or our allies’ national interest. Many democracies are experiencing intense challenges on multiple levels. Chief among these is the global pandemic, which revealed deep socioeconomic inequities in societies that have long been labeled “developed,” when in fact these democracies have not been delivering to many communities. Freedom House has now recorded 15 straight years of decline globally in democracy. The crises at home have been widely broadcast: the new Congress came under physical attack January 6 after a U.S. President attempted, as part of a protracted effort, to overturn the 2020 election and prohibit the peaceful transfer of power.

How then the Summit for Democracy can help repair and revive democracy here and among our allies needs more consideration and detail. Numerous factors roll up to a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and refresh exactly how we advance democracy at home and abroad. New approaches, themes and methods can help revitalize strategy and policy. Such new approaches need to connect and account for domestic shortcomings and link progress at home to efforts abroad. In doing so, post-pandemic democracy promotion needs to reflect a comprehensive focus on rights that includes socioeconomic issues and sustainable development (e.g., democracies must deliver dignity). The Biden Administration ought to consider labeling the Summit “Democracies Deliver Dignity and Development” or the 4Ds Summit. The Summit can provide the road map for these new approaches while being informed and shaped by extensive consultations at home and abroad. Finally, new methods should include data-driven, human-centered design shaping foreign assistance as well as elevating local voices. Internationally, that would be a significant change to the dominant modalities, largely Congress-driven, supporting specific types of institution building, such as central election commissions. Such work will undoubtedly continue, given

support in Congress and among the U.S.-based NGOs that receive the funding (notwithstanding the damaged credibility of our democracy). At a minimum though, demonstrably demand-driven assistance ought to supplement this older business model in order to better deliver to populations, listening and responding to the multitude of needs.

How on the Home Front?

If the United States were a foreign country, global development experts would likely propose the sort of advice American experts have long given to numerous other countries, from Tunisia to South Africa, from Mexico to Nepal: convene a version of a national dialogue. American diplomats know how to organize international summits but have much less experience organizing them with input from our own population. Yet the crises we have experienced over the last several years merit a national conversation, town halls, focus groups and consultations in towns and cities across the United States. What are the burning issues varied communities want addressed to refresh and revitalize our own democracy? Likely these will include issues related to social justice and racial equality, as well as election reform, trust in government and revamped approaches to civic education that American youth help co-create and also ones that elevate the history of World War II (in danger of being forgotten if not reinforced) and explain why the liberal international order came together in the first place.

The Biden Administration should put out a general call to leaders all over the

country to consult with local organizations in partnership with civil society groups, convening diverse forums across the United States, particularly with marginalized communities, and focusing on the generally agreed-upon themes of the Summit (discussed below). By linking domestic, middle-class priorities with those of citizen groups here and abroad, the Summit can enable a bridge between domestic and foreign policies. In this way, the Summit could include robust, public-facing engagement and consultation to meet the moment with a demonstrable focus on the voices of youth. It should not be another government-to-government affair, but rather, more like the biennial summits organized by the Open Government Partnership, with support from the United States where civil society and governments are equally represented.

Fortunately, we have a globally agreed-upon framework that was adopted in 2015, to run through 2030, fit for the purpose that applies locally and globally. The Biden-Harris Administration ought to align U.S. democracy promotion with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs represent a paradigm shift in how we think about sustainability: beyond climate, they also address reducing inequality, corruption and inequitable economic growth, while advancing sound governance, gender empowerment, diversity and inclusion. The SDGs apply everywhere because development happens everywhere, not just in the global south.

The Obama-Biden Administration helped shape the SDGs, and since their adoption, all our allies as well as cities around the world have been implementing them to create more peaceful, just and inclusive communities. The agenda associated with Goal 16 in particular is profoundly relevant to democracies and would, for example, prioritize closing gaps around social justice as well as elevate transparency and accountability. By re-engaging and reaffirming the United States’ commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a guiding global framework rooted in rights and democratic values, the Biden Administration can help push back on China’s efforts to dominate the global development agenda, with those efforts alleging to be values-free while saddling countries with enormous debt. Closely related, 21st-century American diplomacy in the service of democracy should include new participants, tapping into the energy of mayors, universities, local NGOs and activists and the private sector already advancing the SDGs and providing a platform for them in multilateral settings such as at the UN.

For democracy experts inside Washington’s Beltway, there are additional opportunities to rethink programmatically how the U.S. supports democracy internationally that could also be shared with allies at the Summit. The long-time, venerated member of Congress overseeing the fabled “150 account” on foreign assistance has retired. What ought to change now in how we deliver assistance? A new head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) will soon be appointed for the first time in its nearly 40 years of existence.

Again, what ought to change now in how we deliver support for democracy? Research and debate also suggest a growing recognition that the methods behind democracy promotion must be updated, not only because of geopolitics but also due to the sharp increase in Congressional directives, according to a recent study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Earmarks and Directives in the Foreign Operations Appropriations.” What (and how) might the process of allocating funds change? Bold, new

approaches are called for, and building support for these efforts is critical despite potential resistance from the long-standing constituencies that have benefited from these directives.

To make evidence-based recommendations, the White House ought to establish an interagency review of U.S. methods, modalities and budgets supporting democracy and human rights, with particular focus on the State Department and USAID, including the State Department funds allocated to the NED. Specifically, understanding the appropriations process and how it drives the supply of funds to whom and for what would be a critical piece of such a review. Equally important would be a group considering a zero-based review. The overarching purpose would be to understand the potential impact of pivoting from the supply-side effort that has increasingly characterized U.S. democracy assistance, in which Congressional appropriations to the executive branch are then passed on to implementors. What would be the benefit of locally informed, evidence-based methods, directly engaging people’s day-to-day lives, in keeping with current gold standards in global development? What role would U.S. embassies and USAID missions play in gathering such information, and what changes in the workforce would be needed? Would such a change in the business model increase the impact, especially if done in collaboration with allies? Would it help increase the resilience of civil society globally and reduce hostile claims of “foreign interference,” an epidemic of its own that has spread widely over the last several years?

How Around the World?

The listening tours and consultations described above could inform Summit commitments, at least for the first of what might be four baskets or work streams addressed at the Summit. Ideally, the first one would be characterized by countries and subnational entities coming to the Summit committed to specific domestic reforms — which, in the U.S. context, would most likely touch on issues related to racial and social justice as well as economic inequality, education, health and electoral reform. The second basket would be the shared international agenda on how to push back collaboratively and collectively on authoritarianism. This would encompass joint political and technical strategies for dealing with disinformation and tackling corruption, including through new laws and multilateral coalitions, for example, on the Global Magnitsky Act and building on the progress of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act in tackling abuses by shell companies, exposing beneficial ownership. Likewise, a third basket would revolve around a shared international agenda to explore and launch the creation of a new public-private solidarity fund on emergency response to human rights crises and the creation of longer-term support for human rights defenders living in exile. The fourth basket ought to cover collective and renewed efforts to support emerging democracies around the world, informed by the SDG framework, recognizing the threads binding corruption, inequality and human rights abuse, as well as the need for demand-driven responses. In totality, this multi-stakeholder initiative would then represent a 21st-century conception of a democracy alliance framed by the SDGs. The Summit would launch a new era of revitalized, high-level diplomatic and donor dialogue tied to multi-year strategies, with follow-up and review of these integrated agendas.

Building on the public listening tours of 2021, American diplomats and development experts need to become more conversant with efforts to reduce inequality and inequities and advance social justice in the United States and be able to speak about them when engaging counterparts. American diplomats need to be trained in the range of 21st-century development challenges affecting communities, such as climate change and forced migration. They should also be tasked with looking for lessons that could be applied domestically, for example, on reducing polarization, standards on the use of force in policing, best practices in transitional justice or how other countries and cities are tackling inequalities and inequities. To help facilitate this work, Secretary of State Antony Blinken should create an office, led by an ambassador-at-large, devoted to subnational diplomacy.


American diplomats and

development experts need to become more conversant with efforts to reduce inequality and inequities and advance social justice in the

United States

Organizations working internationally to advance democracy need to develop expertise on the knowledge, attitude and practice of the local communities in which they work and/or collaborate with organizations that have disaggregated data regarding the most relevant political, social and economic issues facing those communities. (The focus on disaggregated data in these contexts would be in keeping with the establishment of the Interagency Working Group on Equitable Data.) The State Department and USAID should come to the Summit with commitments and plans to build a work-force conversant in data-driven approaches and bring democracy promotion in line with best practices in global development, prioritizing demand-driven, human-centered design, including using population-based, disaggregated data derived from knowledge, attitude and practice surveys.

Summit participants should be expected to profile 21st-century methods of advancing democracy at the local level, including through examples of participatory budgeting, citizen feedback and the deployment of best practices used overseas to communities in need at home. At the Summit, American activists and experts working on issues in the United States should be ready to listen and share lessons learned with counterparts from other countries, creating Communities of Practice to be launched at the Summit to supplement the traditional U.S.-based NGOs working around the world on democracy. Blended public-private funding mechanisms should be created to support such actions and their convenings. Additional areas of focus might include support to independent, local media, updated civic education in schools and lessons on transitional and social justice.

The Administration needs to prioritize engaging Congressional members and staff early and often to advocate for these new approaches. This engagement should be the business of a dedicated interagency team to create and identify supporters of linking the socioeconomic well-being of communities with the health of democracies at home and abroad, as well as coming to agreement on the desirability of demand-driven, needs-based methods to increase the efficacy and impact of U.S. foreign assistance. Congress may ask for a review of its own of democracy assistance. Recommendations coming out of these reviews and consultations collectively would signal new, updated approaches to advancing democracy at home and abroad — in other words, policy pivots designed for the post-COVID era.


AMBASSADOR SARAH E. MENDELSON is Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and head of CMU’s Heinz College in Washington D.C. She previously served as the U.S. Representative to the UN’s ECOSOC. There she led international development, human rights and humanitarian affairs. Prior to her appointment, she served as Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where she was the agency’s lead on democracy, human rights and governance. A long-time policy entrepreneur, she has spent 25 years working on development and human rights as a scholar and a practitioner. Her current work centers on the Sustainable Development Goals. At CMU, she co-chairs the university’s Sustainability Initiative steering committee. She recently served as a working group lead of the Freedom House-CSIS-McCain Institute Task Force on “A New U.S. Strategy to Promote Democracy and Combat Authoritarianism,” from which she draws in this piece.


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