Back Issues of PDAA Today

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Program Addresses “Promoting Democracy in a Turbulent World”

By Bill Wanlund

 Promoting democracy – a perennial US foreign policy component – has become problematic.  Democracy has seen a global decline in the past decade, according to Freedom House and other monitoring organizations.  Complicating the challenge for our diplomats, the United States is no longer automatically the world’s go-to democracy role model:  Persisting race- and gender-based economic and social inequities, book banning, harsh new voting restrictions, a violent challenge to the result of our last Presidential election, a decline in respect for political rights and civil liberties – all have contributed to the world’s perception of America as a democracy in decline.

“Angst, anger and alienation” are key factors behind democratic erosion, said Thomas Carothers, senior vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at the March 7 First Monday virtual event – “Promoting Democracy in a Changing World” — sponsored by PDAA and PDC.  President Biden has called the struggle to reinvigorate world democracy the defining issue of our time – or, as Carothers puts it, “democracy is not a ‘luxury’ virtue, but an existential one.”

Carothers, a co-founder of Carnegie’s democracy program, says administrations of both parties have taken a misguided approach to promoting democracy.  “It has been a shortcoming of American diplomacy over the years to talk about the U.S. as the promoter or the supporter of democracy,” he says. “There are a lot of democracies out there, dozens of them, working to promote democracy.”

America’s internal struggles with democracy, Carothers says, are “out there for the world to see,” and to explain them credibly to others we need to acknowledge those problems and the efforts we’re making to overcome them.  Our message should be a “chastened” one, he adds: “None of us is perfect and we’re all struggling with our own issues, but we’re deeply committed to democracy’s basic principles – and having flaws doesn’t debilitate you from having principles.”

Carothers believes public diplomacy is important to reinvigorate global democracy.  “There are a lot of noxious anti-American, anti-democratic narratives, and PD needs to be there to counter them,” he says.  “We have to engage on every issue, and to up our training game so that our diplomats know the background of the narratives we’re talking about, and have the tools and the flexibility to respond.  The people on the other side are very good at what they do, and unless we’re quick and responsive, the battle is lost.”

Alistair Somerville moderated the March 7 First Monday session; Alistair and Carla Cabrera Cuadrado served as tech hosts. PDCA Program Committee member Bill Wanlund arranged the program and the newsletter invited him to talk about it:

How did you come up with the idea for a program on democracy?

Several years ago, I was doing research for an article on US foreign policy and was struck by the widespread decline in democracy around the world – and that the U.S. was one of those whose democracy was in retreat.  I started wondering how PD officers were handling democracy promotion overseas when democracy overall was falling out of favor, when we were no longer the go-to standard for democracy, and when the Administration–at that time–didn’t consider it a priority.

How did you go about putting it together?

For that article I had interviewed Tom Carothers, who writes extensively about global democracy.  He’d worked for State and knows what FSOs in the field do.  When I volunteered to put together the PDAA/PDC program, Tom was my first choice, and, luckily, he agreed to participate.

What are your thoughts about the state of global democracy?

.  I think it’s recovering.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a brutal, ugly, but timely reminder of what an autocratic regime has to offer, and most of the world took note of that.

Can the U.S. credibly promote democracy in other countries?

Unquestionably, though as Tom Carothers said, we have to acknowledge our stumbles and be clear about what we’re trying to do to correct them, avoid measuring others’ democracies against our own, and remember that what our audiences hear isn’t necessarily what we intend to say – culture and history shape understanding more than our talking points do.

Click  [Access Passcode: 15f@r?Yc] to watch Carothers’s presentation.


Video of the First Monday Program on Promoting Democracy in a Turbulent World is now available. To access the video, go to Video starts at minute 2:20.

President Biden is trying to rally the world’s democracies to reverse an authoritarian trend that has grown steadily over the last 15 years. It’s a challenge for public diplomacy, complicated by the fact that the resilience of our own democracy is being questioned both abroad and here at home. Do we have a hopeful message? Will anyone listen?

To help us explore this topic, PDAA and PDC have invited Thomas Carothers to lead our March 7 First Monday program. The program will begin at noon ET and will be conducted via Zoom.

Carothers is the senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society. He has worked on democracy assistance projects for many organizations and carried out extensive field research on aid efforts around the world. He was chosen to moderate a discussion panel on “Countering Digital Authoritarianism” for the 2021 White House Virtual Summit on Democracy.


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