Long before the first outbreak of the coronavirus, democracy was under threat. The global momentum that carried democracies out of the Cold War had given way to stagnation and recession. “Autocratization” eclipsed democratization as the defining dynamic in international politics—a slippage rife not just in developing democracies but even in wealthy, long-established ones. At the same time, major authoritarian powers like China and Russia were radiating widening antidemocratic influence.

The coronavirus pandemic has only darkened this foreboding picture. Illiberal leaders have seized the moment to ramp up executive power, increase censorship, ban public protests, postpone elections, heighten surveillance, and limit basic rights—often far beyond what is necessary to protect public health. The pandemic has intensified social divisions and triggered a massive economic slowdown that will further stress democratic systems.

For several decades, a diverse set of democratic governments, international organizations, and prodemocracy groups have worked together to bolster shaky transitions and resist backsliding in many parts of the world. Yet today, that community and the optimistic assumptions it shared are on the ropes. Clear ideas about how democracies succeed have been replaced by hard debates about the causes of their discontent. New technologies have become as much a threat as a boon to political openness. Under the pressures of the pandemic, many democracies have turned inward. The inability of several major democracies—especially the United States and the United Kingdom—to contain the virus has further damaged their standing as models of successful governance.

The case for fostering democracy has not evaporated, however. Large percentages of citizens around the world continue to want democracy, even if they are unhappy with the performance of the particular democracy they have. Reforms and innovations are more widespread within democracies than is commonly recognized. And many autocracies are struggling to maintain political legitimacy and to govern effectively, even as they strut with apparent confidence on the world stage.

In a world where democracy is firmly and widely established, democracies are more secure, peaceful, and prosperous.

Amid the global tumult, a core truth still holds: in a world where democracy is firmly and widely established, democracies are more secure, peaceful, and prosperous. The question of how best to support such a reality will only grow more pressing as the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

Beyond Us and Them

Support for global democracy has operated for too long within a binary framework that casts established democracies as providers of assistance and developing democracies as recipients. Countries on both sides of that outdated divide are now confronting many of the same challenges: renovating political representation, reengaging alienated citizens, allaying sociopolitical tensions, and reducing concentrations of power that produce inequity and injustice.

Innovations within newer, non-Western democracies make the case for treating democracy building as a mutual learning exercise rather than an export business. Just look at nimble new civic activism campaigns in places like South Africa, where widespread student demonstrations convinced the government to keep its promise of fee-free university education, and Colombia, where activists harness creativity and humor to address challenges at the intersection of human rights and technology. Or witness the groundbreaking open governance reforms in countries ranging from Uruguay, where citizen-government consultation generated a new plan for national water management, to Mongolia, where a new social accountability program enables rural citizens to provide feedback on local health and education services directly to their government.

Innovations within newer, non-Western democracies make the case for treating democracy building as a mutual learning exercise rather than an export business.

Meanwhile, countries as diverse as Argentina and South Africa have employed innovative technologies to enable remote voting or legislating. Some emergent democracies have also blazed pathways in local-level democracy. Ghana’s pioneering municipal service delivery consultations helped address citizen priorities such as better residential sanitation facilities and community policing in the twin cities of Sekondi-Takoradi. Nigeria’s state-level anticorruption monitoring enables residents of Kaduna State to report progress and problems in the government’s big-ticket infrastructure projects.

These lessons are all the more important at a time when the world is wanting for sound models of democratic leadership. As long as President Donald Trump is in office, the United States will not pursue sustained, high-level support for democracy or serve as a credible messenger for it. Yet even if the 2020 election ushers in a different administration more committed to global democracy, a leadership gap will remain. The world has learned not to trust the United States as a democratic partner.

Other democracies will need to step up to fill the void, especially middle powers such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. Sweden has already taken a forthright role in addressing the global democracy leadership deficit with its diplomatic “Drive for Democracy.” New democratic leaders should focus on the regions, issues, or multilateral forums where they can have the greatest impact. And this is not a job for governments alone: interest-based networks, civic coalitions, and regional organizations can all take on a more prominent role.


Renewed, diversified leadership will have to push back against increasingly sophisticated and well-financed influence operations by a wide array of state and nonstate actors hostile to democracy. Competing in the fiercely contested arena of global political influence will require bigger budgets, sharper tools, and deeper investment in personnel—all underpinned by a broader diplomatic strategy to counter authoritarian overtures. To make such contestation morally persuasive and not geopolitically instrumental, democracies will have to match work against the incursions of their rivals with serious attention to the democratic shortcomings of their friends.

Facing Blind Spots

Supporters of democracy have overlooked a number of issues that have contributed to global democratic malaise. Citizens angry about inequality, dislocation, and marginalization do not often hear the political dimensions of those concerns addressed. As the pandemic wreaks global economic devastation, this fury will continue to swell.

Many democracy supporters have viewed building core political institutions like elections, political parties, and parliaments as ends in themselves, with self-evident attraction for citizens. But these areas of focus can seem abstract and disconnected from many individuals’ urgent desire for economic and social justice.

People should be able to see concrete, real-time returns from democratic governance.

People should be able to see concrete, real-time returns from democratic governance and to understand how policies and programs can advance meaningful inclusion and accountability. Given increasing public anger about corruption—which has roiled dozens of countries in recent years—policymakers should upgrade anticorruption programming from a niche, technocratic add-on to a central priority.

Beyond the economic realm, democracy building has to connect to the issues people care about most. Climate change is one key area—a major driver of youth engagement in politics, yet one that is often tangential to work on democracy building. Women’s political empowerment is another. Many countries have made real gains on this front—yet much more remains to be done, and popular pressure for change continues to rise.

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For more on global civil society and the civil uprisings, check out our Global Protest Tracker, a one-stop source for most significant anti-government protests worldwide.

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Given the outsized role of technology in shaping the global political landscape, it has to be fully integrated into the work of democracy support. Technology is facilitating new forms of accountable governance and civic activism by enabling broader consultation, communication, and participation. Yet it is also handing authoritarians new repressive tools for surveillance and curtailment of political rights. Meanwhile, international technology firms are shaping governance in their own right.

Adept new democracy support will require building new bridges in many directions. Expertise from the technology sector should be brought into the design of policies and programs, as should input from groups focused on digital privacy issues. Leaders will also have to forge deeper connections with technology companies, which are struggling to navigate democratic dilemmas like election interference, censorship, and hate speech.

Playing the Long Game

Even in regions where democracy’s prospects appear bleak, a variety of current trends could drive deep-reaching political change. These include swelling protest movements demanding fundamental transformation, burgeoning youth populations, greater associational ties forged by new technologies, and growing awareness of the need to diversify economies away from fossil fuels. The devastating economic damage inflicted by the pandemic will intensify societal divides and create enormous pressure for more inclusive politics and more effective governance.

The devastating economic damage inflicted by the pandemic will intensify societal divides.

Democracy support can play a role in raising the chances of prodemocratic responses to these pressures. To do so, it will need to connect with energetic partners beyond the usual suspects, from digital rights activists and labor organizers to social justice campaigners and philanthropic actors. New coalitions and alliances will be vital. More broadly, unrealistic, short-term expectations must be replaced by steady, long-term approaches to democratic progress.

One silver lining of the pandemic may be that it opens just this sort of window for change. The crisis has dramatically transformed geopolitics and economics. It may well provide the impetus to reinvigorate international support for democracy.

  • Thomas Carothers
  • Frances Z. Brown