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Democracy’s vital tasks

Dec 21,2021 - Last updated at Dec 21,2021


MADRID — Liberal democracy is still alive, but showing clear signs of weakness. According to Freedom House, the world has experienced 15 consecutive years of global democratic backsliding.

In an attempt to tackle the rising tide of authoritarianism, US President Joe Biden recently invited more than 100 world leaders to a virtual summit aimed at strengthening democracy globally. For a Spaniard of my generation, there are powerful reasons to highlight the value of democracy. Having lived part of my life under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, I know what it means for a country to choose openness and prosperity. La Transición, Spain’s political process of regime change from dictatorship to constitutional democracy, was a historic feat, entailing the establishment of new representative institutions, the development of a welfare state and integration into Europe.

But defending democracy as a moral, just and practical political system should not make us define the international environment as merely a clash between democracies and autocracies. After all, there is nothing wrong with countries that have different political systems meeting to address concrete global problems. What matters is that these gatherings contribute toward solving them.

Although the Summit for Democracy participants made commitments to extremely important causes, such as protecting human rights, the event will be remembered more for its symbolic value than for its results. Proof of this is Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan, which will have done little to de-escalate tensions with China.

On the other hand, the need for effective global governance is more urgent than ever in today’s unpredictable and dangerous world. In addition to the nuclear threat that emerged in the last century, we must now contend with challenges such as cyberattacks, the weaponisation of migration, the growing investment in military technology and the malign potential of artificial intelligence.

Dividing the world into two ideologically opposed camps, as Biden’s recent summit appeared to do, thus entails a major geopolitical risk. A split between free countries and autocracies could spill over into key international organisations, which are fundamental to resolving or managing global problems.

For example, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) long ago ceased to be functional, as a result of its inability to create international trade rules that accommodate different economic systems. Adding an element of ideological separation between democratic and non-democratic countries to the existing divisions within the WTO will only make it more difficult to find solutions.

Settling these disputes is vitally important if we are to avoid the dire consequences of an economic de-coupling between the United States and China. Building the multilateral system after World War II was a historic achievement, but its institutions lack the tools to cope with an increasingly interdependent, complex and dynamic world.

The COVID-19 crisis has made this clear. Humanity was unprepared to combat the pandemic, and the World Health Organisation(WHO) was clearly underfunded. When former US President Donald Trump recklessly announced that he was withdrawing the US from the WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was poised to become the organisation’s largest single contributor.

So, rather than emphasising their ideological differences with other countries, democracies should instead recognise their responsibility to themselves and the world. In particular, they must address two critical, overdue tasks in order to revive their domestic and international legitimacy.

The first task is to reduce domestic economic inequalities. Democracy proved itself after World War II by creating a welfare state that helped to ensure economic growth and social cohesion. But this cohesion has suffered major setbacks in recent decades, and was badly weakened by the 2008 global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The socioeconomic inequalities that characterise our societies are a threat to democracy, because living increasingly separate lives makes collective political participation more difficult. Ultimately, inequality erodes our ability to act as citizens. Democratic backsliding in many countries stems in part from the dissatisfaction of citizens who have lost confidence that the political system can reverse the long decline in economic security and living standards they have experienced. The resulting political disenchantment has been a major source of support for populist nationalism.

Democracies’ second task is to take a clear lead in creating the socioeconomic conditions necessary for the further development of the Global South. This could also facilitate adherence to democratic values in developing countries.

As the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant has shown, we have a moral and practical imperative to ensure the equitable global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccination rates in Africa are dishearteningly low. While many citizens in rich democracies can now receive a third COVID-19 vaccine dose, only 8 per cent of Africans are fully vaccinated.

Moreover, there could be no more effective global advertisement for democracy than enabling rapid vaccination of people in the most vulnerable countries. Given that vaccinating 70 per cent of the world’s population would cost only 0.13 per cent of the G-7’s GDP, wealthier democracies have a golden opportunity to increase their international legitimacy.

Democracies could help their cause further by mustering the political will to fulfil their pledge to help the Global South finance its green economic transition. At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the richest countries promised to provide $100 billion per year to developing countries to help them meet the cost of mitigation and adaptation. But advanced economies have not kept their word.

By fulfilling his 2020 presidential election campaign promise to convene a Summit for Democracy, Biden has shown that he is no Trump. But that may prove to be insufficient. Cooperating with someone who is ideologically like-minded is complicated enough. Doing so with someone who has a different worldview, perhaps even contradicting one’s own, is far more difficult.

While we clearly need to strengthen democracy, our fundamental values should not prevent us from working with other countries to resolve the most urgent global challenges. I sincerely believe that this is what democracy requires.


Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain, is president of EsadeGeo-Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.


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