Larry Diamond is widely considered the leading scholar of democracy. He is a professor at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was a co-founder of the Journal of Democracy with Marc Plattner in 1990. His influence on the thought and practice of democracy is incalculable. His recent article in Foreign Affairs is titled “All Democracy is Global.”
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The world can’t wait for us to counter Russian and Chinese disinformation, support democratic struggles abroad, help to stabilize and improve democratic institutions, forge partnerships between our democratic organizations and actors and parties and theirs, and otherwise promote democracy around the world. The world can’t wait for us to do that.
- Introduction – 0:49
- Importance of Democracy – 2:34
- Strategies to Promote Democracy – 11:30
- American Policies – 19:59
- Using Democracy’s Strengths – 30:32
Larry Diamond needs no introduction. He is widely considered the leading scholar of democracy. He is a professor at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was a co-founder of the Journal of Democracy with Marc Plattner in 1990. His influence on the thought and practice of democracy is incalculable.
I’ve wanted to talk to Larry Diamond for a long time. Recently, he wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled, “All Democracy is Global.” I felt like this article touched on some of the important themes of his work. So, I reached out to Larry to discuss what America can do to support democracy in the world.
If you like the podcast, check out the blog. Lately I’ve published articles from Maria Isabel Puerta Riera on the role of immigration in American politics and Valerio Alfonso Bruno on the recent Italian elections. I’m trying to publish a lot more from others, so I encourage listeners to reach out about making a submission. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Larry Diamond…
Larry Diamond, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Many thanks. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Well, Larry, when I think about your background… I mean, when I read your work and we talk about the things that you do, you come across as not just a scholar, but really one of the great advocates of democracy. Your recent article, “All Democracy is Global: Why America Can’t Shrink from the Fight for Freedom” that you just wrote in Foreign Affairs, made me feel like your contribution to foreign affairs isn’t just to make the case for the importance for democracy or to just write about democracy. I mean, it’s to become an advocate that we need to do more to defend democracy. Larry, what first sparked your personal interest in democracy?
Well, I’m often asked that question, as recent as today by a group of Stanford students and I actually kind of enjoy reflecting on the journey. I spoke to it a little bit in the Spirit of Democracy. I grew up at a particular time in American and world history. It was the peak of the Cold War. I was reaching awareness of American and global politics at the time of the 1960 presidential election and John F Kennedy’s memorable inaugural address in January of 1961 was I think a defining speech in the cold war era in terms of American commitment to the defense of freedom. ‘We will pay any price. Bear, any burden for the defense of liberty around the world.’
Look, I read George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1984 and while I wouldn’t have described myself growing up as particularly politically conservative or ideological, I have been a lifelong anti-communist. I don’t like totalitarianism. I didn’t like fascism. I don’t like communism. I don’t like any political system that eclipses or oppresses human freedom. So, you start with that. I do have philosophically a strong libertarian streak in the purest sense of a belief in liberty and human freedom in all its dimensions. So, that was one current that really, really drove me.
The second one was a different context of the time interacting with that and that was decolonization. So, again, think of the late 1950s, the early 1960s and what was happening in the world. A number of the former European colonies particularly in Africa and Asia were becoming independent and it was kind of interesting and inspiring. They were becoming independent at least putatively as democracies. That was an enormous process of change and an inspiring one to see peoples around the world breaking off the yolk of colonial rule and becoming independent nations with democratic constitutions. Then many of them failed. Then people like Nkrumah and Sukarno and Kenyatta in Kenya betrayed the democratic vows and principles of self-determination that had informed the anticolonial struggle and became authoritarian.
Then there was a wave of military coups, executive coups in Africa, largely military coups in Latin America, beginning with the Brazilian military coup in 1964 then peaking with another defining event in my life as a college student, the military coup in September 1973 in Chile. So, all these things had a very intense and profound impact on me. So, by then I was an undergraduate at Stanford and I become intensely interested in democracy at home and abroad.
Your recent piece follows a theme that a lot of your pieces do which is that it’s not just saying that democracy is good. It’s saying that Americans need to do more to actually support democracy abroad. There’s a line in the piece where you write, “It is not safe to assume that all Americans appreciate the importance of promoting democracy abroad. The case for doing so must be made to each new generation.” That line really emphasizes the need to be able to convince people that it’s important to support democracy abroad. So, why don’t we start with like an elevator pitch, if you will, for most Americans. Why is it important for America to support democracy abroad?
Let’s begin with the reverse. Which are the countries in the world that threaten our economic and national security? Let’s go down the list: China, Russia, North Korea, I would argue Venezuela. Where are the countries that people are fleeing in destabilizing numbers in terms of immigration flows to the United States and our allies in Europe and so on or creating humanitarian emergencies that are intensifying massive sudden immigration flows, huge needs for foreign assistance, the breeding of terrorism and so on and so forth? All of this is emanating from authoritarian regimes or regimes that are extremely badly governed with just a very thin and superficial and often inauthentic layer of democracy.
So, if you want to end war between states, democratization would be a good place to begin, because the only wars we have fought have been with authoritarian regimes. Indeed, there’s never been a war between two real democracies in world history. If you want to create a United States that is more secure against foreign attack or attack on our allies or attack on our economic interests or theft of our intellectual property and our economic and military technology, it’s the democracies of the world that present a much better prospect in that regard of living with respect for the global rule of law. So, when you start going down the list of our hard interests in military, security, peace, freedom from terrorism, economic security, fair trade, and so on, democracy becomes, frankly, a pretty compelling, pragmatic interest.
Then you have the intangible interest in wanting to live in a world in which our values are more secure, in which freedom, human rights, press freedom and political choice and competition are respected. And in which our system of government can interact with and be affirmed and strengthened by peer democracies around the world. One of the sources of threat to American democracy now, I’m sorry to say, is the existence of populist authoritarian models that are, first of all, subverting our democratic institutions through their social media and other interventions like Russia has been doing or even now Viktor Orbán in Hungary. These models have diffused around the world. So, our democracy will be more secure, our values will be more secure, our economic and military security will be greater, if there is more freedom and democracy around the world.
Well, you just named a lot of the threats to American interests particularly countries that pose those threats like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Those are some very committed autocracies at the moment. Should we be striving to change them into democracies or should our foreign policy focus on containing them so that they don’t disrupt other democracies that currently exist?
I would say that our emphasis should be on the latter option you articulated. I try to avoid the word containment because it suggests that we’re trying to go back to the Cold War. That’s not what I would advocate in any overt sense. But I think we definitely must confront and try to dismantle or obstruct their efforts to project global sharp power and global hard power to undermine democracies around the world. So, if that’s what you mean by containment: to contain, preempt, obstruct, frustrate their plans and resolve to try to weaken, intimidate, conquer, compromise, and destabilize democracies around the world. Definitely. I think that should be our leading objective.
I think we must meet them on the normative informational and the ideological battlefields to join with individuals from their countries and neighboring countries to fight for democratic values and principles, and most of all, to fight for truth against their cynical, well-resourced, unfortunately, highly technologically developed efforts to promote disinformation and blatant sick, pathetic falsehoods such as that we were developing biological weapons programs in Ukraine and that’s why Russia needed to invade Ukraine. I mean, this is just straight out of the Soviet Union’s playbook of disinformation now modernized for the new era of international broadcasting through social media.
I don’t think that we can develop, (we, the United States, we, the Western Alliance) any coherent strategy for, quote. ‘trying to democratize China’ through some campaign or democratize Russia through some campaign that wouldn’t backfire. But I think we can support democrats. That’s what I favor. Support individuals and civil society organizations, journalists, and informational efforts that are trying to create a more level playing field for the dissemination of information in their countries, trying to promote alternative values, trying to report the truth. Then they have to be the agents of change in their own countries. That I think is a mission, an endeavor, that has always been worth doing. That is part of a seamless and global unified effort of global democratic solidarity.
So, in the piece, you actually have a line where you write, “The United States has no clear strategy to disseminate the values of democracy. Creating one will require a long-term effort conducted with civic partners and indigenous voices on every continent.” I bring it up because I feel like you’re starting to touch on the idea of a strategy right now. The idea that maybe we should be focusing on individuals rather than targeting countries. Is that the direction that you think an American strategy to promote democracy should be taking?
Well, I think we need both a global which is to say universal strategy for advancing democratic values and ideas, which are, if you look at the growing body of international covenants and regional covenants, universal values and trying to support and energize the growth of democratic values and the resilience and effectiveness of democratic information flows in different countries and language zones around the world. I don’t think it can just be an amorphous universal strategy, because in the end we have to meet individuals where they are in their own languages and in their own cultural traditions.
Even if we develop some materials, some bodies of knowledge and explanation in teaching about what democracy is, the different ways that democracy is structured, the different cultural origins and roots of different democratic principles of accountability, liberty, separation of powers, constitutional rule of law and so on and so forth, we still have to translate them into different languages and to be effective, I think, connect them to diverse cultural and national traditions. So, we’re going to need to develop, I think pedagogical initiatives, informational initiatives, online courses which might find their way onto both the internet and thumb drives that will share a lot in common with one another.
But will also have elements of distinctiveness, because, first of all, they will be conveyed in the Chinese language, the Russian language, the Spanish language, the Portuguese language, in Arabic, in Vietnamese, in Korean and so on and so forth. I think we’re going to need to do this, frankly, in at least about 20 different languages. Then we need a strategy for distribution or broadcasting. Some of it can be posted on the internet and pushed or advertised through more open societies in different venues on the internet, hopefully for free. You know, if it’s on a commercial platform, that’s not ideal.
I think there is significant potential to distribute a lot of this content on thumb drives that could be broadly distributed by democratic actors and organizations and also distributed in non-permissive contexts. In this day and age, you can produce a thumb drive that looks like a stick of lipstick or probably even a pack of chewing gum or something.
So, we’ve got to be creative. We’ve got to be multidimensional in the ways we go about this. And we’ve got to find ways of reaching young people, culturally, where they’re at. That means that we’ve got to think creatively about how to distribute democratic ideas, memes, symbols, refrains, slogans, ideas through art, through music, through short videos on Snapchat or TikTok. Not that I want to elevate that platform, but you understand. We need to penetrate deeply the circulation flows on social media. Russia, China, and some other authoritarian actors, I think, are doing this better than we are right now and that’s a disgrace.
So, President Biden has made democracy a focus both domestically and abroad. At least he has in his communications so far. How would you assess his actual performance in executing those ideas?
Well, I think it’s been mixed. There’s no more important and urgent priority for the defense and advance of democracy around the world now at this moment than helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russian invasion and ultimately repel Russian invaders from the Russian territorial gains that began to be made in 2014. That’s priority number one and defending Taiwan is coming pretty close as an urgent strategic priority. On those I think the Biden administration has done pretty well. It could have done more earlier, frankly, and probably saved a lot of lives in the process, a lot of agony. But Ukraine could not be making the territorial gains that it’s been making in this month of September 2022 without the flow of American weapons and other technology and intelligence, cooperation, and so on and so forth.
We need to do more of that earlier with Taiwan to deter China from attacking Taiwan. On the Summit for Democracy, we’ll see. You know, it was nice to have a summit for democracy, but countries made pledges to address some of their democratic deficits and challenges. It isn’t clear to me that there’s a very coherent and robust mechanism for evaluating whether countries are making progress and addressing those commitments and dealing with those challenges. So, the next Summit for Democracy won’t accomplish much, unless it has some evaluation mechanism. I have long felt that these kinds of evaluation mechanisms can’t reside in governments. They have to reside in independent actors in civil society and I don’t see the architecture for that in the Summit for Democracy process.
And I think it is a little bit frustrating that we had a similar go at this in the summer of 2000 with the creation of the Community of Democracies in Warsaw, a summit generated, blessed, and inaugurated by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and then Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek. Then it kind of petered on and then we’ve made no investment in it, no effort to make it more serious and just kind of let it limp along as a kind of rump appendage to global efforts while generating this new thing. So, there’s a certain lack of continuity and seriousness in this entire global architecture that has left me somewhat disappointed. In any case, I don’t think the Biden administration can be evaluated positively enough in its democracy promotion and elevation and defense efforts which I think it is sincerely committed to.
So, I appreciate the sincerity of commitment. But when its public diplomacy initiatives are falling, so disastrously short of what is needed and I have noted in the article and will not cease noting that if you don’t have an Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy who’s a permanent figure or at least for the life of an administration, Senate confirmed, with the authority to dig in and launch a serious battle for values, ideas, information, and democratic norms, you know, how serious can you be? I remain perplexed and simply astonished that this administration follows its predecessors in failing to nominate and get confirmed early on in the administration an Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy. It should be one of the most important positions in the State Department. But you know, here we are with the seventh acting undersecretary out of the last eight people to hold the role.
So, you emphasized the importance of support for Ukraine just a moment ago. You said that that’s really one of, if not the most important thing, we can do to protect democracy at this moment. And it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot, not just in terms of defending Ukraine, but in terms of its relationship to the democratic recession. Do you feel like Russia’s turn from just using sharp power towards using hard power against Ukraine is a real turning point? Whether it’s going to get worse or hopefully things maybe can get better from this new low, is it a new turning point in the democratic recession?
Yes, but it’s been a kind of creeping turning point. Let’s keep in mind that Russia’s first use of blatant military force was in Georgia in 2008 when it invaded and claimed the territories of Abkhazia and Osetia in Northern Georgia. Then it invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized Crimea and annexed it as part of its territorial, blatant aggression and occupied part of the Donbas region. But neither of those was on the scale of what Russia launched on February 24th.
So, that was a turning point and if Russia had quickly succeeded, I think we would’ve been back to the 1930s. Russia would not have stopped there. Other autocracies would’ve been massively emboldened. Democracy would’ve been placed not only on the operational defensive, which it’s been for some time, not only on the ideological and informational defensive, which it’s been for some time, but on the military defensive as well. So, I think it’s a turning point. And now we have the opportunity for a new turning point which is to show that won’t work and to unambiguously defeat that. I think that is an overwhelming and urgent strategic priority.
At the same time, we need to bear in mind how dangerous this is. I do fear that Russia might use a tactical nuclear weapon. That Putin might do so if he feels like he’s going down to blatant defeat or if the Russian military really looks like it’s crumbling. And I have no desire to throw a lifeline to Putin as a leader or to save him politically, but I think we need to give Russia and Russians some kind of offramp where they can accept an outcome in Ukraine that leaves Ukraine whole and free.
And I mean, hopefully, literally whole and free with the liberation of Crimea as well while creating a pathway for Russia, not only to achieve relief from sanctions, although I think it’s inevitable that some or much of the financial resources that have been seized from Russian assets abroad are going to have to be assigned to the reconstruction of Ukraine. But there has to be a path that Russians can see toward rejuvenation of their economy and the nation through a different approach to Russia’s behavior in the region and the world.
Provided that Ukraine does defeat Russia and comes out of this conflict entirely whole once again, do you think that that could spark the fourth wave of democratization going forward?
I think that it could be and probably would be a very important enabling factor toward a rebirth of freedom or rebirth of momentum for democracy, democratic resilience, democratic deepening, and democratic transitions in the world. But that alone won’t do it. Let me just say emphatically that the momentum of democratic decay in the world and the momentum of authoritarian populism in the world and the poison of democratically destabilizing and polarizing social media in the world are far too advanced for them to be reversed simply by one outcome, even something as decisive as a victory for Ukraine. So, if we don’t have the strategy for fighting disinformation, for easing political polarization and for imposing costs on authoritarian populists around the world, not just authoritarian aggression against one state, then we’re not going to see a fourth wave of democratic change simply because Ukraine prevails.
So, one of the concerns that I have is when we think about promoting democracy it feels very defensive. We’re constantly trying to think in terms of how to blunt things like Russian or Chinese sharp power. We’re thinking of ways to counter things that China is doing throughout the world. What are some asymmetric opportunities, things that play off of democracy’s strengths or America’s strengths that we can focus on to help democracy grow throughout the world that don’t just focus on defense, but maybe start to focus somewhat on offense as well?
That’s a very good question and I think you begin with the positive values. There’s no way that we can prevail in a normative and information battle with leading authoritarian states like Russia and China unless there is a positive and indeed inspirational quality to it. This is our natural advantage. People want to live in freedom. Just look at the data from unlikely places like the Afrobarometer, the Arab Barometer, the Asian Barometer, the Latinobarometer, and you see that there is still continuing broad support for democracy as the best form of government and for the rule of law and freedom and protection for people’s individual rights. And frankly, most of the specific provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other instruments as well to defend gender rights and so on.
We need to lead with basic values and then support the individuals and organizations and authentic voices in different parts of the world that are trying to defend, develop, interpret for new contexts and again, through new cultural vehicles these enduring and universal values. That’s a positive agenda. That’s an exciting agenda and it is the most effective way of countering authoritarian sharp power around the world. But there is more. China has been making gains in the world strategically and geopolitically through its Belt and Road Initiative because it’s offering developing emerging market countries things they need: roads, bridges, clinics, airports, public infrastructure of all kinds, water projects. We need to get back to building public infrastructure and it’s going to require enormous commitments of financial resources by the United States, Japan and the European Union primarily.
At the last G-7 Summit, the G-7 countries pledged a new multi hundred-billion-dollar fund to build global infrastructure around the world. But we did that once before and we didn’t deliver. So, if we don’t develop a mechanism to actually allocate and efficiently spend some of our wealth to help build public infrastructure in these countries around the world and deliver what people need to develop and do it in transparent ways that try and marginalize corruption and build ethics of transparency and accountability, we’re not going to be able to compete nearly as effectively particularly with the People’s Republic of China as we need to do.
So, one of the criticisms when America tries to focus on democracy abroad is that America’s democracy at home is flawed at the moment. It’s not as strong as it once was. Even in your recent Foreign Affairs paper you write, “If American democracy sinks ever deeper into polarization, stalemate, subversion, and violence, the US message will appear hypocritical and US allies will be demoralized.” But you don’t make the case that we should focus on democracy at home before we focus on democracy abroad. So, if we do both at the same time, do you see these as synergistic?
Yeah. Do you see it as if we focus on democracy abroad that that can be part of the cure to solving our problems for democracy at home?
Yes. I think that’s a very good question and a very good point. Before I explore it let me say what I also said in my Foreign Affairs article. The world can’t wait for us to counter Russian and Chinese disinformation, support democratic struggles abroad, help to stabilize and improve democratic institutions, forge partnerships between our democratic organizations and actors and parties and theirs, and otherwise promote democracy around the world. The world can’t wait for us to do that until we reform and resolve all of our deficiencies with respect to democracy. The global crisis is too urgent. But at the same time, we will be more effective if we show we’re at least working on our problems. We will be more effective if we can mitigate our polarization and democratic dysfunction.
And you’ve made a point that too few people recognize which is that we can gain practical ideas and I think also at times inspiration from others. The flows are not only one way. I will tell you, I’ve constantly been struck over the decades of my scholarship on global democratic development, by what we can learn from other democracies around the world and what we can learn from countries that have national accountability institutions, ombudsman, counter corruption commissions that we lack in the United States, that have electoral systems whether it’s ranked choice voting in Australia for the lower house of parliament or systems of moderate proportional representation in Europe or other European countries that actually seem to better manage the dangers of political polarization.
So, I think that we can’t view this as a one-way street. We can learn, we can gain, we can get new ideas and we can get inspiration and new hope and strength from our partnership with democratic actors around the world. It’s a two-way street and innovation does not only happen in the United States. There’s a lot of democratic innovation and imagination about new forms of participation, new ways of enriching democracy, new ways of framing the value of democracy that emerge from abroad. And increasingly this is a global struggle and a global opportunity.
Larry, thank you so much for joining me. Let me plug your article one more time. It’s called, “All Democracy is Global: Why America Can’t Shrink from the Fight for Freedom.” It’s available in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs. It’s a tremendous article, just like just like all the different writings that you do. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for joining me today.
It’s been wonderful talking to you, Justin.
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