A return to the democratic spirit

Guest article by Thomas E Garrett, Secretary General, Community of Democracies

Democracy faces an ongoing need for adjustment, for reimagining, in today’s fast-changing global environment. It is still the principal form of governance worldwide, with some 123 countries considered electoral democracies. Fifty-six per cent of the countries that have democratised since 1975, as Samuel P Huntington’s ‘Third Wave of Democracy’ was beginning, remain democracies today.[1] But democracy’s resilience in 2018 is at its most severely tested and will require civil society and democratic states to work together to ‘imagine again or anew’[2] democracy and reach solutions in a balanced approach to security, a renewed commitment to fuller political inclusion and full protection of a vibrant civic space.

At the founding of the Community of Democracies in Warsaw, Poland 18 years ago, Professor Bronisław Geremek, then Poland’s foreign minister, told the 107 nations and civil society representatives gathered that democracy doesn’t always move from triumph to triumph and that democracy wasn’t exempt from creating the very conditions that undermine it. His warning was probably muted in the atmosphere surrounding the 2000 event, which brought together governments and civil society in an atmosphere of optimism as participants acknowledged the diversity of democracy worldwide, and the different stages of development that existed among democracies, but still were able to identify 19 core democratic principles and standards, which became the Warsaw Declaration

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright worked with Geremek to create the Community of Democracies. In her important new book, ‘Fascism: A Warning’, Albright says the theme of the event in Warsaw was the recognition that democracies should work to support one another as “consolidating democratic gains would be long and difficult.”[3] Yet along with many world leaders, such as then-United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who told those assembled that it was not too broad a dream to think that one day all UN members would be democratic states,[4] Secretary Albright admits she left Warsaw on a highly positive note, thinking “in the battle for world opinion, democracy occupied the high ground.”[5] Democracy was thought to be a linear process, a path with the inevitable conclusion that once electoral democracy was established, democratic institutions would mature.

Eighteen years later, the principles of the Warsaw Declaration remain in place, but the membership has changed, reflecting the challenges that have since presented themselves for democracy. Azerbaijan, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela, states that adopted the 2000 Declaration, are no longer engaged with the Community of Democracies. After the Warsaw meeting in 2000, the second ministerial gathering just two years later, in Seoul in the Republic of Korea, downgraded 13 countries from inclusion.[6] The challenges then to democracy, such as a lack of political inclusion for marginalised groups or corruption, have been significantly worsened since 2000 by newer threats, including backsliding among established democracies, increasing disregard for constitutional norms and state interference in other nations’ politics.

Any review of the current literature, any Google search, on democracy globally will turn up words such as decline, recession or depression. Quantitative indexes across the spectrum reflect worsening scores assigned to countries once seen as consolidated democracies, as well as to those still in the early years of transition from post-conflict or authoritarian governance. To cite just one, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index in 2017 recorded the worst decline in global democracy in years, with not a single region recording an improvement in its average score since 2016.[7]

On the other hand, democratic governments and civil society have additional important quantitative data to consider as they work together to protect and defend democracy. A valuable contribution to the discussion of democracy, providing a long-range view, is International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Report, issued in 2017, and currently in the process of being updated. The report is data-driven and gives a big-picture insight into global trends over three decades. The Global State of Democracy Report reminds us that over time the number of electoral democracies has increased, that public institutions in most countries are more representative and accountable than ever and that many states have become and remain democratic during these past decades.[8]

There have been gains in 2018 by democratic nations working together on shared interests, as seen for example in the UN Security Council vote in which one of two predominantly Muslim nations seeking membership - Indonesia - won its seat through the backing of democratic nations over the Maldives, which was backed by a bloc strongly influenced by authoritarian countries. At the UN Human Rights Council in July 2018, attempts to silence civil society by China and Russia were rebuffed by more than 50 democratic nations through a resolution made by Chile, one of four executive committee chairs of the Community of Democracies.[9]

And there have been clear examples of civil society pushing back against threats to democracy and the rule of law. In Armenia in 2018, 10 days of protest erupted as its president reached his two-term limit and sought to follow the authoritarian playbook with a shift of power from one office to another, that of prime minister, in order to perpetrate one-man rule. The thousands of Armenian protesters, most of whom were young people, gave a human face to the decades-long findings of the Global State of Democracy Report showing that, confronted with attempts to limit democratic norms and values, people don’t get alienated but get emboldened.[10] “All the momentum was with the street,” noted one expert on the Caucasus region, commenting on the thousands of protesters who were joined by elements of the nation’s military in demanding new leadership.[11]

Inspiring activism is found across the world. The new expression of political energy which is still growing, among women and young people in particular, in the United States since the 2016 elections is mirrored by the vibrancy of civil society in West African countries protecting their constitutions from would-be presidents for life trying to circumvent term limits. In 2017, mass demonstrations against government overreach, which resulted in change, took place in such diverse countries as Brazil, the Republic of Korea and South Africa.

Priorities for democratic governments

Earlier in this article, traditional and newer challenges to democracy were listed, but they are by no means final or exhaustive.  From so many challenges, there are three priority areas of focus for democratic governments that can address the root causes of many of those issues: protecting civic space, balancing democracy and security, and working towards full inclusion.

A tenet of the Community of Democracies that is stronger today even than at its 2000 founding is the belief in a vibrant civil society as a vital means of maintaining democracy. Although the Community of Democracies is an intergovernmental body, civil society has always had a prominent role, present in all major deliberations and meetings and actively providing input. This is because the convening members of the Community of Democracies - Chile, India, the Republic of Korea, Mali, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, South Africa and the United States - recognised the invaluable role of civil society in protecting, promoting and strengthening the fundamental rights of the people. 

Continuing this original commitment, the protection of civic space must be a priority for democratic countries, both within their borders and in international fora. There can be no democracy nor sustainable development without an empowered civil society and robust civic space. Civil society is under pressure in a number of countries because of its success in mobilising citizens and holding governments to account. As democracy erodes, restrictions against civic space are often ‘the canary in the coal mine’ - civil society is the first to be targeted - and this occurs among both established and younger democracies.

Secondly, the correlation of democracy and security is often ignored or dismissed. Over the past decade, many democracies identified the importance of human rights and democracy as part of their national security strategies. But new aspects of the security question such as irregular migration and violent extremism have led some governments to question democracy’s effective contribution to security. With democracy a more open system, it is sometimes perceived as more vulnerable to violence and extremism. As a result, some democratic countries sacrifice human rights and liberties in order to address international terrorism with anti-terrorist measures, which are then used to restrict civic space.

To contribute to an understanding of the role of democracy in underpinning national security and international stability, the Community of Democracies undertook research on the issue in 2016 and 2017. Dozens of case studies and regional consultations with security experts and civil society led to a final report that shows that democracy may not always be immune to aggression, but is still the best path to peace and stability.[12]

The response of democracies to terrorism needs to be pragmatic but can also be principled. Governments responding to security concerns need to ensure that liberal democracy and human rights are the key means by which terrorism or violent extremism will be defeated.  Inclusion is a key aspect of democracy’s strength and all citizens need to be brought into the democratic response to extremism.

Democracies cannot be strengthened without citizens working together. All citizens - including women, youth and minority groups - should have equal opportunities to participate in the social, economic and political life of their country and their voices should be taken into account while shaping state policies.

In Mexico, electoral gender parity was achieved in 2018, offering a lesson for other democracies. Fifteen years of electoral reforms led to an incoming Mexican congress, to be seated in December 2018, in which women make up 49 per cent of the lower house and 51 per cent of the senate. Mexico will be the only country with an elected senate led by women. The mayor of Mexico City will be a woman and women took 50 per cent of provincial legislative seats.[13]

Inclusive dialogue on democracy cannot happen without people being able to express their opinions and receive information through independent media. Freedom of the media and freedom of opinion and expression are cornerstones of democracy and core principles of the Warsaw Declaration.

Becoming a Community of Democracies

‘Becoming a Community of Democracies’, rather than ‘Becoming THE Community of Democracies’, stresses the difference between building an intergovernmental body of states working on common interests based upon a shared form of political governance, and a larger goal of building democratic unity at a global level. While pursuing the course of action of developing a coalition of member states is the key objective of the Community of Democracies under a recently adopted five-year Strategic Plan, this should be seen as a means towards that larger goal of becoming a community, of democratic governments and civil society, that takes concerted action to advance democratic freedoms and human rights.

In committing to the Warsaw Declaration in 2000, member states of the Community of Democracies pledged adherence to democratic standards and said they would work to help each other defend and strengthen democracy’s institutions. The Governing Council of the Community of Democracies in 2017 recommitted to abide by core democratic principles in practice, to support one another in meeting the objectives the member states set for themselves, to respond to threats to democracy and to work closely with civil society. The Community of Democracies then chose to draft a recommitment to this goal of democratic unity through the new Strategic Plan, which specifically speaks to issues of democratic backsliding, both within and outside the Community’s membership. 

Democratic backsliding presents a serious challenge to the Community’s mission and unity. The first objective of the Strategic Plan therefore seeks to take concerted and coordinated actions to support democracy wherever it may be faltering.[14] For example, the biannual meetings of the Governing Council are moving from addressing mainly administrative and technical matters to providing a platform for discussion of the challenges and threats to democracy among member states. In the second Governing Council meeting in 2018, hosted in Santiago, Chile, the impact of migration on democracy was discussed.  Government transparency was also discussed, in a setting with civil society representatives present at the table.  

It was also in Santiago that the Community of Democracies completed its first cycle of renewals of membership of the Governing Council. To institutionalise the concern about backsliding, and in an attempt to keep adherence to the Warsaw Declaration alive and ongoing, a new policy of the Community of Democracies is that all Governing Council members will reapply for membership on a recurring basis. In reapplying, or renewing membership, the candidate state reaffirms commitment to the 19 principles of the Warsaw Declaration, and to supporting one another in the democratic mission of the Community of Democracies.

As an important part of this process, civil society was asked to provide comment concerning a country’s adherence to the Declaration. In Santiago, both civil society representatives and the renewing member states had a chance to speak, to address one another and to begin a dialogue on democracy in practice.  

In addition to addressing backsliding, the new Strategic Plan has, as its second objective, support to transitioning countries.[15] This isn’t a new endeavour for the Community of Democracies, which has done support work in places such as Timor-Leste, Tunisia and Ukraine, but under the Strategic Plan efforts are moving from limited support to something more sustained and ongoing, with one objective being to bring countries into admission of the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. The challenges facing countries in political transition - new democracies - need to be better understood by the international community, which must be ready to support their transition further than election day. It is in the interest of the international community that democratic transition succeeds.

The third objective of the Strategic Plan is to support democratic institutions and citizen engagement.[16] This builds on the efforts of the Community of Democracies since its founding to work closely with civil society and protect its ability to function. Civil society is one of the first to suffer as democracy stumbles, and, as seen in the previously cited examples worldwide, civil society is the first to respond to protect democratic values. 

Concerted effort to advance democratic freedoms

Democracy has proven resilient over the long term. This wasn’t the result of chance or good luck; democratic gains have been preserved by civil society and democratic governments working together. Cooperation and coordination between civil society and democratic states is needed to maintain this momentum for democracy’s resilience. In a 2018 Washington Post opinion piece, Daniele Pletka and Vikram Singh urged that it is time for the world’s democracies to stand up against the threat of decline and backsliding in “coordinated responses that return the democratic spirit.”[17] This is the goal of the Community of Democracies: coordination not only among democratic states but also always including dialogue and common action by governments and civil society.

At the first gathering of the Community of Democracies in 2000, Czech Republic President Václav Havel expressed hope that it was “only the beginning of a process which will continue and advance in the years, or even decades, to come.”[18] Rather than dwell in despair over democracy’s decline or accept decline as a new normal, democratic countries and their civil societies need to move to a proactive position, to accept there are complex challenges democracies will always face and agree to work together to resolve them, and to reimagine democracy.


[1] ‘The Global State of Democracy, 1975-2015’, Svend-Erik Skaaning and Mélida Jiménez, in ‘The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience’, International IDEA, 2017, box 1.2, p.7.

[2] Definition given for the word ‘reimagine’ by Merriam-Webster.com, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reimagine.

[3] ‘Fascism: A Warning’, Madeleine Albright and Bill Woodward, 2018, p.114.

[4] Closing Remarks of the First Ministerial Conference in Warsaw, Poland, Kofi Annan, 27 June 2000.

[5] Geremek Award Acceptance Speech to the Community of Democracies, Madeleine Albright, Third Ministerial Conference, July 2005, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLlM36NQLa4&t=1s.

[6] ‘Promoting Democracy through International Organizations’, Robert Axelrod, in ‘Reforming the United Nations for Peace and Security’, Ernest Zedillo (ed.), Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, March 2005, pp.19-38.

[7] ‘Democracy 2017: Freedom Of Speech Under Attack’, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018, p.3.

[8] ‘The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience’, International IDEA, 2017, p.10.

[9] ‘China, Russia fail to curb activists’ role at U.N. rights forum: campaigners’, Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters, 6 July 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-rights/china-russia-fail-to-curb-activists-role-at-u-n-rights-forum-campaigners-idUSKBN1JW2EM.

[10] International IDEA, op. cit., p.79.

[11] ‘I Was Wrong’: Armenian Leader Quits Amid Protests’, Neil Macfarquhar and Richard Pérez-PeñaI, The New York Times, 23 July 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/23/world/europe/armenia-prime-minister-protests.html.

[12] ‘Liberal Democracy and the Path to Peace and Security, A Report of the Community of Democracies’ Democracy and Security Dialogue’, Ted Piccone and Cheryl Frank, September 2017, p.22.

[13] ‘Women won big in Mexico’s elections - taking nearly half the legislature’s seats. Here’s why.’, Magda Hinojosa and Jennifer M Piscopo, The Washington Post, 11 July 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/07/11/women-won-big-in-mexicos-elections-taking-nearly-half-the-legislatures-seats-heres-why/?utm_term=.f2ac24aad260.

[14] Strategic Plan 2018-2023, Community of Democracies, p.16

[15] Ibid., p.22.

[16] Ibid.,  p.23.

[17] ‘It’s time for the world’s democracies to stand up for what they believe in’, Vikram J Singh and Danielle Pletkam, DemocracyPost, The Washington Post, 20 February 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2018/02/20/it-is-time-for-the-worlds-democracies-to-stand-for-what-they-believe-in/?utm_term=.5c9cf631fbbb.

[18] Message to the participants of the Community of Democracies Conference in Warsaw, Václav Havel, 25 June 2000.