On 3 February 2022, the House of Lords will be debating a motion by Lord Browne of Ladyton (Labour) on:

The impact on global democratic norms and values from autocrats, kleptocrats and populists and the case for a coordinated response by the United Kingdom and her allies.

Democracy, populists, autocrats and kleptocrats

The United Nations (UN) identifies democracy as one of its core values. In 2002, the UN Commission on Human Rights (since replaced by the Human Rights Council) declared the following as essential elements of democracy:

  • Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of expression and opinion
  • Access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law
  • The holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people
  • A pluralistic system of political parties and organisations
  • The separation of powers
  • The independence of the judiciary
  • Transparency and accountability in public administration
  • Free, independent and pluralistic media

The UN has said its framework for democracy is based on “universal principles, norms and standards, emphasising the internationally agreed normative content”. While the definition of populism can be a contested one, the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as the “policies or principles of any of various political parties which seek to represent the interests of ordinary people”. The same publication defines kleptocrats as a “thief in a position of political power; a greedy or corrupt politician” and an autocrat as a “ruler who has absolute power of government”.

Concerns regarding the state of democracy and the perceived threat of autocracies and other regimes, are not new. In recent years, concerns have focussed on the influence of Russia and China, and the impact of the contested presidential election in the United States during 2020. In addition, commentators such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the trend for democratic deterioration worldwide. The UK Government also expressed concerns that some countries may be using the pandemic as an excuse to take disproportionate, illegal or unnecessary actions.

Democracy under threat?

Several organisations seek to measure and track the quality of democracy across the globe including the number of autocracies and factors affecting their waxing or waning. The continuing trend of deterioration in democracy, outlined below, has led to the period to be described by Richard Wike and Janell Fetterolf at the Pew Research Centre as an era of democratic anxiety. The majority of the reports cover the period from January to December 2020 and were published in the first half of 2021. It is anticipated that updated data for 2021 will be published in the coming months.

International IDEA report

Reporting in November 2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) detailed events in both 2020 and 2021. It argued that many democratic governments were increasingly adopting authoritarian tactics, accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic, while autocratic regimes were consolidating their power.

The report examined 165 countries around the globe, using five core measures: representative government; fundamental rights; checks on government; and impartial administration and participatory engagement. It found that the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction, a trend that was prolonged and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

IDEA pointed to democratic ‘backsliding’ in several countries including Brazil; India; the United States; Hungary; Poland; and Slovenia. In addition, a deepening authoritarianism in non-democratic regimes and an increasing questioning of electoral integrity in some democracies were highlighted. The report voiced concerns that uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and anti-vaccine views could risk prolonging the health crisis and normalising restrictions on basic freedoms.

The report recommended a series of policy actions to: bolster global democratic renewal by embracing more equitable and sustainable social contracts; reform existing political institutions; and shore up defences against democratic backsliding and authoritarianism.

Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2021

Freedom House’s report Freedom in the World 2021 was published in March 2021 and covers the period from 1 January to 31 December 2020. The report covers 195 countries and 15 related and disputed territories. It uses the following measures: electoral processes; political pluralism and participation; the functioning of government; freedom of expression and belief; associational and organisational rights; the rule of law; and personal autonomy and individual rights.

The report argued that in 2020 a “long democratic recession” was deepening, with nearly 75 percent of the world’s population living in a country which faced deterioration during 2020. This, it said, had led to claims of “democracy’s inherent inferiority”, with proponents of this idea including official Chinese and Russian commentators. It highlighted numerous challenges facing different parts of the globe, including Mali, Turkey, Tanzania, Venezuela, Belarus, Hong Kong, Armenia and India. The report also drew attention to the United States, placing it among the 25 countries that have suffered the largest declines over the last 10 years. It is critical of the “fading and inconsistent” presence of major democracies on the international stage which, it said, “has had tangible effects on human life and security”.

Addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, it argued that many governments withheld or distorted crucial information, imposed excessive or abusive lockdown rules, or used Covid-19 as cover to consolidate power and suppress dissent. It drew attention to actions in El Salvador, Algeria, the Philippines and Hungary, arguing that some of the developments “could have an impact on democracy that outlasts the pandemic itself”.

In contrast, improvement in conditions for political rights and civil liberties were noted in Sudan, Malawi, Bolivia, Chile and North Macedonia. The report emphasised the resilience of democracy, noting that in 2020 most ‘free countries’ resisted further declines in their score, while many ‘partly free’ and ‘not free’ countries could not. The report contained a number of policy recommendations aimed at nurturing opportunities for global democracy; countering threats to global democracy; and strengthening US democracy.

In April 2021, Freedom House published the Nations in Transit 2021 report which focussed on evaluating the state of democracy in 29 countries, stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia. Again, the main conclusions of the report were that the majority of countries evaluated in the report were worse off than they were 10 years ago. In particular, it cited Poland and Hungary as countries where there had been an “unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade”. Writing for RUSI, Harun Karčić, journalist and political analyst covering the Balkans, said the report showed rising nationalism and anti-EU sentiment, coupled with Russian and Chinese malign influence, was leading to the erosion of democracy in some European countries.

Economist Intelligence Unit: Democracy Index

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Democracy Index, seeks to provide a snapshot of the state of world democracy, examining 165 independent states and two territories. The index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Using additional indicators within these categories, each country is classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The most recent Democracy Index, published in February 2021, found that just over 8 percent of the world’s population lived in a full democracy, while more than a third (35.6 percent) live under authoritarian rule. The index pointed to a deteriorating situation with regards to democracy and highlighted the role which government’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic had played. It argued authoritarian countries took advantage of the global health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic to persecute and crack down on dissenters and political opponents.

While a large majority of countries experienced a decline in their total score, the report highlighted an increase in the number of full democracies and emphasised a mixed picture with “some impressive improvements and some dramatic declines”. For example, Taiwan registered the biggest improvement and was described as “a beacon of democracy in Asia”, while the situation in Hong Kong was reportedly deteriorating in the face of China’s intensified political clampdown. The report spoke of a “dire year for African democracy” and a clear trend of deterioration across Eastern Europe, which it said, indicated “the fragility of democracy in times of crisis”. The Middle East and North Africa recorded the second biggest regional decline globally in 2020, with the region “essentially back to where it was in 2010, before the start of the Arab Spring”.

The United States reportedly saw an increase in political participation. However, this was accompanied by low levels of trust in institutions and political parties, and “a degree of societal polarisation that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve”. Norway; Iceland; Sweden; New Zealand; and Canada were rated as the top five countries in terms of democracy by the EIU, while Chad; Syria; Central African Republic; Democratic Republic of the Congo; and North Korea were at the bottom. The United Kingdom was ranked 16th out of 167 countries and saw an improvement in its score in 2020.

Pew Research

Building on the data from the EIU and Freedom House reports, alongside its own analysis, the Pew research centre concluded that citizens in advanced economies wanted significant changes in their political systems.

Richard Wike and Janell Fetterolf, from Pew, identified dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracies, and linked this to concerns about the economy, the pandemic and social divisions. In a survey undertaken in spring 2021, the research found that across 17 advanced economies, a median of 56 percent believed their political system needed major changes or needed to be completely reformed. Roughly two-thirds or more held this view in Italy, Spain, the United States, South Korea, Greece, France, Belgium and Japan. In the UK 52 percent of individuals said that the political system needed to be completely reformed or needed major changes.

Defining the period as an era of democratic anxiety, Richard Wike and Janell Fetterolf argued that reversing negative trends regarding the health of democracy around the world would be difficult and complicated, suggesting:

[…] ordinary citizens want a voice in this discussion, and they believe a healthy democratic system will include a stronger role for them in making decisions about the important issues that shape their lives.

A case for co-ordinated action?

Summit for Democracy: December 2021

In December 2021, the United States convened a virtual “summit for democracy” which included civil society organisations, the private sector, and leaders of foreign governments. During the presidential election campaign President Joe Biden had promised to hold a summit which would “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda”. The summit focussed on three themes: strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights. It is anticipated that a second, in-person, summit will take place in a year to follow up on actions identified. Commenting on the outcomes of the summit the US Department of State noted:

[…]  Participating in the Summit provides an opportunity governments, civil society, and members of the private sector to make meaningful public commitments in support of democracy, human rights, and the fight against corruption at home and abroad. The US Government announced new actions and commitments in areas such as bolstering free and independent media; fighting corruption; defending free and fair elections; strengthening civic capacity; advancing the civic and political leadership of women, girls, and marginalized community members; and harnessing technology for democratic renewal.

Reaction to the summit has been mixed. Some have argued that the summit was a “difficult sell”, which was downplayed and received little press coverage in Europe. Laurence Nardon from the French Institute of International Relations pointed to the perception of deterioration of democracy in the United States; the problematic selection of invited countries; and the reluctance to be drawn into what some saw as a US led anti-China coalition. She argued that the results of the summit are not yet clear, but with working groups set up there may be more concrete measures by next year.

Sook Jong Lee from the East Asia Institute, agreed that the significance of the summit remains to be seen. However, she noted the symbolic importance of the summit. She argued European and Asian leaders should welcome the return of US leadership in renewing global democracy and strong, international democratic coalitions should make authoritarian regimes and leaders responsible for their “atrocious” actions and human rights violations.

In contrast, Yascha Mounk from the Council on Foreign Relations was critical of the summit’s outcomes, highlighting what he described as severe limitations of the Biden administration’s strategy of promoting democracy. He argued that “nothing said or done at the summit looked as though it could remotely be enough to turn the tide in the fight between democracy and autocracy”.

The Brookings Institution argued the summit laid a robust groundwork for success, despite pessimistic assessments. It points to measurable commitments to advance democracy in the US and abroad but noted that these commitments needed to be followed up to ensure the summit’s promise was fulfilled. It stated that “now the hard part begins”. Transparency International, which describes itself as a global coalition against corruption, welcomed the US and multilateral initiatives announced as part of the summit.

In response to a parliamentary question on the issue, the Government has stated that Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the US initiative, noting:

We will continue to partner with the US, and others, to make the “year of action” on democracy a success, building momentum for the planned in-person second summit. This is an opportunity to advance the Network of Liberty through collaborating on technology, trade, investment and infrastructure so that together, democracies can advance the cause of freedom from a position of strength. We look forward to continued engagement with the US and our allies on this vital agenda. 

D10: A summit of democracies?

In 2014, the US thinktank the Scowcroft Centre initiated a strategy forum to bring together officials and strategy experts from what were described as the 10 leading democracies at the forefront of building and maintaining the rules-based democratic order. Participants in this “Democracies 10” were: Australia; Canada; France; Germany; Italy; Japan; South Korea; the United Kingdom; the United States; and the European Union. The idea of the forum was that it would serve as a standing platform for strategic collaboration between like-minded allies to advance common interests and shared values.

In May 2020, the Times reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was seeking to forge a “D10” club of 10 democracies based on the G7 plus Australia, South Korea and India. In this instance with a focus on creating alternative suppliers of 5G equipment and other technologies to avoid relying on China. Unlike the previous D10, which was more informal, this D10 would involve meetings between countries at the highest level. The idea was welcomed by Erik Brattberg and Ben Judah, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. They argued that the proposed D10 was the right size and shape with the right focus, and that the case for co-ordinated action against China was clear, “in an age of growing great-power competition”.

Subsequently, the UK Prime Minister invited leaders from Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa to attend the G7 Summit when it was hosted in Cornwall in July 2021. This would, it was argued, deepen the expertise and experience around the table, with the countries representing over 60 percent of the people living in democracies around the world. Reflecting on the outcome of the UK’s G7 presidency in December 2021, the UK Government argued that the G7 had taken action to protect democratic values, stating:

[…] the G7 [took] a common stance on anti-democratic threats in Myanmar, Hong Kong and Ukraine. G7 foreign and development ministers issued 12 joint statements throughout the year including calling for an end to Russian aggression and human rights abuses in Myanmar.

In November 2020, there were also calls in the House of Lords for a ‘Summit of Democratic Governments’ to be held in spring 2021. Responding for the Government, Cabinet Office Minister Lord True drew attention to the additional invitees to the G7 presidency and its focus on democracy, commenting:

[…] the UK works as part of a vast range of different multinational organisations, from the G7 and G20 to the Commonwealth, NATO and dozens of others. The membership of each group individually is limited, but taken collectively they mean that the UK partners with a great number of countries in one format or another. That will continue to be the philosophy guiding us forward. 

UK Government policy

In July 2021, the most recent report on Human Rights and Democracy by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) acknowledged the increasing threat to democracy. In its foreword the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, argued that the Covid-19 pandemic had accelerated a number of negative trends and provided an opportunity for “unscrupulous and opportunistic governments to increase repression and flout international law”.

The report stressed that promoting democracy and defending democratic freedoms were fundamental to the UK’s foreign policy. It pointed to work which the UK Government had carried out to combat the “retreat of democracy and a rise of authoritarianism”. Amongst the actions it highlighted was the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an executive non-departmental public body focussed on supporting democracy overseas, and the Community of Democracies, a group of 31 states supporting adherence to common democratic values and standards. Other initiatives included looking at transparency and open government; freedom of expression; media freedom; and economic and social rights.

The current Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, returned to the theme in December 2021 when giving a speech to Chatham House. Emphasising the importance of democracy, she stated:

Hostile forces are using disinformation to undermine truth. Extremists are perpetuating malign ideologies through social media. Autocratic regimes are using this maelstrom of militancy, mistrust and misinformation to gain the upper hand. Now is the time for the free world to fight back, and to use the power of economics and technology to promote freedom not fear.

Ms Truss said Britain was determined to work with its friends to form “a network of liberty that spans the world”. She called on partner countries to increase funding of NATO, cut strategic dependence on Russian gas, put more investment into developing countries, join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and challenge malign acts. Commenting on the speech, the FCDO Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon noted:

[…] democracy and freedom are at the heart of the Foreign Secretary’s vision for a “network of liberty” that would use partnerships, technology, trade and security to promote democratic values. We will be working closely with international partners and civil society, including around the International Day for Democracy in September [2022], to advance the frontiers of freedom.

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Cover image by Alex Radelich on Unsplash.