3 external risks to democracy and how to address them

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks promoting his "Build Back Better Agenda" at the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, Connecticut, U.S., October 15, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks promoting his "Build Back Better Agenda" at the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, US. Image: REUTERS/Leah Millis

Amrita Narlikar
President, German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)
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  • Western democracies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to face domestic societal issues and economic inequalities.
  • While this self-reflection is important, it should not eclipse pressing foreign policy matters.
  • We outline three key areas of external threat that must be addressed to enable an agenda for democratic renewal.

The deliberative nature of democracy seems to have finally overcome the hubristic triumphalism of the 1990s. Amidst the treacherous times we live in, Western democracies are showing increasing awareness of the internal challenges they face. Disillusionment is rife among youth, impatience and anger are growing over the inadequacy of measures to address climate change, and the threats posed by populism are far from over amidst a still elusive post-pandemic recovery.

In keeping with the old adage of “Physician, heal thyself,” smart politicians are hence turning their attention to existing and potential fractures that their societies face, and seeking corrective policies to reduce income inequalities as well as address other sources of domestic discontent.

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US President Biden’s agenda to “build back better” represents one such attempt at democratic renewal by updating social contracts. In the run-up to the elections for the next German Chancellor, the prioritisation of domestic concerns has been evident in the “Triell” debates among the three candidates; in contrast, foreign policy questions have taken a backseat.

While the urge to put one’s own house in order is commendable, it is important to ensure that such exercises in self-reflection do not deteriorate into navel-gazing. This is especially the case today because the risks to Western democracy are not only internal. If political leaders – and their advisers in academia and think-tanks – are serious about the preservation and renewal of democratic values and workings, there are three reasons why they will have to pay at least as much attention to matters of foreign policy as domestic politics.

1. Secure global value chains

Interface between internal politics and foreign affairs is now more permeable than ever. Integrated global value chains mean that governments – even in rich countries – must rely on foreign partners for key components for the manufacture of essential products (including active pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines, and rare earth elements needed for semiconductor chips).

In order to protect one’s own populations from deliberate disruption of vital supplies by competitors and rivals, governments will need to re-align these global value chains (GVCs) in at least some strategic products. Close cooperation with trusted allies to construct shorter and more reliable GVCs will be crucial for reasons of feasibility and cost-effectiveness (in contrast to attempted self-sufficiency on the one hand, or business as usual under the current rules of trade multilateralism).

A variety of creative and detailed plans to address domestic problems – universal basic income, green energy, job creation, affordable housing and health care etc. – risk coming to naught unless they are accompanied by foreign policy measures that secure a reliable flow of essential goods and services for one’s populations.

2. Protect against digital threats

Digital technologies offer unprecedented scope for surveillance, and the opportunity for their misuse is high. We are seeing the development of such technologies in China, and also their spread to other countries. For a variety of reasons, governments across the spectrum are turning to these technologies, thereby normalising and legitimising them, despite the obvious threats they pose to core liberal values.

Internal safeguards, but also international norms and rules, will be needed to protect the democratic way of life, be it from encroachments by companies (sometimes closely linked with rival states) that acquire big data or sovereign governments that choose to increase surveillance and control over their populations. This requires more international engagement and cooperation, not less, and especially among governments and transnational civil society actors that are committed to values such as data protection and right to privacy.

3. Build economic alliances

Prior hopes that integration of authoritarian regimes into the global economy would be accompanied by political change and socialisation into the liberal order (Wandel durch Handel) have not been fulfilled. Instead, we have seen the emergence of an alternative – and at least when judged on its own terms, rather successful – model of growth and development, coming particularly from China.

Democracies now face the challenge of demonstrating that they too can ensure prosperity for their own people; this is why infrastructure development, job creation, tax reform, universal health care and other such domestic measures are necessary. But China’s economic successes are not limited to its own jurisdiction. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offers connectivity; China exercises influence in multilateral organizations; and the country’s wolf-warrior diplomacy was balanced by a good measure of medical assistance during the pandemic. Together, these successes suggest that it pays to ally with China.

In contrast, the G7’s “Build Back Better World” is comparable in little else but name to Biden’s (much more ambitious) domestic plan for recovery, and is also a poorer cousin to the BRI. Many across the world may be forgiven for thinking that authoritarianism seems to deliver, not only for China and its own rise, but also for those who embrace it; democracies, in contrast, seem to abandon their friends when the going gets tough. Hong Kong is a case in point. And no matter how much the US defends its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, its signalling effects for allies and friends are poor. The world’s most powerful democracies must demonstrate that they too will stand by their friends, and it pays – not only economically, but also in terms of security – to band with them.

How can we protect democracy?

The problems in the internal workings of democratic institutions and societies should not be underplayed. These challenges have undoubtedly increased in recent years, e.g. the G20 riots in Hamburg in 2017 or the attack on the US Capitol in January 2021. But ultimately, domestic discontent, internal contestation, and sometimes even extreme protests are the stuff that democracies are made of.

In contrast, the external risks that democracies face today from systemic rivals – especially in an age of “weaponised interdependence” – are potentially existential. An agenda for democratic renewal will be in vain, unless these external threats are recognized, and addressed through restructured supply chains, new global partnerships, and reinvigorated alliances.

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