By Todd Ellenberg
It’s glaringly apparent in the headlines nearly every day: Democracy is increasingly under attack throughout the world – even in countries with longstanding democratic values.
That fact made for a timely inaugural conference, presented by the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, to address this dangerous trend.
The first annual Miami Conference on Global Democracy examined forces that are contributing to the backsliding of democracy – as well as ways democracy can be strengthened.
More than 30 experts from government, academia and nongovernmental organizations as well as journalists and Green School faculty discussed economic inequality, populist politics and competition among the world’s leading powers. Keynote speeches and panels reflected on political movement and social tensions that contribute to the decline of democracy.
“The topic of human rights and democratization is a strategic theme here at the Green School,” said Shlomi Dinar, interim dean of the Green School when welcoming participants to the event. “Democracy is one of our areas of expertise. As citizens of the world and supporters of democratic principles, we have a responsibility to understand the underlying causes, motivations and methods behind this phenomenon.”
The conference was presented in collaboration with the George W. Bush Institute; the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation, a Swedish organization that promotes freedom and democracy in Europe and beyond; and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, a Brussels-based think tank focusing on EU policy and advancement.
Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a keynote speaker, is well attuned to the threats to democracy. She is executive vice president of Freedom House, which tracks the state of democracy around the world and has reported that over the last 16 years it has been consistently declining compared to the prior three decades.
“Freedom around the world is facing serious challenges,” she said. “Today, less than 20 percent of the world’s population lives in a free country.”
Sedaca said that to stem and reverse the tide of authoritarianism, nations must have democratic values permeate their foreign policy; support democratic figures in other countries; tackle state corruption; and model democracy as a system associated with prosperity, security and peace. “People committed to freedom rise up to challenge – and even change – authoritarian regimes,” she added.
Much of the discourse in a panel on “The European Front: Mitigating the Vulnerabilities of the Post-Cold War,” focused on the war between Russia and Ukraine and how it threatens other democracies in Europe. “The Ukrainians are sacrificing for all of us,” said Nino Evgenidze, executive director of the Economic Policy Research Center in Georgia. “Ukraine was a wake-up call for the world.”
In a session on Latin America and the Caribbean, Brian Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, commented on the rise of populism, noting that it is “a symptom and a cause…people in a number of counties felt that promises (made by government) were not being fulfilled.”
At a session that looked at failed governments and model democracies in developing nations, Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the UN, stressed that democratic change must come from within nations and that support from allies – other states as well as organizations and individuals – is crucial. And he looks to the younger generation to pick up the mantle.
“The time now is to open ourselves to a new type of politics that is driven by young people,” he said. “We need to be educating to effect change in that realm.”
Other prominent speakers at the conference included Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy; Jakub Klepal executive director of the Forum 2000 Foundation; Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Carol Guzy; and Nancy Okail, president and CEO of the Center for International Policy.