A Force For Good in the World: Placing Democratic Values at the Heart of the UK’s International Strategy

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A Force For Good in the World: Placing Democratic Values at the Heart of the UK’s International Strategy

July 29th, 2020

As the UK looks outward as post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, the world is facing both rising authoritarianism and democratic decline. A new paper by Alex Thier, former director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Obama administration international aid advisor, argues that Britain has an opportunity for international leadership at this pivotal moment in its history: The UK’s interests, values, resources and influence call for a leadership role in supporting democratic governance and confronting authoritarianism.

The policy paper argues that the UK should issue a new integrated cross-Whitehall strategy to defend established democracies and institutions, support emerging or struggling democracies, and counter authoritarians. Thier argues that the UK should put governance at the centre of its approach to foreign policy, development, and national security, shifting its focus from pursuing good governance to democratic governance. To this end, the new FDCO should create a Department for Democratic Governance.

Read the paper

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Alex Thier is Senior Democracy Fellow at Freedom House and Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. He was appointed to senior positions at the US Agency for International Development by President Obama, and is former Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London.


Summary of the paper

Despite the liberating promise of the end of colonialism and the Cold War, rising prosperity and instantaneous global communication, the history of the new millennium, thus far, is one of declining democratic freedoms. This resurgent authoritarianism makes it much harder to tackle the major challenges of the coming decade: climate change, economic recovery, inequality and social justice, and global health security. More than any time in a generation, the strength of the UK’s own democratic governance and that of its key partners will be the most consequential long-term factor for the UK’s national security: the post-Covid-19 challenges will require levels of engagement and inclusion that only open, democratic societies can deliver.

International leadership is badly needed. The UK’s interests, values, resources, and influence call for a leadership role in supporting democratic governance and confronting authoritarianism. In developing its approach, the UK starts with a uniquely strong set of attributes:

  • Many core British values have universal value. Equality, accountability, rule of law, media freedom and protection of human rights are democratic values and critical to creating open economies and societies.

  • The UK has global engagement capacity and reach through government, parliaments, networked political parties, academic and financial institutions, civil society organisations, cultural and sports links, and multilateral institutions.

  • The 0.7 per cent foreign assistance commitment has made the UK a ‘development superpower’ driving global agendas on governance, anti-corruption, media freedom, climate, education, gender equality, and public health.

  • The UK has driven the creation and evolution of the rules-based international system, with strong influence and heavy expertise on issues from trade, to taxation and beneficial ownership, to defending human rights and advancing gender equality, to international criminal justice.

The UK should seize this moment for leadership by:

  • Putting democratic governance at the centre of its approach to foreign policy, development, and national security. This approach should be values-based, recognising the need to take a clear stand at key moments, but also provide practical support to strengthen democracy through strategic and evidence-based programmes using the UK’s world-class diplomatic, development and soft power tools.
  • Adopting a principled approach to multilateralism. A rules-based international system is critical for the UK’s interests but there are risks that blind support for multilateral systems will reinforce anti- democratic forces. The UK should therefore invest in alliances and partnerships that promote core objectives of peace, prosperity, planet and liberty.
  • Focusing on inclusion. Genuine democracy requires a step change in inclusion and political participation in most societies if they are to meet the current political challenges. The UK’s openness in tackling remaining gender, disability, and racial equality challenges at home will strengthen its international agenda and alliances.

To ensure that these policy goals are realised, the UK should issue a new integrated cross-Whitehall strategy to defend established democracies/institutions; support emerging/struggling democracies; counter authoritarians.

  • Defending established democracies. Focus on three interlinked priorities. First, safeguard the integrity of elections. Most democracies are at risk and should work together to share information, tools, and responses. Second, fight disinformation and hate speech while maintaining media freedom and public trust in institutions. Leading democracies must cooperate to manage these rapidly evolving threats and set standards for technology. Third, heighten collaboration with intelligence, defence, and law enforcement agencies to expand on existing efforts to confront the actors that are attacking us.

  • Supporting emerging and struggling democracies. Global democracy indices consider about half the countries in the world to be struggling or vulnerable democracies. Reversing the 15-year downward trend in democratic freedoms means focusing on these countries, investing in democratic governance as part of the UK’s trade, poverty reduction, security, and defence relationships. The UK should explicitly update its longstanding good governance agenda to a ‘democratic governance’ agenda and ‘doing development democratically’. Prioritise empowered citizenship as the engine to tackle underlying causes of poverty, corruption and inequality.

  • Countering authoritarians. Aggressive actions by authoritarian states threaten the UK directly and indirectly. There should be five pillars to the response. (i) Fight kleptocracy – autocrats use the global finance system to steal, enrich themselves and finance anti-democratic campaigns. (ii) Address technological repression – regulate digital platforms and enable governments, citizens and companies to respond to malicious activity. (iii) Support independent media – there is an extinction-level threat to independent media that citizens need to safeguard their political and civic freedoms. (iv) Focus on participation – supporting demand for accountability and movements for democracy by local actors can help bring transformative change. (v) Defend basic norms – attacks on democratic freedoms and individual human rights are becoming so common that they threaten to shift the standard of what is acceptable.

The new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) should create a Department for Democratic Governance that creates coherent policy, funding and research, using a network of relevant UK organisations. It could combine the political and diplomatic skills of the FCO with the programmatic and analytical expertise of DFID.


Read the paper

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