President Biden speaks at the White House for the virtual opening of the Democracy Summit on Dec. 9, 2021. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The U.S. has a mixed record of promoting American-style democracy abroad

For 40 years, the U.S. government has ignored what sorts of democracy promotion work — and which ones don’t

By Stephen Golub
July 4, 2023

As America celebrates Independence Day, we find our democracy not nearly as strong as we’d once thought. Authoritarian challenges threaten our institutions, our rights and the rule of law.

Ironically, this sobering reality confronts us after the United States, along with affluent allies, has devoted decades and massive resources to trying to build democracy in the world’s poorer and post-communist societies, including via rule of law, good governance, human rights and anti-corruption programs. With some exceptions — mostly centered on providing electoral assistance and fortifying civil society and media — these efforts have largely fallen flat. Data from Freedom House, the World Bank and the World Justice Project confirm the decline in democracy and associated fields across the globe

Why the widespread failure?

First, we hubristically bit off more than we could chew. The United States mistakenly assumed that foreign aid for training and equipping recipient nations’ government institutions could overcome the deep-seated political, historical, economic and cultural forces permeating them and could thus build democracies in our image.

Second, in focusing most democracy aid on such government institution-building, the United States put a relative paucity of resources into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society forces that modestly but more effectively strengthen specific policies, processes and populations.

Opposition International arises from the evidence that a freely elected elected opposition can best enforce gut-real accountability. They offer to voters the choice of new leaders and new ideas. Competition works in compelling governments to review policies and correct actions. Civil society and the media are powerful influencers, but it’s the opposition parties who take the risk to contest an election. Bluntly, without an effective opposition, power will corrupt even the best and the brightest.

The current “democratic recession” resulted, in part, according to Professor Larry Diamond, because of the falling costs of repression. Old urges adapted to new devices and techniques. Too many governments spent public money on digital surveillance and communications then used their “first mover” advantage to boost, short-sightedly, invasive state controls. 

Opposition International exists to help level the playing field for opposition parties facing incumbent governments. We stress the positive. Most elections and politicking follow the rules. Studies suggests governance improves when the Government and Opposition cooperate in the daily work of accountability.

Through social media and journalism, we raise awareness as to how the Government and Opposition can work together to improve accountability, Specifically,

Our volunteers come from varied parties. We are non-partisan in that we offer help to any opposition party, whether of the left, right, or centre, as long as they adhere to democratic principles. We speak with community, issue, and recognized religious-based parties. 

We generally do not hold positions on specific policies. We support diversity of opinion.

We speak with an independent voice. Many democracy promotion NGOs are required by donors to conduct a balancing act of non-committal inter-party dialogue. The official concern with one-on-one dealings is understandable: it complicates state-to-state relations with the ruling party. “Incumbency bias,” according to the Harvard-initiated Electoral Integrity Project, already affects “democratic” outcomes. We engage opposition parties individually, directly, and transparently.

We have no favourites: we don’t play the “Great Game.” Our message is the same to all, and best encapsulated by: Benjamin Disraeli who wrote: “No Government can be long secure without a formidable Opposition.”