National Press Club
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good morning, everyone. I want to express my sincere thanks to Michael for that introduction. You should know that by birthright alone, Michael would make it into my list of treasured people—his father Mort Abramowitz was my longtime mentor—the voice guiding some of my best decisions and cautioning me against some of my very worst. But Michael, through his work as a reporter at the Washington Post, the leader of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Museum, and now through his stewardship of Freedom House, has proven that he is an ally to the cause of individual dignity like few others. He is also a truly wonderful friend.
Since its founding in 1941, Freedom House has been the democratic world’s lighthouse. Its peerless research, its convening power, and its advocacy have provided a beacon for those who seek to draw more people to the shores of liberty, while revealing in unflinching detail, just how treacherous the course may be to get there.
If we’re being honest, as Michael described himself, that course has been a dispiriting one in recent years. There is, of course, Freedom House’s own research, which for 16 years has now told us that democracy is in decline. Or the report they released last week about transnational repression—about the brazen and shameless behavior of authoritarian governments who not only trample on human rights and commit outright atrocities in their own countries, but also increasingly across borders to target, threaten, kidnap, or even poison dissidents living abroad.
And then there is the state of our own, imperiled democracy. The global case for democracy has always been rooted in this country’s democratic legitimacy and strength—the endurance of our institutions, each passing generation’s sacrifice to make ours a more perfect union, the sanctity of our elections. And though this nation has continually been tested—by Civil War and World Wars, by recessions and a depression, by searing domestic chapters and foreign misadventures, American democracy has prevailed.
The mood these days is hardly triumphant. With shrouds over schoolchildren in Uvalde, and grandmothers in Buffalo; with the outcome of free and fair elections denied and contested; after our purest symbol of representative democracy was stormed—our fate here has rarely felt so influx, so tenuous. And as if all of this was not enough, this democracy—and the cause of democracy—recently lost its fiercest champion.
When Madeleine Albright left us so suddenly in March, we lost someone who had seen the worst of communism and fascism and dedicated her entire life to helping promote human rights and accountable governance around the world. Madeleine left us many things, but among them was the gift of a brilliant op-ed she penned in October of last year, in which she tried to alert us to something that most of us, I think, have been missing. She wrote: “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the momentum is not with the enemies of democracy…In many cases, [authoritarians] are now failing to deliver…Democracy is not a dying cause; in fact, it is poised for a comeback.” I hear her voice in that. Now, I don’t know about you, but the sentiments she expressed have not lately been that obvious to me. Maybe we have grown so accustomed to yet another Freedom House report documenting democracy’s decline, maybe we’re so familiar with our own setbacks and those of other established democracies, that we lose sight sometimes of opportunities. Maybe we have been spending so much time trying to refute a narrative that says that dictators can deliver for their people in a way democracies can’t—that we have missed Madeleine’s point: and that point is this: we have a massive opportunity before us, right now.
The evidence we’re searching for, that proves autocracies are weaker and less capable than democracies, is not just in the academic studies that we pore over. It is playing out right before our eyes: Vladimir Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine has shown us exactly where despotic power leads. It also reminds us just how insecure dictators who don’t deliver often are. So threatened was Putin by the Ukrainian’s people’s embrace of democracy, by their rejection of corrupt oligarchs, by their desire for deeper integration with their peaceful, European neighbors, that the Russian leader rained down steel and death on its neighbor—on a people he claims are his own.
The experts thought he would take Kyiv within days, the experts thought that the much-vaunted Russian army would quickly overpower its weaker neighbor. But the experts forgot to take into account the costs of denying people and institutions accountable governance. They forgot that corruption has undermined the Russian military’s modernization. They forgot that fear of disappointing superiors would lead generals and colonels to undertake massive risks and fall into strategic blunders. They forgot that soldiers who have been lied to and manipulated in order to force them into harm’s way would lack the will to fight. And they forgot that mothers who couldn’t reach their fallen sons and can’t get information on their whereabouts would seek to vent their pain or their rage. Of course, horrifyingly, this is not all we see.
Bucha is just a small suburb of Eastern Kyiv. It’s a town few, if any, non-Ukrainians might have known. Now its name lives in infamy, alongside Grozny, Aleppo, Srebrenica, Tiananmen Square—scenes of civilian massacres too profane to forget. Is this what autocratic strength looks like? Executed men lying face down in the street, their hands tied behind their backs? Ukrainian women raped and shot in their basements? Is this what it means to “deliver” for the Russian people? Beyond the immediate devastation within Ukraine, Putin’s unprovoked war is immiserating hundreds of millions of people around the world by pulling essential food off the market and spiking fertilizer and fuel prices.
As if the world’s poorest did not have enough to deal with, between the pandemic, climate shocks, and protracted conflicts, the war in Ukraine has taken 30 percent of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its corn, and more than half of its sunflower oil offline. Putin’s forces are deliberately blocking Ukraine’s ports; destroying its grain, farmland, and equipment; restricting its own agricultural and fertilizer exports, and wielding hunger as a weapon of war. Ukrainian farmers are still doing all they can to grow their crops, donning flak jackets and employing demining equipment to sow their fields. But currently, as you all know, 22 million metric tons of grain are stuck in storage, with another 30 million expected from this year’s harvest blockaded. Putin’s forces also are now raiding the stocks they are able to access, attempting to cash in on selling Ukraine’s stolen grain to the very countries suffering most as a result of Putin’s actions.
The Russian government’s ghastly conduct and Putin’s lack of concern for the secondary impacts of Putin’s war have transformed his proud nation into a pariah, more isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Yet, its most important strategic partner, the People’s Republic of China, has not turned away. Weeks before the invasion of Ukraine—after Beijing had asked Moscow to delay its invasion until after the Winter Olympics—they declared their friendship “without limits.”
And everywhere we see Beijing try to limit discussions of their own human rights abuses, of its own atrocities. Global companies, from tech to fashion to film studios to sports leagues, have been bullied by Beijing, told to stay silent about the genocide in Xinjiang—where more than one million Uyghurs are still held against their will. In Hong Kong, the regime is ruthlessly targeting and imprisoning young students, journalists, lawmakers, and even religious leaders who dare to challenge the PRC’s push to roll back personal freedoms and undermine the rule of law. Somehow, a confident leadership determined to shape a new world feels threatened by an eclectic mix of civic-minded citizens who want nothing more than a city that is more fair and just.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that governments that think that order can be purchased for the price of truth are no match for the forces of nature. Since the emergence of COVID-19, as you well know, the Chinese Government initially focused as much on seeking to suppress the truth as it did on suppressing the virus. Doctors who warned about the new virus were reprimanded or rounded up by local police while online discussions were censored.
In 2014, when Ukraine’s corrupt, Russian-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych ignored the will of his people and refused to sign an agreement with the European Union overwhelmingly approved by the parliament, the country’s brave people spilled into the Maidan of Kyiv, and after months of protest, drove Yanukovych and his government from power. It was heralded as the Revolution of Dignity. The Revolution of Dignity. That same call for freedom, peace, and self-determination animates the battles happening in Ukraine, the civil disobedience happening in Hong Kong, and the protests that we continue to see rippling across the globe. It is that same call for dignity that autocrats seek to silence.
Now, in this moment again, a key moment, a moment of profound weakness for the world’s illiberal forces, America and all who share our values—the world’s democracies, allies in the private sector, civil society, multilateral institutions, religious and diaspora communities, everyday citizens— all of us must build on the unity that we have demonstrated in Ukraine to try to extend a broader revolution of dignity to people seeking to be free.
To do that, first and foremost, America’s own democracy, must of course, prevail. We have to be able to pass common sense laws that can save lives. We have to forge consensus to deal with existential threats faced not just by our planet but by our cities, our coasts, and our farms. We have to respect the outcomes of free and fair elections and uphold the tradition that we must never again take for granted in this country: the tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.
Globally, as the world’s two leading authoritarian powers stumble, the United States is also demonstrating to the world that America cares and that America is able to bring to bear hypercompetent, groundbreaking acts of innovation and progress. We are not using our COVID vaccines to bend poor countries over a barrel or curry favor for votes at the United Nations; we are giving away effective vaccines for free. Thanks primarily to U.S. vaccine donations—542 million doses to date, with a total of 1.2 billion committed—and thanks also to the generosity of our partners, COVID-19 vaccines are now broadly available, and we are simultaneously investing in the global health security architecture to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics, while also helping health systems recover from what they have just undergone and continue to undergo in many parts of the world with COVID.
In contrast to those who are blockading ports, and who are cold to the hunger and pain of millions of people around the world, the United States is investing billions of dollars, thanks also to bipartisan support in Congress to provide humanitarian assistance to the countries on the frontlines of the global food crisis in East and West Africa, helping countries at the same time break their dependence on Russian food and fertilizer supply while ramping up our own domestic fertilizer production, protecting the poorest households around the world by scaling up social safety nets, and unleashing American knowhow to spur the long-term agricultural productivity that we know is the key to ending hunger and spurring global economic growth well beyond this particular crisis. All of what I just described is essential, but also if the United States is to lend a helping hand to those on the frontlines of freedom at what could be an inflection point remembered years from now, we also have to reimagine our approach to supporting democracy around the world.
Almost exactly 40 years ago in his Westminster Address, Ronald Reagan advocated for assistance to foster the infrastructure of democracy—a free press, civil society, political parties, and universities—this was a call that led to democracy assistance as we know it. Media training and grants to independent outlets, resources to draft new laws, support for civil society, and expert guidance to administer and monitor free elections. All of this is important. It helped transform countries locked behind the Iron Curtain into proud, thriving members of a free Europe. It helped nascent democracies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America develop sustainable democratic institutions. And it will be crucial to sustaining democratic progress in the future, for sure.
But, as illiberal forces use new tools and technologies to spread their influence, we need to supplement those tools, we need to reinvent our playbook. In December of last year, at President Biden’s first-ever Summit for Democracy, the United States called on the free world to transform what it means to fight for our values on the global stage. USAID and the rest of the U.S. Government have worked to deliver on that transformation through what is called the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal. And we call on all who share our values here, in the United States and all over the world, to join in. To extend a revolution of dignity throughout the world. And in order to do so, we must cement progress in democratic bright spots that are out there right now, help people fight digital authoritarianism, and shine a light on the oligarchs and autocrats who hide their ill-gotten gains in dark corners and do so with great sophistication. Let me take each of those in turn.
First, the bright spots. Nearly every year, and Freedom House documents this, even amidst the worrying trendlines and the prevailing narratives about autocratic ascendency, a peaceful, pro-democracy, anti-corruption movement emerges, shaking the halls of entrenched power. Typically, that movement is violently suppressed and cut down. We’ve seen that in Iran, we saw it in Syria, we continue to see it in Belarus, and of course, in Cuba. Occasionally, that movement breaks through, it establishes itself forcefully. We’ve seen that happen in decades past in South Africa. South Korea. Indonesia.
But far too often, reformers will win an election on a platform of strengthening the rule of law or a mass movement will succeed in toppling a repressive government, only for the democratic dream to wither as despots wrest back control, as we have seen so painfully in Sudan over the course of the last year. And with the slamming shut of a democratic opening, the dreams of protestors are diminished, movements weaken, and the rest of the world’s autocrats breathe sighs of relief.
If we are to expand the circle of people living under democratic rule, then we and our democratic partners have to do all we can to secure what are often exceedingly fragile, and sometimes fleeting transitions to freedom. Traditionally, we have responded to these bright spots with democracy assistance. But what a democratic bright spot may most desperately need is debt relief, shipments of wheat or vaccines, support for a more robust social safety net, particularly amid economic reforms, or even just an infusion of bureaucratic expertise so that citizens have access to basic services— these are moves that would quickly deliver tangible benefits to everyday people. People who’ve taken risks to usher reformers into power.
In short, when people take those risks, when they bring about change by showing such courage, they expect their efforts will yield dividends, concrete dividends—and it is up to us democrats around the world to do everything in our power to help them deliver. Otherwise, these democratic windows can quickly be slammed shut, as illiberal forces capitalize on disillusionment to throw up obstacles to progress. When people don’t see positive, concrete changes in their day to day lives, they can very quickly lose confidence in their leaders and even in democracy itself. So, we have to be nimble. We must prioritize actions that can quickly offer support to bright spots, be it financial investment, technical assistance, or favorable policy reforms that we ourselves can undertake across the U.S. government, or potentially across international or multilateral institutions. At USAID, we are establishing the Partnerships for Democracy fund and using our alliances and convening power to support the locally-led ambitions of pro-democratic movements and governments.
In Moldova, citizens elected their first woman president in 2020 and then last summer doubled-down by delivering a landslide victory to pro-democracy and anticorruption forces in parliament, sending a powerful message to the world and to the neighborhood, that they wanted to break oligarchic control of their economy and foster closer relations with the West. Today, in addition to helping develop the country’s media infrastructure and strengthening its justice system, again, traditional tactics that USAID brings to bear in such circumstances, we are helping reduce Moldova’s dependence on Russian energy and we are helping reroute exports originally due for Minsk and Moscow to European and global partners. Efforts we took recently helped the country find a home for tens-of-millions of dollars of apples that were stuck in cold storage due to the Ukraine war and the Kremlin’s blockade of Black Sea ports. For those apple producers, getting those exports out, 96%, 97% of Moldova’s apples, went to Russia. Getting those apples out of cold storage, that’s a livelihood issue. That matters in terms of how they view their lives; how they view their leadership.
And in Zambia, where I’ll be traveling at the end of this month, last year’s elections saw an unprecedented turnout, especially of first-time voters, women, and young people, ushering in an opposition candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, who had been detained 15 times…15 times and who pledged to reverse years of democratic backsliding, to fight corruption, and to counter inequality. Upon taking office, President Hichilema moved swiftly to fight COVID-19, address human trafficking, expand freedom for the press, end arbitrary detentions, and increase women’s economic empowerment. Not only are we working to help his government enlarge civic space and strengthen free speech in the country, we’re also supporting them as they decentralize procurement to local, accountable actors, so money meant to hire rural teachers or restock remote health clinics isn’t being skimmed off the top in the capital. And through our Global VAX initiative, we have also surged COVID-19 vaccines throughout Zambia.
But aiding bright spots, needless to say, can’t just be the effort of any one country, nor can it rely solely on government actors. To turn a bright spot into that enduring beacon that we all wish to see, we must elevate the challenges and opportunities that these countries present to the highest levels of other democratic governments. We have to together focus on delivering progress, and not just executing development programs. We must use the policy levers at our disposal and bring together the private sector, foundations, and philanthropic actors to increase investment that can generate new and visible opportunities for citizens.
These efforts have to be matched as well by country-level commitments to support social services, implement these anti corruption reforms that have been promised and bring those who stole from the country to justice. We also want to see not only economic growth as countries recover from the pandemic, and potentially from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the spillover effects of that, not just economic growth but inclusive, equitable growth. And to that again, reformist governments must commit. And the results must be delivered themselves democratically. Solutions shouldn’t be decreed in capitals, that have to be informed by citizens and local institutions, who get in the scrum, who participate, support the implementation of reforms, and continue to hold governments feet to the fire on the basis of performance.
In return for these efforts, the world’s democracies must embrace the goals of reformers and engaged citizens as our own, helping them achieve the short- and medium-term wins that they believe are most important for improving public welfare. All fragile or transitional democracies face really hard choices and tradeoffs in deciding what to prioritize. The dialogue with them will be key to determining precisely what democracy must deliver early, and what we can support them in delivering. At the UN General Assembly this fall, USAID is going to host a Bright Spots Summit, bringing leaders from the public and private sectors and civil society together with governments experiencing democratic breakthroughs to help them deliver on the needs of their people.
Now, to state the obvious, a focus on bright spots implies a dim backdrop, a dim map. So what can we do to support people in countries who are not experiencing a democratic breakthrough? There are more of them, many more of them. We have to help people fight the digital propaganda and surveillance systems that autocracies and less-established democracies are using to assault citizens both within and outside of their borders. Though much of this technology is increasingly being developed in illicit regimes, we have to acknowledge that our homegrown innovations are also to blame, subject to often dystopian misuse. Our tech workers here in the United States are having to define their own professional ethics on the fly. They’re having to develop boundaries for powerful technologies with unseen consequences. They’re having to meet quarterly goals without the tools or the time to reflect on the human costs of some of this machine learning.
I’m pleased to announce here that this Friday we’re going to be joining the New America Foundation to kick off a new effort by technologists, academics, and civil society to develop a Code of Ethics that helps put forward principles for how technology should be developed and designed to uphold democratic values and human rights. The same way doctors pledge to first do no harm, technologists need to develop a shared set of ideals that they hold dear. New America is soon going to begin convening listening sessions to launch a collaborative, inclusive process to develop this code. No government is going to draft it or own it—it obviously must be developed by technologists, for technologists, so that it will be upheld by technologists.
We have also begun piloting our Advancing Digital Democracy Initiative, an effort to help countries strengthen their digital ecosystems, so that technology advances democracy and respect for human rights. What was once a very conventional idea, now is sounding more and more radical. One place we are piloting this approach is in Serbia, where the government is quietly procuring from the People’s Republic of China, new “Smart Cities” technologies, an increasingly popular tool billed as a way to use artificial intelligence to improve the security and efficiency of cities, but which can be exploited by governments to harass and intimidate ordinary citizens, with journalists as a specific target. This is not the future that many Serbians want so we are helping build a network of Serbian tech companies, officials, civil society organizations, universities, and advocates to raise the public’s awareness of this growing danger of surveillance. This coalition will also advocate for better rules and data protections, working with principled officials who want to protect privacy and civil liberties.
To take another example, authoritarians have grown increasingly clever in manipulating elections—something that we see them do in their own countries, but often also abroad—as we know too well. In the 2020s, that’s where we are right now, most elections are not stolen by flagrantly stuffing ballot boxes or throwing opponents in jail. They are subtly undermined, discredited, or tilted in an incumbent’s favor, often years before election day. Contemporary tactics like cyber hacks, false information on social media, and questionable regulations have undermined elections all over the world.
USAID and other development agencies have supported elections for decades, but we have not always kept up with these pernicious methods, it’s fair to say. That’s why since the Summit for Democracy, we have gathered the world’s leading organizations that support electoral integrity, some of whom are here today—both governmental and nongovernmental—to form a Coalition for Securing Election Integrity, which will establish a consistent set of norms for what constitutes a free and fair election in 2022. We’ll draw from our new Defending Democratic Elections Fund to help strategically important elections meet these agreed standards throughout the election cycle.
Finally, we must shine a light on the dark corners where corruption thrives and oligarchs hide their stolen wealth. Traditionally, the fight against corruption has occurred within borders, supporting the institutions and reformers fighting for transparency and accountability. But sophisticated corruption operations, now of course, increasingly cross borders. They seek out weaknesses in the global financial and regulatory systems to launder wealth and hide ill-gotten gains. This new reality requires USAID to transform its anti-corruption work to be savvier and be less siloed by country. We are building coalitions of reformers across borders, sectors, and ideologies. Nowhere is this more critical than in connecting investigative journalists across countries and regions to follow the flow of illicit assets. In the past, this work focused on training these journalists in investigatory techniques, in gathering evidence, in fact checking to support their investigations within a country. Again, that work is still absolutely mission critical, but it isn’t sufficient. So we have launched regional initiatives allowing journalists to work together across borders, to piece together vast corruption scandals that span the globe, as we saw in the Panama and Pandora papers.
And in carrying out that work, today investigative journalists have as much to fear from lawsuits across jurisdictions, as they arguably do from police or the oligarchs themselves. Last fall, we announced the creation of an insurance fund for investigative journalists, it’s now called Reporters Mutual. What we’ve learned through an actuarial study, since the launch, is that things are even worse than we suspected. Investigative journalists are sued at three times the rate of all other journalists, and are thus basically uninsurable on the commercial market. When I met with Filipino investigative journalist Maria Ressa, she told me that she had been hit with twenty-two new legal cases since she won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Our new Fund, which will come online next year, will provide insurance to cover the cost of defending journalists and media organizations from legal harassment. We’re also uniting the private sector and civil society to safeguard one of the largest foreseeable potential sources of wealth—and—corruption: green energy. Countries, many of them low- and middle-income, are poised to capitalize on the surge of demand the world is witnessing for minerals critical for electric vehicle batteries and solar power. But they risk facing exactly the same resource curse that has plagued so many oil-rich countries.
Beijing has already sought to use state-led backroom deals to capture several supply chains of critical minerals, often harming corruption and environmental standards in the process. Our initiative is going to work with the private sector and civil society to help devise industry-wide responsible mining standards and monitoring mechanisms to help prevent our clean energy future from being built with dirty minerals. And last, we’re also embracing a new role for USAID in fighting corruption—partnering with other agencies across the US government to target sanctions against bad actors and kleptocrats.
USAID’s history with our country’s various sanctions regimes, has primarily been oriented toward securing licenses for humanitarian partners who provide lifesaving support to people living amidst sanctioned terrorist groups or regimes. To be really, really clear, that work is going to remain essential if we are to get lifesaving assistance to people who, again, are living amongst sanctioned individuals or institutions. But, USAID has a whole array of partners. Investigative journalists, activists, and civil society actors often have unique insights into where and how illicit gains are stashed away and are eager to pass that information to sanctioning authorities. Since President Biden established the KleptoCapture task force, which many of you have heard about, we have been working with civil society partners in Ukraine and other partner countries to identify, for example, yachts owned by Russian oligarchs and moored in Western ports, passing this information along to our colleagues at the Department of Justice and Treasury.
And we’re going all in on dekleptification. Today, I’m announcing the creation of a new dekleptification guide—a handbook to help countries make the difficult transition from kleptocracy to democracy. This guide, drawn from previous democratic openings in Romania, Dominican Republic, and South Africa, provides advice to reformers on how to root out deeply entrenched corruption and technical advice on how to implement radical transparency and accountability measures, how to stand up new anti-corruption structures. Moving rapidly and aggressively in historic windows of opportunity will make these reforms harder to reverse. We need to seize this moment—we need to support democratic bright spots as they seek to deliver economic dividends. We need to push to counter digital authoritarianism, using new tools, many more than even I’ve described today. And need to bring corruption out of the shadows as we know it is the Achilles heel for autocrats and authoritarians.
I’m going to read this quote: “The Free World cannot shame Russia and China into freedom—but it can inspire democracy to enrich its own freedoms. Freedom’s banner will be vindicated or lost not by the test of military strength alone—but by the purity and passion of our commitment to democracy, by our dedication to advancing the hopes of new nations, and by our determination to prove that freedom can lift the haggard burden of poverty from desolate lands.” Those words, as immediate and true as they feel, to me at least today, don’t belong to me. They were delivered by John F. Kennedy in 1959, just two years before the first segments of the Berlin Wall would be laid down at Potsdamer Platz. It would be easy to read those words in 2022 and despair—to feel as though little has changed in the six decades since, and to recognize as we do, that the headwinds we face today are so familiar. But it would also be folly. In the same year as construction of the Berlin Wall began, USAID was founded. Over the years, the agency has been privileged to work to help billions escape a fate of dire poverty and deprivation, while helping support democratic transitions in dozens of countries. And in so doing, touching the lives of billions more. Even in the most dire hours of the Cold War, where existential conflict loomed over the world, and totalitarianism felt as if it was an almost permanent state of affairs in various places, the free world persisted. And eventually that Wall fell.
And despite the gloom of the moment, every day we see courageous people, many of them living in the most oppressive regimes on earth, taking unbelievable risks to protest for their freedom. When millions take the streets in Minsk, stare down the military in Khartoum, resist a coup in Yangon, or don all black in Causeway Bay, they remind us that no matter where the human heart beats, it beats for dignity. Today, just as the free world has come together in support of the people of Ukraine, we must come together to support democrats worldwide.
As a wise woman once said, “democracy is poised for a comeback.” Together, we have to seize this moment to make it happen.
Thank you so much.