Defending Democracy – American Academy in Berlin, April 13, 2022
Daniel Benjamin, thank you so much for hosting me at the American Academy. I look forward to working with you and the academy as great partners with our Embassy.
Michael Abramowitz, we share a lifelong passion for defending democratic values and practices, and I cannot thank you enough for all that you and Freedom House do for this cause.
In times like these, we need to recognize just how fortunate we are to live in a democracy. In times like these, we must not take our good fortune for granted, either at home or abroad. In times like these, we must show just how much we are willing to do to advance liberty, opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all.
Democracy is under brutal attack in Ukraine. A flourishing civil society, major reforms since the Maidan revolution, and a vibrant media demonstrate Ukraine’s great promise as an open, pluralistic democracy. The world sees Ukraine’s commitment to a free and independent country. That commitment stands in the starkest contrast to the authoritarian political system that President Putin reimposes daily on Russians, by jailing demonstrators, repressing journalists, and utterly disregarding human rights at home and abroad.
Every day, the brutally cruel massacre of Ukrainians makes clear just how vital it is to stand up for Ukraine. And for our countries to staunchly support Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s further invasion.
Democracy is also under attack around the world. In authoritarian countries, rulers have restricted their own people’s freedoms, suppressed political opponents with increasing brutality, and postponed and canceled elections. Authoritarian governments also are actively working to sow division and distrust in democracies. We must recognize that our own liberty, security, and prosperity are threatened by Putin’s aggressions, by an adversarial China that engages in gross human rights abuses, cyber aggression and suppression of free speech and press, and by other malign actors and actions. We must be clear-eyed about this worldwide crisis, and united in our determination to rise to this moment.
Even in democratic countries, historical gains in tolerance, respect, and understanding across divides have drastically eroded over several decades. Over the past decade, this erosion has been exacerbated by disinformation, political polarization, and segregated social media bubbles. Just over the past few years alone, we have seen a troubling rise of anti-Semitism, racism, and hate crimes in the United States and throughout much of Europe. Such hatred is reinforced by the way many democratic political opponents treat one another: rather than as competitors who robustly disagree over the best means to shared democratic goals, they treat each other as mortal enemies.
Longstanding economic, religious, racial, gender, and sexual identity inequities have left many feeling that the democratic system won’t ever work for them. The stakes of our working together to overcome these barriers to life, liberty, and basic opportunity could not be higher.
President Biden wisely believes that the defense of democracy is the defining challenge of our time. Defending Democracy is one of the three major goals that will guide the diplomatic work of our Embassy and our Consulates moving forward. Defending Democracy goes hand in hand with our other two goals: Advancing Our Alliances; and Innovating Inclusively. Our transatlantic partnership has never been as unified, strong, and important as today. Together we will make a historic difference in defending democracies at home and abroad.
How? By better defending our values both at home and around the world. By revitalizing our alliances along with the partnerships that have made the world safer for all our people. By modernizing our military capabilities while leading with our diplomacy.
Last December, President Biden hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy which placed democracy and human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. He posed a challenge to the representatives of some 100 countries: “Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?”
The forum highlighted the potential power of partnerships. When local and national governments, civil society and philanthropic organizations, and the private sector work together, we can most effectively address the challenges facing democracies. By tapping into the strength of civil society and the private sector, countries can partner on innovative and impactful initiatives to address core themes.
Democracies can foster strong and inclusive economies, handle political disagreements without bloodshed, provide public safety while protecting civil liberties, counter corruption, and maintain stability with free elections and peaceful transitions of power. Making progress on these fronts has a positive multiplier effect worldwide.
This is a Year of Action, a year in which commitments are being turned into real change. The issues that Germany and the United States committed to pursuing at the Summit for Democracy are complementary. Central among those issues is the question: how can the G7 partners—with Germany as the G7 Presidency this year—strengthen our democracies against rising authoritarian trend? We will no doubt want to consult with strong institutions like the American Academy and Freedom House in answering this critical question of our time.
I began by saying how fortunate we are to live in democratic societies. Why, then, do I dwell—day after day—on the great threats that we face? Like my parents, I am proudly Jewish. My father grew up in a democracy, Weimar Germany. By 1934, my father had to flee Germany because Hitler and the
Nazis were in power. Long before Russia further invaded Ukraine, my father’s experience instilled in me the critical importance of my standing up with as many allies as possible against all forms of hatred, bigotry, and discrimination.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a book on Democratic Education. I argued that beyond teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, we also must teach young people the ability to stand up for their values, to argue civilly with others and to be tolerant across differences of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.
I was recently asked what I would add to Democratic Education, I would focus more on protections against group think and bullying. I would underscore the critical importance of veracity and fact-checking as a vital counter to the engraining of falsehoods that go viral. I would look to ways to build on the greater accessibility of news outlets that act responsibly. Fake news, disinformation, and propaganda have long been mortal threats to democracies. The virality of fake news has made it even more important to counter quickly. Case in point: the way Russia twisted the reports of the atrocities committed in Bucha. And Russia’s repression of news outlets and journalists who speak truth to power. We must support responsible news outlets. We must help to ensure their public access. They are a means of expanding opportunity for broader democratic participation.
Why, in sum, do I say we are fortunate to live in democratic societies? Because at their core, democracies are dedicated to defending truth-seeking and truth-telling, tolerance, and respect for human dignity, robust yet reasoned debate, and mutually beneficial compromises. Because private institutions like the American Academy in Berlin and Freedom House freely and avidly defend these democratic values in voluntary partnership with public institutions like the American Embassy. Because the defense of democracy is not only hard work, but also important and inspiring work. Why? Because as President Biden says, “Democracy does not happen by accident.”