Managing democracy in the twenty-first century

Featured Image: Lech Wałęsa speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School
Taken by author on site, 11/18/19

On November 18, I had the pleasure of attending a forum at the Harvard Kennedy School featuring Lech Wałęsa, the first President of the Third Polish Republic. As the days of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe waned, Wałęsa’s Solidarity movement, which swelled into democratic revolution in Poland, set the stage for the collapse of the long-withering governments formerly under Soviet control. Thirty years later, at a critical juncture in both European and world politics, he was invited to address the crowd gathered at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

After the scramble for limited seats quieted down in the packed Forum, the event began. He spoke on several topics, from his early life to his experience and struggle for freedom in the 1980s to modern issues. After all he has been through, it was reassuring to see that he retains a fierce sense of humor; it seemed at times that every other remark either poked fun at himself or the current state of world affairs. His discussion, however, had a more serious focus: the future of democracy in a new epoch of technological advancement and innovation.

The age of information we live in is, indeed, fickle. It allows me to share my thoughts and for you to read them on this digital media. At the same time, it saturates the collective attention of society with dizzyingly fast news cycles and leaves exposed network-accessible systems vulnerable to the will of malign actors. In Wałęsa’s view, it is vital that the United States maintain its place as the leader of the free world to counter such actors and guide the principles of democracy through this new age, just as it had through the Cold War.

In the last few years, however, the United States has seemingly abdicated its role as a global leader for democratic values in favor of nationalistic “America First” policy. As hard as it is to do, let’s set aside partisanship as well as the problems currently plaguing the Trump Administration; “America First” is perhaps most destructive when it comes to foreign affairs as it leaves geostrategic and moral vacuums in areas traditionally influenced by American values.

This abdication cannot come at a worse time; Russia continues its revanchist activities in Ukraine, an ally of the United States and recipient of critical military aid that has been swallowed up by domestic political squabbles. Populist movements championing nationalistic and sectarian ideologies have cropped up in other states with rich liberal histories. To invoke Wałęsa’s description of a new epoch, the world has entered uncharted waters; the traditional captain of the world “ship” is nowhere to be found, and the future of the global community is currently very much uncertain.

Obviously, the lack of American leadership on the international stage is not the cause of the issues that have characterized world affairs in the last few years. In fact it is itself a symptom of a greater set of issues that I seek to delve into in my own research and discussions. There is room for improvement and work we can do. Wałęsa ended his remarks with a call to service for those in the room to work toward the advancement of democracy, a cause he has been at the forefront of since founding Solidarty and one that he noted would be a focus for him for the rest of his life.

It is a cause that should be on the mind of all those invested in progress and democracy.

We have arrived in a breathtaking new era of development and advancement, where the future is very much unclear and there are many paths forward. It is my firm belief that a liberal and democratic order taking into account a number of themes, stated below, not usually considered is imperative to foster vibrant democracy at home and around the world.

To reach the goal, though, the following key themes must be taken into consideration:

  1. The democracy-building calculus must change as technology advances; in the ever-growing information-age, democratic movements and institutions must adapt;
  2. The role of international organizations must not be understated; a global community is best linked with existing and prospective global machinery for dialogue and action;
  3. Young people from all over the world must have a say in what our future world is going to look like; they are, after all, going to inherit this world;
  4. The climate change factor: democracy-building and stimulating the growth of a global community must be done acknowledging the impact any one choice may have on the environment;
  5. Building democracy must be an adaptive, localized endeavor; it is obvious that the style of democracy that has been predominant in the West can not be universally applied. The process of democracy-building must adapt to local political, social, and cultural traditions—a one-size-fits-all approach to democracy that ignores local tradition could be argued as imperial; and
  6. As Wałęsa said, American global leadership is vital; the United States must return to its traditional role as a world leader and fierce promoter of democratic values.

These themes are not exclusive, and, of course, are debatable. The idea of this blog is to explore these themes and more in relevant topics in foreign policy as well as in domestic and international politics to both discover trends and advocated for a closer-knit, more democratic world.