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Biden Needs to Bolster the Power of Exiles

The U.S. democracy agenda can’t focus simply on supporting democratic governments.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
Former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law, now in exile in the U.K., speaks at a rally for Hong Kong democracy at Marble Arch on June 12, 2021 in London.
Former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law, now in exile in the U.K., speaks at a rally for Hong Kong democracy at Marble Arch on June 12, 2021 in London. Laurel Chor/Getty Images

The crisis in Afghanistan has threatened not only the safety and freedom of millions of Afghans but also U.S. President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda to shore up worldwide democracies. Efforts to foster democratic ideals in Afghanistan—including free expression, gender equality, and free elections—are essentially over. Elsewhere, there have been other startling setbacks for Biden’s democracy agenda.

Myanmar, whose fledgling democracy was once the pride of the Obama administration, has reverted to junta rule. In Hong Kong, China has crushed the local democracy movement. In Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime has gone house to house targeting civil society groups. And in Tunisia, long regarded as the lone surviving success story of the Arab Spring, President Kais Saied is carrying out a purge of all but his closest acolytes.

To counter this anti-democratic surge, the U.S. government needs to do more than simply support existing democracies. It needs to bolster individual democrats, many of them in hiding or on the run. Countless Afghan human rights defenders, feminists, journalists, writers, and intellectuals have risked their lives and abandoned homes and families to escape life under the Taliban. Exiles are pouring out of Myanmar, Russia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. They all need support, and investing in them should be high on Biden’s democracy agenda.

The crisis in Afghanistan has threatened not only the safety and freedom of millions of Afghans but also U.S. President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda to shore up worldwide democracies. Efforts to foster democratic ideals in Afghanistan—including free expression, gender equality, and free elections—are essentially over. Elsewhere, there have been other startling setbacks for Biden’s democracy agenda.

Myanmar, whose fledgling democracy was once the pride of the Obama administration, has reverted to junta rule. In Hong Kong, China has crushed the local democracy movement. In Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime has gone house to house targeting civil society groups. And in Tunisia, long regarded as the lone surviving success story of the Arab Spring, President Kais Saied is carrying out a purge of all but his closest acolytes.

To counter this anti-democratic surge, the U.S. government needs to do more than simply support existing democracies. It needs to bolster individual democrats, many of them in hiding or on the run. Countless Afghan human rights defenders, feminists, journalists, writers, and intellectuals have risked their lives and abandoned homes and families to escape life under the Taliban. Exiles are pouring out of Myanmar, Russia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. They all need support, and investing in them should be high on Biden’s democracy agenda.


Exiles with a demonstrated commitment to democratic ideals have long figured prominently in political struggles. The poet Pablo Neruda helped keep visions of a free Chile alive during years of exile. South Africa’s second president, Thabo Mbeki, spent nearly 30 years in London, Moscow, and African capitals, coordinating resistance to the apartheid state. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera spent 40 years in exile, his books remaking global perceptions of Eastern Europe and rallying support for transformation. Exiled student survivors of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre raised global awareness of China’s ruthlessness.

The digital age has the potential to further empower exiles. Those working underground within autocratic countries can now connect with counterparts abroad through encrypted channels. Social media and the internet make it possible to engage in day-to-day affairs from afar, allowing dissidents to remain influential at home while forging new lives in distant lands.

None of which is to say that exiles should be lionized as policy oracles or anointed as leaders in waiting. Political refugees can be complex figures, not always possessed of unambiguously admirable politics. They often have conflicting loyalties and blind spots exacerbated by the trauma of banishment.

Mobilizing funds and employment opportunities for democratic champions would help these activists sustain their networks, audiences, and impact.

Exile communities can also splinter over political differences or compete over scant resources. The U.S.-based Iraqi businessman Ahmed Chalabi helped goad the United States into the 2003 invasion of Iraq with bogus contentions about weapons of mass destruction. Kundera, while revered by a worldwide literary audience, was criticized for sitting out his country’s Velvet Revolution.

Still, individuals with potent independent voices and track records of principled support for rights and democracy should be treated as key allies in keeping democratic aspirations alive. Global nongovernmental organizations and American diplomats with relevant country expertise can help identify exiled dissidents whose voices of influence have the greatest potential.

For now, that’s not happening nearly as effectively as it could. In the unfolding chaos at the Kabul airport, the world witnessed the mismatch between American ideals and reality. Human rights defenders facing imminent peril had to plead for their lives with any government that would listen, embarking on multiple cumbersome and opaque application efforts. Those who failed to meet certain criteria—like holding a U.S. passport or having worked with a U.S. organization—were often cast aside.

The United States should help forge a system of global coordination to provide the timely vetting of visa applicants—with categories tailored to serve human rights defenders, civic leaders, intellectuals, and dissidents who need immediate safe haven. A coordinated approach to providing entry visas, refugee status, and asylum could help distribute the obligations fairly across democratic countries willing to play a part.

Democratic exiles also need new forms of longer-term support. Mobilizing funds and employment opportunities for democratic champions would help these activists sustain their networks, audiences, and impact. Tech companies in need of linguistic and cultural expertise, for instance, could be urged to tap into exile networks and to provide commensurate support.

Efforts should target not only political activists but also journalists, playwrights, poets, novelists, and artists. Creative thinkers can help sustain the flow of information, ideas, and national pride that provide essential nourishment to repressed populations. Funds for translation, publication, and cultural productions such as theater and art shows can sustain exiles, while also boosting the morale of beleaguered citizens by amplifying their stories on the world stage.

Dissidents with the potential to lead future governments or play significant roles within civil society should be trained and mentored. Universities and foundations should be mobilized to integrate exiles into their communities and to offer services to help mitigate isolation and language barriers. Sophisticated technologies for secure communication and campaigning should be distributed across exile networks, and activists dispersed around the world should be convened for conferences and workshops to share effective strategies and foster cooperation.

Protection also should be provided or enhanced. Earlier this summer, the FBI revealed a plot by the Iranian government to kidnap the New York-based dissident Masih Alinejad and spirit her to Venezuela. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and execution of Iranian blogger Ruhollah Zam reflect new patterns of terror aimed to eliminate dissent.

Even nominal democracies including Bangladesh and Turkey are also taking license to target their detractors abroad. The United States should mobilize international intelligence and law enforcement to shield dissidents, coordinate against such plots and killings, and cooperate on reprisals and sanctions when such atrocities occur


During the 2020 campaign, Biden made democracy a centerpiece of his foreign policy, promising to host a summit of like-minded democrats in his first year in office. A concerted effort to sustain, safeguard, and strengthen the position of exiles can help invigorate the Biden administration’s democracy agenda while avoiding some of the most glaring perils of trying to implant democracy directly on hostile terrain.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, directed embassies worldwide to emphasize rights and freedoms with foreign counterparts, even while acknowledging the United States’ own imperfect record. On Aug. 11, as the Taliban encircled Kabul, the administration announced plans to convene democratically elected heads of state in a virtual conclave in December. That meeting is supposed to kick off a yearlong process of bolstering democracy, culminating in a live gathering in late 2022.

The retreat of democracy around the world menaces not just U.S. global interests but democracy at home.

Biden’s democracy agenda is no pet project. The retreat of democracy around the world menaces not just U.S. global interests but democracy at home. The spread of Chinese government-sponsored technologies, including surveillance tools, risks the creation of an interdependent world tethered to Beijing. Already, China’s economic clout has forced Hollywood studios and U.S. universities, tech companies, and media outlets to play by Beijing’s rules or forfeit entree into the world’s fastest-growing market. Countries led by autocrats are choosing value-free patronage from Russia and China over partnership with Washington, diminishing America’s economic clout and market access.

As the Biden administration contemplates its democracy agenda toward the end of a fraught first year, it shouldn’t focus simply on existing democracies and their elected leaders. It should double down on supporting individuals, informal groups, and organizations committed to democracy, wherever they may be. Democracies rise and succeed because people have faith in the principles they represent. By supporting exiled democrats, the United States and other established democracies can help those ideals flourish.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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