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The Democrat’s Playbook

Biden’s Summit for Democracy must go on the offensive.

By , a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and , a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington on Dec. 6.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington on Dec. 6. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In recent months, elected autocrats in Nicaragua and El Salvador have accelerated their predictable slide toward consolidated authoritarianism. Less predictable has been the impotence of liberal democracies, including the United States, to do anything about it.

Targeted sanctions from the United States, Canada, and the European Union against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inner circle failed to deter a sham election for which most major opposition candidates were imprisoned, while U.S. diplomatic attempts to isolate Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele after he gutted and packed his country’s Supreme Court have done little to stop the millennial president from plowing ahead with his plan to consolidate power. And a raft of diplomatic and targeted sanctions levied by the United States, Canada, and the EU against the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela have similarly failed to dislodge him from power or even improve his track record of holding rigged elections.

Meanwhile, powerful authoritarian competitors for global influence, such as China and Russia, have eagerly embraced this new breed of autocrats. Both have provided loans and bailouts to Venezuela, China has supported Bukele with trade deals and donations of COVID-19 vaccines, and Russia and Nicaragua have cooperated to bolster Ortega’s domestic security apparatus by signing a cybersecurity agreement. Overall, partnerships with China and Russia have allowed regimes such as those in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and El Salvador to repress their citizens without fear of international interference.

In recent months, elected autocrats in Nicaragua and El Salvador have accelerated their predictable slide toward consolidated authoritarianism. Less predictable has been the impotence of liberal democracies, including the United States, to do anything about it.

Targeted sanctions from the United States, Canada, and the European Union against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inner circle failed to deter a sham election for which most major opposition candidates were imprisoned, while U.S. diplomatic attempts to isolate Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele after he gutted and packed his country’s Supreme Court have done little to stop the millennial president from plowing ahead with his plan to consolidate power. And a raft of diplomatic and targeted sanctions levied by the United States, Canada, and the EU against the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela have similarly failed to dislodge him from power or even improve his track record of holding rigged elections.

Meanwhile, powerful authoritarian competitors for global influence, such as China and Russia, have eagerly embraced this new breed of autocrats. Both have provided loans and bailouts to Venezuela, China has supported Bukele with trade deals and donations of COVID-19 vaccines, and Russia and Nicaragua have cooperated to bolster Ortega’s domestic security apparatus by signing a cybersecurity agreement. Overall, partnerships with China and Russia have allowed regimes such as those in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and El Salvador to repress their citizens without fear of international interference.

The tendency toward electoral authoritarianism—and the seeming inability of liberal democracies to deter it—highlights the need for a coordinated effort to call out and respond effectively to blatant attacks on institutions, rule of law, and political rights. Further, it calls for a new structure through which to provide multilateral financial and technical assistance to struggling and fragile democracies.

In an earlier Foreign Policy article, we detailed what we termed the “dictator’s playbook”—the repeated, predictable patterns elected autocrats use to alter their countries’ democratic regimes and constitutional order from within, such that they ultimately devolve into populist, authoritarian ones. The phenomenon is not unique to the Western Hemisphere. Autocratic regimes, populist and nonpopulist alike, in Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Myanmar, and Turkey are making common cause to push back on liberal norms—not just domestically, but also internationally. At the time, we also called for a “democrat’s playbook” to counter them.

The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy this week would be the ideal moment for the United States to spearhead a corresponding “democrat’s playbook.” But to make it effective—and not just an exercise in platitudes and self-congratulation—the heads of state and officials gathered must be prepared to scrutinize their own domestic politics and societies just as much as they do those of autocrats.

Doing so will require understanding and responding to the common forces that are giving rise to disillusionment, polarization, and democratic decay around the world today. The diverse set of rising and established democracies gathered at U.S. President Joe Biden’s summit will need to reconsider not just how they punish autocrats but also how they reward democrats. Only then can the summit hope to restore faith in democratic systems and civic norms.


The first step in the democrat’s playbook is for a community of liberal democracies—such as those gathered at Biden’s summit—to define a set of tipping points on the path to democratic erosion, such as rolling back the independence of judicial systems, rigging electoral systems to favor the incumbent party, and closing off civic space for media and civil society. Then, liberal democracies have to muster the political will to respond collectively when autocrats and their movements reach these tipping points.

Such responses can take different forms. They should include targeted diplomatic and economic sanctions, if levied carefully. Punitive economic measures disconnected from a broader strategy are often insufficient to induce a reversal of autocrats’ behavior, as seen repeatedly in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Venezuela. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States alone has sanctions on more than 300 individuals, but it has failed to force the most egregious autocratic offenders to restore democratic institutions and processes. In cases like these, sanctions are used only as a stick, rather than as a point of leverage, and countries risk becoming locked in with no clear road map for relief. Instead, a new sanctions strategy should clearly signal what conditions a country must meet for them to be lifted. Ideally, it would also offer rewards for behavioral improvements along the way.

Take Venezuela, where U.S. sanctions prohibiting trade and investment with state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. have strangled state finances under an already destroyed economy. In concert with the negotiations between the Maduro government and Venezuela’s democratic opposition in Mexico City—which are currently on hold—the United States and other sanctions entities like Canada and the EU could promise time-limited relief for Venezuela’s fuel sector if the Maduro regime returns to the negotiating table. Should the regime suspend talks again, those sanctions could snap back immediately. But should more progress be made on the release of political prisoners or the conditions for free and fair elections, then further restrictions on fuel and trade with third countries could be loosened in a tit-for-tat fashion. Individuals facing targeted sanctions would be offered a similar road map for relief.

The second step in the democrat’s playbook should be to reform and update the Bretton Woods institutions—the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—such that they include conditions for democratic governance and human rights in lending and technical assistance standards and procedures. For too long, these institutions have empowered autocratic regimes by disregarding the consolidation of power and the erosion of checks and balances of accountable government. These are not just political matters; an independent, accountable government is key to sustainable, equitable economic development—principles these institutions seek to advance. The IMF, for instance, has received considerable criticism for its role in filling the coffers of repressive regimes such as Nicaragua’s.

This, too, must be done delicately. Cutting off regimes at the first sign of democratic erosion would only push them into the waiting arms of China or other authoritarian competitors. The World Bank and the IMF should be careful to include elements of conditionality that are based on clear signs of authoritarian hardening in electoral democracies—including a set of markers to reinforce the importance of the rule of law, the professionalism and independence of the judiciary, and the transparency and nonpartisan nature of social programs. Rather than hard sanctions policies, these conditionalities should serve as guardrails that, when violated, are raised as part of the global discussion over further assistance to the country in question. Reform efforts must also be inclusive to ensure they reflect the concerns of the global south.

Even with these reforms, though, the IMF and World Bank will still need to keep nondemocratic regimes as members, which will limit their capacity to fully condition programs on democracy and human rights. For that reason, liberal democracies should establish their own multilateral global democracy development fund. Such a fund would not only provide financial and technical assistance to strengthen the central checks and balances of democracies worldwide but also provide development assistance to democratic governments to fund infrastructure, jobs programs, and innovative social safety net programs. The idea would be to establish incentives for fledging democratic governments or governments that have returned to democracy from autocratic paths, such as Ecuador, to stay the course by providing them with development assistance.


For all of this to occur, the Biden administration and like-minded governments will need to create a more purposive community of liberal democracies than current multilateral institutions afford. The United Nations Human Rights Council has fallen prey to a bloc of anti-democratic members including Russia, China, Venezuela, and Cuba, and it is in desperate need of reform. The G-20 and G-7 arrangements are oriented toward coordinating economic policymaking rather than internal political trends, and summits between U.S. and European leaders lack the requisite inclusivity to shore up democracy on a global scale.

Biden’s Summit for Democracy can also lay the groundwork for the creation of an ambitious new club for liberal democracies. Membership in this club must come with both financial and political benefits that outweigh what competing authoritarian regimes are offering. Such perks should include development assistance through the aforementioned global democracy fund. But even within the exclusive “club of democracies,” members must be willing to provide—and accept—advice and assistance in confronting threats such as misinformation, challenges to freedom of expression, political polarization, and the inadequacy of social safety nets in addressing economic insecurity.

The invitees to the summit will be just as important as the summit agenda. To be sure, there are disagreements over the invite list. While we—and others—may quibble about the merit of including governments like Brazil and the Philippines, these democracies are more than their controversial presidents. In these cases, the rewards of inclusion at the summit are not directed at sitting Presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte but at the judicial, parliamentary, and local government institutions that make a real difference in Brazilian and Philippine citizens’ lives (and often hold these leaders to account).

Yet it bears mentioning that there are profound risks to creating such a “democracy club.” If not done carefully, it risks bifurcating the world into democracies and a rogues’ gallery of nondemocratic governments, which could push regimes that are in a liminal state of democratic backsliding into the arms of malign actors. As with El Salvador and Nicaragua, repressive regimes with global aspirations—such as China and Russia—are all too eager to embrace and elevate those leaders and anti-democratic movements that will tear down international norms and practices, regardless of their ideological affinities.

That is why liberal democracies and multilateral institutions, including financial institutions, must offer an alternative response to the citizens of consolidated democracies and unconsolidated democracies alike, attending to their needs and fears, beyond punishment and dire warnings about Chinese or Russian intentions. The democrat’s playbook needs to have not just defensive plays but offensive ones as well. Biden’s Summit for Democracy is the ideal forum to get it right.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior research fellow at Chatham House. He is currently editing a book on geopolitics and human rights to be published in 2022 by Chatham House and the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he is the director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative. Twitter: @RyanBergPhD

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