Laura Thornton: "Democratic backsliding is like the pandemic. It is contagious"

21.05.2021 (Caucasian Journal) Caucasian Journal’s guest today is Ms. Laura THORNTON, Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at German Marshall Fund. We are proud to add that Laura is our journal’s good friend and member of our Board

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal: Dear Laura, it is always a pleasure to meet you – virtually for the time being, but maybe also in person before long:  I know that you are planning to be back to Georgia soon. You have worked in Tbilisi for a long period as the head of National Democratic Institute, so you are one of the most competent international experts when it comes to Georgia’s politics and sociology. What’s your attitude to Georgia now, and will you be visiting us this time as an expert? 
Laura THORNTONWell, I am not sure I am an expert, just an interested observer! My attitude toward Georgia is always one of hopeful optimism and desire for the country’s success. I believe Georgia faces similar challenges to many other places, including my own country. There is an alarming rise of authoritarian threats – both external and internal – which is impacting the quality of our democratic function. Deep polarization is paralyzing governance and thwarting democracy’s ability to deliver, which drives people into the arms of illiberal forces. Information integrity is the subtext of much of this, with disinformation efforts sowing discontent and exacerbating divisions. As I’ve said before, democracy is Georgia’s greatest asset and I believe in Georgian democrats to overcome these challenges by supporting pluralism, checks and balances, a robust civil society, and rule of law.

AK: While speaking about Georgia, the theme of last year’s elections,  the state of democracy in this country, and pretty unprecedented EU’s mediation will come up again more than once. I know it’s a huge theme, but if there are any aspects that you wish to comment, we would be very interested. 

LT: It demonstrates how sometimes we get so mired in our own divisions that we need external mediators to guide us through. And even then, it seems the verdict is out on whether Georgia can move forward. I hope it allows the country to move forward and start addressing the things the Georgian people care about – employment, the economy, infrastructure, education, healthcare…. There is so much work to be done.

The EU’s role was essential but not ideal. The need for neutral, trusted referees internally is stronger than ever. Not only in Georgia. We have come to a place where no one is trusted and everyone is “on a side.” Ideally, the media, courts, election management bodies, civic organizations, and institutions such as the ombudsman office or human rights commission would be viewed as independent arbiters to help guide us to common ground in a crisis, ground us in reality. I think Georgia is experiencing something I’m worried about elsewhere – the erosion of trust in democratic institutions and elections in particular. If participants in the election do not believe it was fair, then, regardless of the veracity of the claim, the legitimacy of the process and subsequent government is thrown into question. This is very bad for democracy.

AK: Now let me switch to something else and congratulate you with new job at German Marshall Fund of the United States, where you became the head of  Alliance for Securing Democracy. This is an important new step in your career. But first of all, can you tell us a bit about the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in general?

LT: I’m thrilled to join the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) as the director for the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD). GMF is a non-partisan policy organization committed to the idea that the United States and Europe are stronger together. GMF champions the principles of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation, which have served as the bedrock of peace and prosperity since the end of World War II, but are under increasing strain. Within that mission, GMF programs focus on issues critical to transatlantic interests in the 21st century, including the future of democracy, security and defense, geopolitics and the rise of China, and technology and innovation.  GMF is headquartered in Washington, DC, with offices in Berlin, Brussels, Ankara, Belgrade, Bucharest, Paris, and Warsaw.

AK: GMF has a wide range of activities and various programs, including, for instance, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, which directly covers our region including Georgia. But your direct responsibility area is Alliance for Securing Democracy. What is the mission of ASD, and how can our region’s countries be involved?  

External threats from authoritarian governments have coincided with internal challenges from domestic actors to weaken democratic norms and institutions 

LT: ASD is a nonpartisan initiative that develops comprehensive strategies to deter, defend against, and raise the costs on autocratic efforts to undermine and interfere in democratic institutions. ASD brings together experts on disinformation, malign finance, emerging technologies, elections integrity, economic coercion, and cybersecurity, as well as Russia and China, to collaborate across traditional stovepipes and develop cross-cutting frameworks. We have staff in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, engaging regularly with U.S. and EU policymakers as well as with government, private sector, and civil society leaders across Europe and beyond. 

It’s a critical time for such work as concerted efforts by malign actors to undermine democratic processes and erode democratic institutions pose a foundational threat to the United States and its democratic partners in Europe, Asia, and beyond. These external threats from authoritarian governments have coincided with internal challenges from domestic actors to weaken democratic norms and institutions. Georgians know well how malign forces can tear at the fabric of democracy. For years, Russia has used many of the tools we track, including cyber operations and information manipulation, in an attempt to weaken Georgia’s efforts to build a vibrant and sturdy democracy. And let’s not forget its occupation of Georgian territory, undermining Georgian sovereignty. But, as described above, Georgia faces internal challenges to democracy as well, providing more opportunities for external actors like the Russian government to amplify the damage inflicted at home. This phenomenon of course isn’t unique to Georgia. It has happened in the United States and in countries across Europe too. 

AK: Are you going back to your native US and will be based there? How does it feel professionally – and personally too – to come up from a regionally-focused work and start leading a global-level project?
I feel it is important – as someone who fervently believes in liberal democracy – to work to ensure that our own house is in order.

LT: It will be strange indeed! I have not lived in the U.S. in 25 years! It will be wonderful to be near family and friends and give my children an opportunity to live in their country of nationality for the first time ever.

Though I have worked from a global perspective at International IDEA, examining democracy across the world, it did not include a focus on my own country. I feel it is important – as someone who fervently believes in liberal democracy – to work to ensure that our own house is in order. We have seen the data – democratic backsliding is like the pandemic. It is contagious. The erosion of American democracy has ripple effects elsewhere. Even the language we use is quickly replicated. I worry specifically that the lie that our election was “stolen,” will become the new trend for losing parties everywhere. “I lost, ergo fraud,” leapt from the U.S. to Myanmar. 

We are all in this together, as democrats, to fight against the rise of authoritarianism and to build more resilient societies. To do so, we must support one another, share lessons learned and best practices, and operate in an alliance. Going solo is not an option.

AK: Last year we published your excellent article on democracy under COVID (link). Now, almost a year after, how can you summarize your reflections on the pandemics and its consequences? Is the world moving to normal, and what’s this new normal will be?

LT: COVID-19 had some detrimental effects on democracy, particularly in the area of freedom of speech and media freedom. Unfortunately, we have seen that it exacerbated democratic backsliding in many parts of the globe. However, I’d like to focus on the positive. First, I think in some ways it has rejuvenated a discussion on democracy, particularly the need to better prepare and equip democracies for crises, adopt risk management tools, and address underlying vulnerabilities (social and health inequities) that made the impact of COVID worse. Second, we discovered new innovations. Democratic parliaments adopted new ways to communicate with constituents, often through technology, opening up the legislative process in ways not seen before. Political parties shook up their ways of campaigning and reaching voters through creative means. I hope we will build back better based on some of the lessons learned during this crisis. 

AK: Would you like to comment on the current situation in the U.S., where democracy in fact had been passing through pretty unprecedented challenges?
What the U.S. needs to do is not different from what I described as Georgia’s challenge ahead. We need to deter, defend against, and raise the costs of efforts to undermine our democracies

LT: As I described above, the U.S. is indeed facing a challenge to its democracy. Which is part of the reason I am so motivated to work for ASD. As I have written about before, Americans are really living in different realities, shaping our view of government, leadership, and society. We, like people everywhere, are vulnerable to disinformation, fear, and the siren calls of illiberal populism and strongmen offering easy solutions and a bogeyman to blame for our problems. What the U.S. needs to do is not different from what I described as Georgia’s challenge ahead. We need to deter, defend against, and raise the costs of efforts to undermine our democracies, as is ASD’s mission. 

AK: I know that you have always paid much attention to the gender equality issues – our journal also has published several important pieces on this topic, from interviewing female defense ministers to talking about paid parental leave. We plan to keep on covering the most important aspects. Can you help us, and name top three themes related to gender equality of today and, perhaps, of tomorrow?

LT: Yes, I enjoyed your pieces very much! Your question is a difficult one, but living in Sweden for more than a year now, I see quite clearly the connection between not only parental leave but childcare and gender equality. Childcare is free and within walking distance for every family here. This is a game changer. To me, this is the most important infrastructure a country can have, and the data shows that it actually is not a net cost but a net gain economically. It’s no coincidence that Sweden excels in women’s representation given the infrastructure in place. 

Back to the issue of authoritarianism, this is a threat to gender equality, and gender is a key tool in the authoritarian toolbox. This tactic is as old as authoritarianism itself. Setting up control structures and pecking orders within society, such as those based on gender, helps authoritarians keep power. Tolerance for domestic violence, for example, is prevalent in authoritarian regimes. Violence and dominance in the family mimics the power structure the authoritarian state itself is perpetuating. 

We saw Hungary and Poland successfully got the term “gender equality” removed from an EU Social Summit in Portugal. Viktor Orban, who has famously promoted “illiberal democracy,” has aggressively gone after women’s rights and the LGBTQ community. Poland has bragged of  “LGBT-free zones.” Erdogan, another aspiring authoritarian, has pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention, a legally-binding Council of Europe treaty to tackle violence against women and hold perpetrators to account. Turkish women’s advocates warn that this will solidify women’s status as second class citizens, as well as cost lives. In the U.S., Republicans in many states are going after trans girls, interfering in personal family and doctors’ decisions to seek healthcare treatments and attempting to ban them from sports, despite no complaints from the athletes themselves.

Thus, advancing gender equality is very much linked to our efforts to thwart the rise of authoritarianism and illiberalism.

Of course there are also deeply engrained cultural, religious components to contend with, beyond the scope of this article! While those will be a more complicated and longer struggle to overcome, we can start with the enabling infrastructure and other governance mechanisms (protections in law, gender impact assessments and inquiries to examine effects of legislation and policy on gender, etc.).

AK: Thank you very much, and hope to see you soon.

This article was  reposted in  Alliance for Securing Democracy's website.

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