Defending Democracy, An Officer’s Perspective

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Written by Kevin Duffy, Commander in the United States Coast Guard

What do the successful military officers of today think are the most important issues impacting global affairs? Serving military officers answer here in a new series of features in collaboration with Military Leadership Circle (MLC).

The health of democratic governance—its ability to survive and expand—will be the most significant issue impacting the state of global affairs in 2018 and beyond.  Indeed, the very question of the future of democracy is so vital as to be implicated in the consideration of almost every other issue that will alter or pose a threat to global order in the years to come.

This idea that democracy—for the purposes of this article, loosely defined as open political institutions controlled by citizenry—will be the key to ensuring positive (or at least, less negative) outcomes across a broad spectrum of challenges is not new. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment of democracy in the young America to Francis Fukuyama’s assertions about the implications of western democratic stability a century and a half later, there has been a longstanding appreciation for the centrality of open, consistent, citizen-controlled governance and its positive effects on affairs of all kinds.

Put more directly in the context of contemporary affairs, democracy’s impact on every single facet of our collective global future is the logical result of the way in which democratic governance impacts and is impacted by such matters as technological development, cyber policy, military affairs, security, health, environmental sustainability, trade, economics, globalization, and so on.

Moreover, today, the prevalence of democracy as a topic included in the discussion of so many other issues stems not merely from its undeniable importance, but also from several converging trends that are increasingly raising questions about its future.  Consider:  polls show that members of the millennial generation increasingly lack faith in democracy, populism and nationalism are on the rise globally, more authoritative models of governance (most notably embodied by China) are providing tangible alternatives, decidedly undemocratic regimes in Russia and Syria are claiming one of the most prominent anti-terrorist victories in recent years with their success against the Islamic State, and faith in the United States government (seen by many as the strongest democracy in the world) has been declining worldwide.  If democratic governance and values, with their strong connection to a liberal economic order and American leadership, are in decline, one of course must ask what comes next:  will the United States hold on to its role as democracy’s stalwart and regain global trust as such?  Will another country (or group of countries) emerge to take the mantle of democracy’s standard-bearer? Will another model or set of values eclipse democracy?

There are of course countless other important issues that will greatly influence the world in the years to come—but nearly all of them will do so through their impact on, or as an extension of, democracy’s fate.  Cyber security, for instance, will be critical to the future of global affairs, from the realm of finance to that of national defense. Ultimately, though, the responsible use of cyber tools will depend upon good governance and democratic values, and the most consequential impacts of cyber threats will be measured in how they change the balance of power between democratic regimes and their opponents.

The same dynamics apply to almost any other issue that one can name.  If democracy does not survive, any challenge faced by any nation or group of nations on Earth is far more likely to debilitate, to be manipulated or exploited, to spin out of the control of less robustly-accountable forms of governance. In the end, ensuring the health and spread of democracy is the most important challenge the world faces, as it will dictate how all other issues are dealt with and measured.

About the author: Kevin Duffy is a Commander in the United States Coast Guard and a member of the Military Leadership Circle. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the positions of the Department of Homeland Security, United States Coast Guard, or any government agency. More information on the Military Leadership Circle can be found at https://militaryleadershipcircle.com.