Global Democracy Conference

During this week’s inaugural Global Democracy Conference organized by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, many speakers affirmed the universal desire for freedom and human rights, but perhaps none more so than former Nicaraguan political prisoner Juan Sebastián Chamorro.

Chamorro, now the Hewlett Visiting Fellow for Public Policy at Kellogg, was a politician and economist before opposing authoritarian President Daniel Ortega. Chamorro was held in prison for almost two years until February 2023, when he came to South Bend in exile after losing Nicaraguan citizenship.

When asked why people are willing to defend democracy in the face of risk, Chamorro said that each person has a different reason. And that it is never easy.

“The torture of not knowing what was happening to my family made me wonder if I had made the right decision,” said Chamorro, who endured death threats, beatings, and false accusations.

Yet he and other defenders of democracy – many of them killed – find they cannot turn a blind eye to the injustices and excesses of authoritarian governments. The new Democracy Initiative at the University of Notre Dame is a 10-year strategic framework to prioritize the global defense of democracy and lead the research and conversations intended to preserve it.

The initiative, with the Global Democracy Conference at the forefront, is led by political scientist David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy.

State of the World
The Global Democracy Conference featured Secretary General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States (OAS) who, along with R. Scott Appleby, the dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs, signed a memorandum of understanding between Notre Dame and the OAS to share resources and collaborate on promoting democracy.

“We need to work harder in order to be able to bring these solutions,” said Almagro, adding that many of Latin America’s challenges span generations, as is the case with Cuba. Almagro and other conference speakers noted the authoritarian shifts in Nicaragua, Venezuela, El Salvador, and beyond that have compromised democratic rule in contexts of insecurity and weak governance.

“I think the Salvadoran case is very problematic especially since many other countries are looking to it as a model,” said Wendy Hunter, a professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin and Kellogg Institute advisory board member. Hunter, referring to the repressive crackdown led by President Nayib Bukele, nonetheless remains optimistic about the region.

“I think there have been some successes,” she said. “Guatemala is sitting right next to El Salvador. And after a series of shady characters, they elected – and he remains standing – Bernardo Arévalo, and crime from drugs and such is down in that country.” Haiti, though, was not a bright spot. Hunter agreed with Scott Mainwaring, the Eugene P. and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, that Haiti had become a failed state while adding it had the potential to destabilize the Dominican Republic and affect rule of law there as well. 

The Path Forward
Turning to the United States, Campbell joined a panel with NBC News journalist Anne Thompson ’79, and Notre Dame political science professor Christina Wolbrecht, the C. Robert and Margaret Hanley Family Director of the Notre Dame Washington Program.

Also joining the panel was Frank Langfitt of National Public Radio, whose title as NPR Global Democracy correspondent reflects – as Thompson noted – an organizational commitment to exploring the challenges to democratic norms and values in an era of erosion around the globe.

High on Langfitt's list of concerns are disinformation challenges and deep polarization. “We all know there is not a shared sense of facts and reality,” said Langfitt, describing a US political climate in which the cognitive dissonance exceeds what he’s witnessed in other countries.

Similar to the “State of the World” sessions on Latin America and the US, scholars focused on the African continent held a roundtable led by Jaimie Bleck, an associate professor of political science focused on democracy in Mali. They provided a clear-eyed assessment of democratic backsliding with a discussion of the recent military coups across the Sahel and broader Africa.

Bleck was joined by Joseph Asunka, the CEO of Afrobarometer, the premier polling and political research organization on the African continent. Asunka said that it’s not the economy that drives these coups, but rather the frustration with the deficits of democracy. For example, Afrobarometer surveys find that nearly all Africans support term limits for elected officials, but African leaders often defy constitutional limits in order to remain in power.

Historically, some military coups have opened a transition to democracy. Keynote speaker Helena Carreiras, the former Minister of Defense in Portugal, explained how the military advanced a durable democratic transition there but she was clear that is not the experience in all nations. Across Africa, authoritarian abuses that lead to military coups often fail at establishing democratic practices when new governments emerge. To many minds, the history of Western governments is one of propping up corrupt regimes, Asunka said. The electorate becomes disillusioned by corruption, and democracy is viewed less favorably, with data suggesting that fewer Africans trust democracy as a system of government.

“We started with (measuring) democratic deficits and the yearnings of Africans for democratic governance,” Asunka said. “What we are beginning to observe now is a gradual decline in people’s commitments to democratic governance.” Even though Africans overall still support democracy, the drop is notable in nations like Mali and South Africa, though the reasons differ.

New Ideas
Despite the bleak outlook, Africa scholars Rachel Riedl of Cornell University and Naunihal Singh of the US Naval War College offered some ideas on another priority of the conference: the theme of finding a path forward. Malawi and Kenya have seen independent judiciaries stand up to electoral violations, Riedl said, in an example of the horizontal dimension of democracy discussed by political science professor and Africa  expert James Long of the University of Washington.

In that model, one that Long presented during the session on “Inequality, Human Development, and Democracy,” the horizontal axis represents the accountability for democratic performance between elected leaders and other institutions such as electoral commissions and the judiciary. It stands in contrast to the vertical dimension and the accountability to the citizens of a nation.

Meanwhile, Singh expressed discouragement over US resources committed to diplomacy on the African continent and the need for meaningful engagement, with both Riedl and Singh noting that the West needs to think differently about the influence of other actors, including China, given that Africans see a win-win in their foreign relations with more than one country.

The African continent also is home to nations who are using artificial intelligence (AI) tools for what Giorleny Altamirano Rayo of the US Department of State calls all the right reasons. She works to assist US diplomats across the globe in using AI to help meet their mission goals. In some states, AI can be used to support citizen engagement and deliberative democracy. Tech tools also can be deployed to counter the disinformation that tech tools make possible, too.

Defending Democracy
Ultimately, though, the future of democracy relies on the human spirit and an intentional approach to equipping students, leaders, and the communities they serve with the tools and education to guard and advance democratic principles. As an example, Langfitt invited conversation with academics in the hope of more nuanced media presentation of their work.

Academics, researchers, and practitioners are needed to defend communities both at home and abroad. The welcome extended to Chamorro from the Kellogg Institute is a type of solution promoted by the National Endowment for Democracy, which offers fellowships to match at-risk democracy defenders seeking refuge with academic institutions like Notre Dame.

Director of Fellowship Programs Zerxes Spencer, during a panel discussion led by Kellogg Institute Director Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, presented information on how universities are offering opportunities and demonstrating their values through partnership with the organization.

Much like the conference itself, as Pérez-Liñán noted, Kellogg and its partners are exploring “the impact and the different ways in which activists, political actors, and institutions can help contain the backsliding of democracy, as well as how universities can collaborate in this process, both in terms of research and in terms of hosting people.”

The Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is an interdisciplinary community of scholars and students from across the University and around the globe that promotes research, provides educational opportunities, and builds partnerships throughout the world on the themes of global democracy and integral human development.