My team shared with me some of the words Secretary Albright used when she launched the Community of Democracies in 2000, on behalf of the United States. One line from her remarks stood out to me: “like the lantern in the coal mine, the vigor of civil society is a measure of the vigor of a democracy. If it lacks oxygen, freedom will start to flicker; if it flourishes, liberty’s light will continue to shine.” Twenty years later, these remarks continue to have strong resonance in the work of members of this Community to support and reinforce democratic governance, and they have particular resonance for we Americans at this challenging moment.
The hallmark of a strong democracy is an active civil society. In the United States we are once again seeing and experiencing the power of citizens to shape our own government. This process can often feel messy and uncomfortable, but as your remarks 20 years ago suggested, our liberty rests on empowering civil society to be a catalyst for democratic change and continual renewal and to ensure the government reflects the will of its people—ALL of its people.
In recent months, we have seen how some governments exploited the coronavirus pandemic to restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms, and sought to leverage health assistance to reinforce authoritarian practices globally. We have seen them use disinformation; censor independent media; scapegoat religious and other minority groups; restrict access to the Internet; expand mass surveillance; stifle political and civic activism; and suspend the rule of law.
Yet, it’s precisely in these challenging times – when more is demanded of us – that democracies must clearly acknowledge what we stand for and act together to promote and protect our values. Nations around the world are looking to us to demonstrate why the freedoms at the heart of our system of governance remain the best way forward.
America’s greatest strength has always been its hopeful vision of human progress. We seek progress not only because it makes a better world for our own people, but because it makes a better world for all people.
The United States is pleased to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Community of Democracies. Guided by our vision and our values, the United States stands with you in supporting human progress anchored in democratic principles. We support a vision of a world made up of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, in freedom, and at peace, and we reaffirm our shared values of liberty, human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
About the Author: Stephen E. Biegun serves as the Deputy Secretary of State