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The Copenhagen Democracy Summit was held a little over a week ago on June 22, launching a global “alliance” for democraciesa form of government under siege in many nations.  This is the first of several reflections, recaps, and reporting on this inaugural event.  Our Director of International Development Joy London, and our Chief Operating Officer, Gregory Miller received invitations to attend and participate in an invitational group of 250 attendees. Mr. Miller was unable to attend due to a logistical conflict, however, Ms. London did attend, and this article utilizes portions of her reporting.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and former secretary-general of NATO, drove this inaugural event.  He managed to bring together top politicians, including former US Vice President Joseph Biden, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK Nick Clegg, and many others.

Ms. London noted that Rasmussen quickly “cut to the chase” in his opening remarks making the point that much has been taken for granted, stating:

Today gives us an opportunity to recommit to principles we often take for granted – freedom, democracy, open markets and an open society. For too long we have assumed that these values are unquestionable. And like in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ we have for too long refused to see the naked truth.  The truth is that democracy is in decline in every region of the world.  It is ironic that citizens living in democratic societies have never been so free, so empowered, so peaceful and were offered so many opportunities and yet many of these people no longer feel that our democratic systems served them well.”

Rasmussen posed the question of how to remedy this dangerous disconnect occurring in Western democracies. Many, he said, especially younger generations seem to feel:

We’re good here; sure, things are polarized, truth and decorum may be under attack, and perhaps there are some blinded by their ideology that are sacrificing the will of the people for agendas of position preservation, but we’ll get through it — we always have.”

Rasmussen also observed that among the many structures of democracy under attack, perhaps the most vital are alliances, such as the NATO alliance and other coalitions.  These alliances will work together to prevent the “weaponizing” of the elements of free societies.  For example, the spread of fear, uncertainty, and doubt by autocratic, authoritarian, and undemocratic states is turning our freedoms into strategic weakness when they should be our strongest assets.  Rasmussen emphasized that democracies must be united in the common endeavor “to make democracy great again.”

Rasmussen is convinced that “a world without American leadership would be a less free and less democratic world,” however, he agreed that America should not carry the leadership burden alone. Other democracies must also assist.

As part of the defense of the free world, Rasmussen and former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff have formed a Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity (“TCEI”).  Rasmussen made the point:

We will take action to tackle the menace of election meddling. The premise is simple: between now and the US Presidential election, there will be over 20 elections in EU, NATO and Western countries, including the US Mid Terms and European elections. We know that Russia has been interfering in votes on both sides of the Atlantic.  We can be certain that they will try again; and others may seek to copy their playbook. So, we must work across the Atlantic now, and we must close the gaps in our policy response.”

The TCEI is a group of experts from the “political, business, technology, and media spheres.” Rasmussen said they “will make recommendations, sound the alarm, and raise awareness of challenges and solutions to be developed.”

The OSET Institute will have more to say about this in coming weeks, but we are excited to report there is an opportunity to advise the TCEI on the technology of election administration as a significant, if not centerpiece element, of any awareness-raising about the security of elections.  We anticipate being a proactive contributor in assessing and making recommendations about how to increase the verifiability, accuracy, security, and transparency in the process of election administration.

To be sure, election technology is just one aspect of the many threats to democracy.  How campaigns conduct themselves, how they are attacked, the abuses of electioneering, and the (mis)use of digital age tools to carry out assaults on the process of elections are equally vexing challenges.  

During the day’s panel discussions, there was unanimous agreement that democracy is under threat.  Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón assured that democracy is “the only one regime where freedom is the way to live.” However, he noted that younger generations have increasingly taken their freedoms and liberties for granted; “they never imagine another way.”  And yet, it is obvious when one considers that in other regimes, there is no social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves echoed this, noting that “Now we have a generation coming of age who does not know life without democratic rights and freedom.”  Yet, elders remember the communist and fascist regimes in the heart of Europe.  Indeed, there is a disconnect — not just in what people believe is their current democracy versus the reality of what it is becoming, but also there is a disconnect between the generations on how things could be any other way than the freedoms they’ve taken for granted, as part of daily life in democracy.

Now, adversarial nation-states that view democracy as an institutional threat to their agendas are seizing on the conveniences of the digital age to weaponize social media and use it to polarize, divide, and potentially destroy democratic societies.  Former US Vice President Joseph Biden, who delivered the keynote, crystallized this idea in his remarks:

 “The threat to democracy isn’t confined just to Russia. Authoritarians are rising in every region of the world. Repressive regimes from China to Iran to Venezuela are weakening democratic forces and our societies. At the same time, in established democracies, including my own country, we are seeing an appeal to populism, nationalism, and xenophobia, weakening democratic norms and institutions. Frustrated and disaffected voters may turn to strongmen. Demagogues and charlatans step up to stoke people’s legitimate fears and push the blame on the other. There is nothing new here.”

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Biden went further in focusing on Russia, observing, “The Kremlin wants to weaken democratic institutions, to divide Europe and scorn institutions of NATO and the EU, and to de-legitimize the international world order. Why wouldn’t they?”

Accordingly, Biden called the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity "critical."

Rasmussen explained that the Copenhagen Democracy Summit and the TCEI are not “just think tanks, they are “do tanks.”  He promised several concrete initiatives and a wide range of activities as follow-ups to this Summit.

A critical component to fortifying democracy is ensuring evidenced-based, verifiable, accurate, secure elections that are transparent in composition and process.  OSET’s part of this ongoing effort is how to make that technology possible

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