Ambassador Samantha Power Discusses the State of Democracy in 2019 Moynihan Lecture

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power discussed the current state of democracy around the world, the rise of China, and U.S. efforts to promote democracy in a public lecture that she delivered upon receiving the AAPSS 2019 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize. Power gave the seventh annual Moynihan Lecture on Social Science and Public Policy on October 3 in Washington, DC; it was televised by C-Span.

Power’s worldview has been informed by her work as a journalist covering politics, conflict, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She strongly advocated for the United States to take a more assertive role in combatting genocide, as detailed in her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, A Problem from Hell. Her early life, her career in public service, and her views on international diplomacy, problem-solving in complex circumstances, and the preservation of human dignity in the work of nations are documented in her newest book, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir.

Power was introduced at the lecture by Avril Haines, Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University and former Principal Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama. Haines described Power as an intellectual who wants to confront the most challenging questions, and as a civic leader who turns the focus on the human consequences of governmental action.

After opening her lecture by professing her admiration for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Power turned to a problem that had greatly concerned the senator when he was U.S. Ambassador to the UN under President Ford—the future of democracy. Moynihan had stated in 1975, “What troubles me so is to find that [democracy] is struggling to maintain its reputation in the world, and the heart has gone out of it.” Though from 1975 to Moynihan’s death in 2003, the number of democracies in the world more than doubled in what Power described as “three decades of democratic flowering around the world,” resulting in 65 percent of the countries in the world being democracies, we are now in a “democratic recession,” Power acknowledged.

The global expansion of democracy has ended, and we are experiencing the thirteenth straight year of freedom in decline worldwide. At the same time, Power noted, China is becoming more prominent, with a “desire to provide an alternative model [of governance] that does not imitate Western values.” As Power observed: “Although China has lifted millions of people out of poverty, the governance model has deeply disturbing aspects,” including its human rights practices, its banning of social communication, and its embrace of the concept of a “citizen score” to classify its citizens as safe, normal, or unsafe.

So, given a future in which the democratic model and the Chinese model coexist, what can be done to enhance democracy’s prospects? Power set forth three recommendations. First, “the most critical step for Americans to take is to focus on our own deeply divided democracy,” making headway on impediments such as big money in politics, gerrymandering, restrictions on voting rights, corruption, and “deep and ever deeper polarization.” Second, the United States needs to rebuild its diplomatic corps and put itself “in a position to adjudicate and strengthen democracies.” Third, “we have to get our mojo back, and we have to be prepared to defend democracy.” “Notwithstanding everything confronted here in the country and other democracies around the world,” Power said, “we have the better model. …”

Power concluded with the observation that “where the world is going is not already scripted. It will be decided by the resilience, the will, and the actions of the people who comprise the countries within that world. … Notwithstanding all of the grave structural challenges before us, when it comes to a cause as vital as the future of democracy, we must resist the temptation to spend our time admiring the problem. Rather, we must urgently work for the world we seek.”

See complete video of the 2019 Moynihan Prize lecture here.

The Moynihan Prize is awarded each year by The American Academy of Political and Social Science to pay tribute to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Prize recognizes social scientists, public officials, and civic leaders who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good. The 2019 lecture was cosponsored by SAGE Publications.