Going Outside the Bubble to Understand Threats to Democracy


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Deputy Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development Bonnie Glick discussed threats to democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, July 2019. Photo: Kimberly Renk

As a former business executive with IBM and a veteran policymaker, Bonnie Glick is well-equipped to bridge the Silicon Valley — Washington, DC divide.

It was a sunny day in mid-July when Glick, the deputy administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and her team touched down in the Bay Area. The group’s goal was to engage Silicon Valley leaders in USAID’s work, including a discussion with scholars from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) about threats to democracy from two key sources: authoritarian regimes and the abuse of social media.


In back-to-back roundtable meetings, FSI scholars drew from their research and expertise to discuss with Glick about how USAID could combat these thorny challenges. The scholars also had the opportunity to learn more about USAID’s priorities and programs. Below are highlights from their discussion.

The Authoritarian Threat
Vulnerable democracies are facing increasingly political and economic interference from authoritarian regimes, particularly China and Russia. The One Belt, One Road Initiative — China’s global development strategy comprising infrastructure projects and investments in 152 countries — can lead to excessive debt and undermine sovereignty in borrower countries, for example. Meanwhile, countries like Ukraine struggle with election meddling and information manipulation at the hands of the Kremlin.

Implications of Social Media Abuse
The misuse of social media also poses a threat to democracies. While Russian efforts to spread disinformation and discord in the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election may be the best known example, social media abuse is now a global problem propagated both by foreign adversaries and domestic foes. The case of social media fanning the flames of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar is a prime example of domestically driven social media abuse.

Glick and the USAID team appreciated hearing the perspectives of the FSI scholars. “One of the things that’s resonating so clearly is that the Washington, DC beltway bubble is a powerful force of nature,” Glick said following the roundtables. “For us, to get outside of that bubble and to be challenged in our ideas is extremely valuable.”