Speech by Joe Biden


Democracy in an Age of Authoritarianism

Remarks of Vice President Joe Biden
Copenhagen Democracy Summit
Copenhagen, Denmark
Friday, June 22, 2018

Good morning. It’s wonderful to be here in Copenhagen.
I especially want to thank my good friend,
Anders Fogh Rasmussen,
for inviting me to speak today on a topic
that is close to my heart, and critical to our shared future.

Several months ago, I received a letter from Anders.
He had an idea, he said, inspired by an article I wrote
with my colleague Mike Carpenter for Foreign Affairs.

The article discussed the Kremlin’s all-out assault
on the democratic institutions of the West—
their efforts to erode
the very underpinnings of liberal democracy,
including by meddling in our electoral process.

Anders wanted to organize a commission
that could help meet this threat—
one whose members crossed continents
and spanned the ideological spectrum politically,
but who were all united
by a passionate belief in democracy.

I thought it was an outstanding idea.
We spoke about it a few times on the phone,
and at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year.

And yesterday, as you know,
we held the first meeting of the newly organized
Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity.

It was a gathering of leaders with a broad cross-section
of expertise, including many former heads of state—
several of whom you just heard from.

Most of us don’t hold formal public office anymore.
But all of us share the same title—
what my friend Barack Obama calls
“the most important office in any democracy: citizen.”

We are all here as citizens—
because democracy
requires vigilant and constant tending.
As citizens, it is our solemn responsibility
to question and to scrutinize.
As citizens, it is our duty
to defend our democratic values and freedoms.

And today, unfortunately, the vital of work of citizens
to engage in their democracies
is more important than ever, all over the world.

Because the threat to democracy
isn’t confined to just Russia.
Authoritarianism is on the rise in every region.

Repressive regimes from China to Iran to Venezuela
are weakening democratic forces in their societies
and strengthening their grip on power.

These same governments are also increasingly projecting
authoritarian influence beyond their borders—
through cutouts and proxies,
energy manipulation and propagandizing—
to advance illiberal goals elsewhere,
increasing their own relative power.

At the same time, in established democracies,
including in my own country,
we are seeing appeals to
populism, nationalism, and xenophobia
weaken democratic norms and institutions from within.

In some ways, it’s understandable.
There are a lot of folks in my country
and in developed nations around the world
who are worried that politicians aren’t looking out for them, or for their children’s future.

In this age of interconnection, borders seem less real.
Terrorist attacks feel inescapable.
Fears about unrelenting migration mount
as people continue to flee violence and deprivation
in their homelands.

Some are worried the demographic and cultural foundations of their societies are forever being changed.

Add to that a growing sense of economic dislocation.

Globalization has not been an unalloyed good.
It has deepened the rift between those racing ahead
at the top and those struggling to hang on in the middle,
or falling to the bottom.

Technology has divorced productivity from labor—
meaning we’re making more than ever,
but with fewer workers.

Low-skill laborers are less in demand,
while highly-educated workers
are being paid more than ever—
contributing to rising inequality.

International trade and greater economic integration
has lifted millions of people in the developing world
out of abject poverty.

But many communities in the developed world
that have long depended on manufacturing
feel shut out of opportunities.

When people see the system as dominated by elites
and rigged to favor the powerful,
they are less likely to trust that democracy
can effectively address their problems.
And, in ways that evoke disturbing echoes of the 1930s,
frustrated and disaffected voters
may turn instead to strongmen.
Demagogues and charlatans step up
to stoke people’s legitimate fears
and push the blame onto scapegoats.


This is a storyline we have seen before.

Rather than some dramatic assault on democracy, however—a putsch or a coup—
our institutions and freedoms are slowly but determinedly being sanded down, little by little.

Each small step designed to curb institutional safeguards
and concentrate power in the hands of individual leaders.

In Poland, the ruling party portrays checks and balances
as an impediment to achieving key national goals,
and then uses that pretext to stack the courts
with political appointees.

Hungary’s leaders blame nefarious outside influences
for the ills of Hungarian society
while holding up “illiberal democracy”
as a model that best represents
the interests of common folks.

The Romanian government portrays
anti-corruption institutions
as impediments to effective governance
that need to be dismantled.

And all around the world,
repressive governments
are borrowing from one another’s playbooks—
• Deriding a critical free press as fake news.
• Questioning and delegitimizing the independent judiciary.
• Hamstringing civil society with
increasingly restrictive and repressive laws—
as we saw with Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” law, which labels any civil society group
that receives foreign funding as spies.

These are dangerous impulses for individual democracies.
Taken together, these trendlines threaten
to erode the democratic ideals and institutions
that are the foundation of the Western world.

And that’s exactly what authoritarian leaders want.

I’ve been very direct about
what I think the Kremlin is doing.

It wants to weaken democratic institutions,
divide Europe and its core institutions
of NATO and the EU,
and de-legitimize the rules-based international order.

That’s how Putin believes
he can maintain his grip on power.

And he is more than happy to use our greatest strength—
our open and vibrant societies—against us.
• Using the internet and social media to spread disinformation and exacerbate internal divisions.
• Exploiting our financial institutions to launder money and export corruption.
• Hacking our communications networks
to steal information.

That’s why the Transatlantic Commission
on Election Integrity is so critical.
Our goal is not to relitigate past intrusions,
but to expose ongoing threats to our institutions
—especially our free and fair elections—
and to frustrate future efforts
to exploit and manipulate our open societies.

As the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard,
famously wrote:
“Life can only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.”

Every day, we understand more and more
the depth and sophistication of Russia’s assault
on elections in the United States in 2016.
In hindsight, we learn about other places around the world where illiberal powers have sought
to manipulate and undercut democratic institutions.
Now we need to apply that understanding forward.

It’s not enough to know what happened in the past.
We have to anticipate and counter
the next evolution in their tactics.

With so many elections occurring
across Europe and North America in the coming months, Russia and other malign actors
have a target-rich environment.

We have the much harder job:
• to educate voters in these countries to understand
how influence is being bought and sold.
• to preserve the character of our open, vibrant,
and innovative societies
while preventing interference by a few bad actors.

So how can we go about doing this?

In cases of foreign interference,
establishing greater transparency
is the first and most important step.
If we can expose foreign meddling in real time—
we can blunt its success.

We’ve taken some small steps in the United States
toward this end, like the Honest Ads Act,
but both governments and social media companies
need to do a lot more to expose disinformation,
root out fake accounts,
and keep the public informed about
how foreign governments are trying to game the system.

We have to protect our networks and impose costs
when we find Kremlin proxies
penetrating our electoral infrastructure.

We have to improve the transparency
of our financial and real estate markets
to crack down on opaque or illicit
foreign financial flows and investments.

Recently, investigative journalists discovered
more than $20 billion in Russian money
laundering through just a couple of banks
in the Baltic states and Moldova,
almost all of it destined for Western financial institutions,
including Danske Bank right here in Denmark.

Corrupt money almost certainly finds its way
into our campaign finance systems.
We’d be foolish to believe otherwise.

And corrupt money is the preferred tool
of authoritarian regimes seeking to undercut
democratic governance across the board—
especially in fledgling democracies that lack
robust institutions to defend the rule of law.

That’s why we have to stand with those nations
that are on the frontlines of freedom—
newly democratic states
like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.
In the West, it’s all too easy to lament
the shortcomings in these countries,
as if fighting to regain one’s sovereignty
while adopting democratic reforms were easy.

They need help and support.
And if we are serious about our commitment
to advancing democratic values,
we owe it to them and to ourselves
to put more skin in the game.

I think the current U.S. administration
made the right decision
in sending Javelin missiles to support Ukraine.
But Javelins will neither win the war
nor help Ukraine become a democracy.

So much more is needed:
• political support for anti-corruption institutions,
• financial support for energy reforms,
• and technical support for customs and tax reform.

Those of us who champion democracy
must lead the charge.
We have to help these countries
to strengthen their young democracies
against internal and external threats
so that they do more than survive—they thrive.

If democracy takes root
in Ukraine, or Georgia, or Moldova,
think what a powerful inspiration
that would be to Russian citizens
living under Putin’s oppressive regime.

We also must battle the misguided perception
that Western democracy may no longer offer
the best path to geopolitical success.

The rise of China and successes
in a handful of authoritarian capitalist states
are contributing to a narrative that the authoritarian model is more competitive than democracy
in a globalized and increasingly automated economy.

But there’s overwhelming evidence
that liberal democracies that protect individual rights almost always outcompete authoritarian states
in the long run.

Spikes in oil prices and export-led industrialization
can deliver impressive economic growth for a time,
but no one should harbor the illusion that Putin’s Russia,
or the People’s Republic of China,
or any of the self-styled “illiberal democracies”
will deliver sustainable results.

Neither should we forget
that one of our greatest sources of strength—
one of the critical reasons
for our historic geopolitical success—
is the unprecedented system of alliances
that the United States and our European allies
built together after World War II.

Those alliances—
anchored in our shared democratic values—
are how we address every major global challenge
and successfully deter aggression.

Authoritarian nations may temporarily coerce nations
to their side through force or fear—
but compelled relationships are never
as reliable, resilient, or effective as voluntary partnerships.

We have to keep strengthening our alliances
and resist those who would undermine our solidarity.
Because without this basis of shared democratic values holding together the rules-based international order
we worked so hard to build,
we will surely see illiberal actors
rush to fill a global power vacuum—
overwriting rules we designed
to protect opportunity for the many
with rules that unfairly advantage a select few.

We have to double down on what we know works—
what has delivered growth and expanding prosperity
to democratic nations for generations.
Inclusive institutions.
The rule of law.
Equal protection and equality of opportunity for everyone.

That’s what makes open, democratic societies
the most prosperous, resilient, and strongest states
in the world.

We democracies, the United States included,
may not always live up to our highest values,
but we have to keep striving
toward a more just and more open future.

And finally, we have to loudly and unwaveringly
defend our shared values.
The vast majority of Americans,
and I suspect many Europeans too,
continue to believe that freedom and democracy
are vital to our future.

The new Penn Biden Center
for Diplomacy and Global Engagement
just completed an original survey research project
with Freedom House and the George W. Bush Institute
to better understand how the American people
feel about their democracy today.

The full results will be out next week, but I can tell you—
while it’s clear that a majority of Americans
are deeply worried about the way democratic principles and institutions are being eroded,
they’re not giving up on them.

This work has to start at home, for all of our countries.

That’s why the European Union’s new budget proposal
to withhold assistance based on compliance with democratic principles is smart, timely and important.

We have to recommit ourselves to the unending work
of living up to our values—even when it’s hard.

To treating everyone with dignity, without exception.
Respecting the rule of law.
Honoring the independent judiciary
and the separation of powers.
Demonstrating an incorruptible commitment
to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Yes, democracy can be messy and inefficient.
Progress is rarely straight forward or without setbacks.
But when everyone gets a say—
when every voice is heard and weighed equally
in the public debate,
when citizens are empowered
to hold their leaders to account,
when no one is above the law—
that’s when innovation and creativity
and new ideas succeed.
And that’s precisely why democracies
outperform autocracies.

If we have learned anything these past years, however,
it’s that we cannot allow complacency to take hold
or lull us into a false sense of untouchable superiority.

Despite its strengths,
and for all the reasons I’ve spoken about today,
democracy is vulnerable.

We have speak out when we see backsliding
anywhere in the world, including in our own societies.

And if our leaders cannot or will not do that—
for whatever reason,
then it falls to us to protect and preserve
our most sacred values.

That brings me back to where I began:
The responsibilities we bear as citizens,
And the power inherent in that role.

Because although one citizen alone may be limited
in his or her ability to effect change,
even a small group of citizens working together
with a shared purpose
can become a powerful catalyst for action.

That’s why, all around the world,
activists and advocates and everyday citizens
wake up and get to work.
They sign petitions and organize protests
and run for office.

They share the bone-deep conviction
that the world can be better.
Democracy is the belief that we can make it better.
But it doesn’t happen by chance.

I’ll close today with an oft-told story
from the earliest days of my nation.

It’s said that as Benjamin Franklin
was exiting the Constitutional Convention,
a group of concerned citizens approached him to ask
what kind of government the delegates had decided on.

He responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”


Democracy demands diligence.
Democracy demands engagement.
And sometimes,
democracy demands sacrifice of its citizens.

That’s how we keep it.

We have to keep fighting the battles that need fighting—
each of us must be willing to step into the breech
in our own countries.

For my part, I intend to keep speaking out—
through my work at the Penn Biden Center,
the Biden Foundation,
the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity
and every avenue available to me.

And I look forward to working with and alongside
all of you in this mission—
to reaffirm our shared democratic values
and expand the cause of liberty around the world.
Because an engaged citizenry
is the best and most reliable barrier
against the erosion of our freedoms.

If we do not stand up our democratic values,
and our democratic future—
no one else will.

Thank you.