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Foreign Policy

Biden should strengthen the ability of the exiles

The crisis in Afghanistan not only threatened the security and freedom of millions of Afghans, but also threatened US President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda to sustain global democracies. Efforts to promote democratic ideals – including free expression, gender equality and free elections – in Afghanistan have essentially come to an end. Elsewhere, there have been other terrifying setbacks to Biden’s democracy agenda.

Myanmar, whose young democracy was once the pride of the Obama administration, has returned to junta rule. In Hong Kong, China crushed the local democracy movement. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has gone door to door targeting civil society groups. And in Tunisia, which has long been considered the only surviving success story of the Arab Spring, President Kais Saied is carrying out a purge of all but his closest followers.

To counteract this anti-democratic upswing, the US government must do more than just support existing democracies. It needs to empower individual Democrats, many of whom have gone into hiding or on the run. Countless Afghan human rights defenders, feminists, journalists, writers and intellectuals have risked their lives and left homes and families to escape life under the Taliban. Exiles are pouring in from Myanmar, Russia, Hong Kong and elsewhere. They all need support, and investing in them should be high on Biden’s democracy agenda.

The crisis in Afghanistan not only threatened the security and freedom of millions of Afghans, but also threatened US President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda to sustain global democracies. Efforts to promote democratic ideals – including free expression, gender equality and free elections – in Afghanistan have essentially come to an end. Elsewhere, there have been other terrifying setbacks to Biden’s democracy agenda.

Myanmar, whose young democracy was once the pride of the Obama administration, has returned to junta rule. In Hong Kong, China crushed the local democracy movement. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has gone door to door targeting civil society groups. And in Tunisia, which has long been considered the only surviving success story of the Arab Spring, President Kais Saied is carrying out a purge of all but his closest followers.

To counteract this anti-democratic upswing, the US government must do more than just support existing democracies. It needs to empower individual Democrats, many of whom have gone into hiding or on the run. Countless Afghan human rights defenders, feminists, journalists, writers and intellectuals have risked their lives and left homes and families to escape life under the Taliban. Exiles are pouring in from Myanmar, Russia, Hong Kong and elsewhere. They all need support, and investing in them should be high on Biden’s democracy agenda.

Exiles with a demonstrated commitment to democratic ideals have long played a prominent role in political struggles. The poet Pablo Neruda helped keep the visions of a free Chile alive during the years of exile. South Africa’s second president Thabo Mbeki spent almost 30 years in London, Moscow and African capitals to coordinate the resistance against the apartheid state. The Czech writer Milan Kundera spent 40 years in exile, his books recreate the global perception of Eastern Europe and gathered support for the transformation. Exiled students who survived the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 raised awareness of China’s ruthlessness around the world.

The digital age has the potential to further empower exiles. Those who work underground in autocratic countries can now connect to their colleagues abroad via encrypted channels. Social media and the Internet make it possible to remotely interfere in day-to-day business so that dissidents can stay influential at home and build a new life for themselves in distant lands.

None of this means that exiles should be glorified as oracles of politics or anointed as leaders of waiting. Political refugees can be complex characters who do not always have clearly admirable policies. They often have conflicting loyalties and blind spots that are made worse by the trauma of exile.

Exiled communities can also split up due to political differences or compete for scarce resources. US-based Iraqi businessman Ahmed Chalabi helped the US invade Iraq in 2003 by making false claims about weapons of mass destruction. Kundera was adored by a worldwide literary audience, but was criticized for sitting out the Velvet Revolution in his country.

Nonetheless, individuals with a strong independent voice and a track record of principled support for rights and democracy should be treated as key allies in sustaining democratic aspirations. Global non-governmental organizations and American diplomats with relevant country expertise can help identify exiled dissidents whose influential voices have the greatest potential.

Right now, it’s not happening nearly as effectively as it could. In the spreading chaos at Kabul airport, the world witnessed the discrepancy between American ideals and reality. Human rights defenders facing imminent danger had to plead for their lives to any government that listened and made several awkward and opaque motions. Those who did not meet certain criteria – such as having a US passport or working with a US organization – were often pushed aside.

The United States should help forge a system of global coordination to enable timely screening of visa applicants – with categories tailored to human rights defenders, citizen leaders, intellectuals and dissidents in need of instant safe haven. A coordinated approach to entry visas, refugee status and asylum could help to distribute the obligations fairly among the democratic countries that are ready to play a role.

Democratic exiles also need new forms of long-term support. Mobilizing funds and job opportunities for democratic champions would help these activists maintain their networks, audiences, and impact. Technology companies that need linguistic and cultural know-how could be encouraged to develop networks in exile and to support them accordingly.

Efforts should not only be aimed at political activists, but also at journalists, playwrights, poets, novelists and artists. Creative thinkers can help maintain the flow of information, ideas, and national pride that provide vital nourishment for oppressed populations. Funding for translation, publications and cultural productions such as theater and art shows can sustain exiles while raising the morale of beleaguered citizens by spreading their stories on the world stage.

Dissidents with the potential to lead future governments or play a significant role in civil society should be trained and mentored. Universities and foundations should be mobilized to integrate exiles into their communities and offer services to break down isolation and language barriers. Advanced technologies for secure communications and campaigns should be distributed through networks of exile, and activists dispersed around the world should be convened for conferences and workshops to share effective strategies and encourage collaboration.

Protection should also be provided or improved. Earlier this summer, the FBI revealed a plan by the Iranian government to kidnap New York-based dissident Masih Alinejad and bring him to Venezuela. The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the execution of Iranian blogger Ruhollah Zam reflect new patterns of terror aimed at eliminating dissent.

Even nominal democracies like Bangladesh and Turkey are licensed to attack their critics abroad. The United States should mobilize international intelligence and law enforcement agencies to protect dissidents, coordinate against such conspiracies and killings, and cooperate in reprisals and sanctions for such atrocities

During the 2020 campaign, Biden made democracy a core part of his foreign policy and pledged to host a summit of like-minded Democrats in his first year in office. A concerted effort to preserve, protect and strengthen the position of the exiles can help revitalize the Biden government’s democracy agenda while avoiding some of the most glaring dangers of trying to establish democracy directly on hostile terrain.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken directed embassies around the world to emphasize rights and freedoms vis-à-vis foreign counterparts, despite recognizing the United States’ own imperfect record. On August 11, when the Taliban encircled Kabul, the government announced that it would convene democratically elected heads of state to a virtual conclave in December. This meeting is intended to initiate a year-long process to strengthen democracy, which will culminate in a live meeting at the end of 2022.

Biden’s democracy agenda is not a favorite project. The withdrawal of democracy around the world threatens not only the global interests of the US, but also domestic democracy. The proliferation of government-sponsored technologies, including surveillance tools, risks creating a Beijing-bound, interdependent world. China’s economic clout has already forced Hollywood studios and US universities, technology companies and media companies to play by Beijing’s rules or lose access to the world’s fastest growing market. Autocrat-run countries are opting for non-judgmental patronage from Russia and China over a partnership with Washington, which diminishes America’s economic clout and market access.

As the Biden government ponders its democracy agenda towards the end of a busy first year, it shouldn’t focus solely on the existing democracies and their elected leaders. It should double down on support from individuals, informal groups and organizations committed to democracy wherever they are. Democracies arise and succeed because people believe in the principles they uphold. By helping exiled Democrats, the United States and other established democracies can help these ideals flourish.

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