John Owen: Protecting Democracy from the Outside

Date(s) - November 18, 2020
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Categories No Categories

Protecting Democracy from the Outside

Wednesday, November 18 @ 4:00 p.m.

John Owen

Taylor Professor of Politics

Senior Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs

University of Virginia


Three decades after its supposed permanent global triumph, democracy is in trouble nearly everywhere.  In the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, constitutional self-government is on the back foot, as polarization destroys societal trust and anti-liberal populist movements and leaders enter parliaments and run governments.  Autocracy is becoming more entrenched in the two giants, China and Russia, and some countries openly proclaim their desire to be more like them.  Once seen as an inevitability, democracy now appears an achievement, a fragile one. Most analysts focus on the domestic maladies of democracies, but equally important is the international “environment” in which democracies operate.  In world politics there is an evolutionary dynamic in which the international environment selects for some types of state and against others.  Since the Second World War, the United States and other mature democracies have deliberately tried to preserve democracy at home by shaping the international environment through a liberal-internationalist foreign policy.  In the language of evolutionary theory, they have engaged in niche construction, altering their environment to “select for” constitutional self-government and “select out” authoritarianism.  For many decades, they enjoyed great success. But in recent decades, the niche they maintained has come to undermine democracy and favor autocracy.  Liberalism itself has transformed from its earlier classical and welfare forms to a cosmopolitan version that seeks to erase all barriers to economic and social interaction in the name of individual fulfillment.  Cosmopolitan liberalism has provoked cultural and economic backlash that jeopardizes constitutional democracy.  Furthermore, China and Russia – countries with different types of power and different prognoses – are both constructing their own niches, reshaping international order to select for autocracy.  Defending democracy will require a reformed liberal internationalism that will de-polarize electorates, restore solidarity among democracies, and be less inclusive of authoritarian regimes.  As the most powerful constitutional democracy, the United States retains the most important role in this reformation to protect democracy from the outside.


John M. Owen is Amb. Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Miller Center of Public Affairs, at the University of Virginia.  Owen is author of Confronting Political Islam (Princeton, 2015), The Clash of Ideas in World Politics (Princeton, 2010), and Liberal Peace, Liberal War (Cornell, 1997), and co-editor of Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order (Columbia, 2011).  He has published scholarly papers in the European Journal of International RelationsEuropean Journal of International SecurityGlobal PolicyInternational Organization, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, International PoliticsInternational Security, International Studies QuarterlyPerspectives on Politics, and several edited volumes.  His articles have appeared in Foreign AffairsThe Hedgehog ReviewThe HillThe Washington Post, National Interest, The New York Times,and USA Today.  He is a former Editor-in-Chief of Security Studies; he serves on its editorial board and that of International Security.  Owen has held fellowships at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Oxford, the Free University of Berlin, and the WZB Berlin Social Science Research Center.  He is a recipient of a Humboldt Research Prize (2015).  He holds an AB from Duke, an MPA from Princeton, and a PhD from Harvard.  In Fall 2020, he is a Visiting Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia.

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