Watch: How to Outsmart the Bad Guys; NED at Munich Security Conference

As world leaders, senior policymakers, and experts gathered for the 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in the ornate Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) put democracy and human rights in the spotlight.

“When we see violations of human rights, when we see the undermining of democracy, it fuels instability and conflict.” said NED President and CEO Damon Wilson. “[Democracy] is at the heart of security and needs to be represented in the Munich conversations.”  

The NED-hosted Town Hall “Autocracy Inc. vs. Democrats United: How to Outsmart the Bad Guys,” moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum, brought together a distinguished panel including Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa; Leader of Free Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya; Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad; U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; and Congressman Gerry Connolly to discuss how authoritarian leaders are working together like never before, using technology to defeat democracy movements and hold on to power at any cost. 

“We’re not dealing with one country, we’re dealing with a group of countries,” explained Applebaum, a NED Board Member, whose forthcoming book and extensive research explains how autocracies are waging a sophisticated, coordinated global campaign that increasingly combines new technology, complex financial networks, and manipulated media environmentsnot only to better control their own people, but also to bolster each other, capture elites, and undermine democracies. “When [autocrats] have common interests, they work together, and we see them exchanging technology and ideas.” 

Top left: Masih Alinejad, Rep. Gerry Connolly, & Anne Applebaum; Top right: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse & Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya; Bottom right: Masih Alinejad & Rep. Gerry Connolly; Bottom Left: Maria Ressa & Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Photo Credit: MSC/Andreas Schaad
Top left: Masih Alinejad, Rep. Gerry Connolly, and Anne Applebaum; Top right: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya; Bottom right: Masih Alinejad and Rep. Gerry Connolly; Bottom Left: Maria Ressa and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. (Photo by MSC/Andreas Schaad)

Corruption, which has fueled international violence and harm to neighboring countries, cannot be written off as a local problem. “This is a weaponized system for accruing power,” said Senator Whitehouse. Both Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Connolly noted the strong commitment toward democracy around the world among the large delegation of Senators and members of Congress attending MSC, with several joining the NED Town Hall audience, including Speaker Mike Johnson; Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries; Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Gregory Meeks, and Congressman Jason Crow. “For the corrupt officials, the corruption system is their life support system, a life and death battle to defend the system of corruption,” said Senator Whitehouse. “For us, it’s just another issue, and it may not be the shiny, bright issue of the moment. So, we have to really up our level of persistence and determination and understand that we are against a very dangerous adversary.” 

As corrupt autocrats offer an attractive and lucrative alternative to the hard work of building democratic rule of law for societies that empower their own people, our information system is also corrupted. “If you have no facts, you don’t have truth; you don’t have trust, you tear apart the public sphere,” said Ressa—Chair of the World Movement for Democracy at NED—noting that 2024 is a tipping point, since around half the world will vote in elections this year. “And this is a shared system. You will not have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts.”  

Masih Alinejad, NED staffers Christine Bednarz and Agnesa Ljamadjema, Kosar Eftekhari, and NED President and CEO Damon Wilson

Although independent observers agree Tsikhanouskaya won the Belarus presidential election of August 2020 against dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenko, Tsikhanouskaya now must work for a better future for her country from abroad. “Every crime has to have its consequences,” she said. “If dictators don’t see decisiveness from democracy, they perceive it as weakness. It’s so important, unity, but it’s also important about every institution, every country, every person’s responsibility for defending democracy.” 

Representing the struggle of women in Iran, Alinejad asked 24-year-old Kosar Eftekhari, who lost her eye during last year’s uprising in Iran to a bullet fired by the Revolutionary Guards, to stand in the audience in an emotional reminder of the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. 

Alinejad described the World Liberty Congress, an alliance of around 300 democracy defenders including Eftekhari, as a solution to unite, mobilize, and work in common cause in the fight for freedom. “We invited all dissidents and leaders from different countries to find a solution that how we can support each other and how we can ask democratic countries to be united and take actions.

As the challenges grow tougher and more complex to undermine democracies, Congressman Connolly reminded the audience that democracy has models of success that are already working. “We need to be cautious about not succumbing to hopelessness,” Congressman Connolly said.  “There are a lot of strengths in our democratic institutions. There’s a lot of resilience.”