Former British Prime Minister David Cameron says the West needs to rediscover its “democratic mojo,” but that it also must address the root causes of the populism that has emboldened authoritarians around the world.
Cameron, who oversaw the holding of the 2016 “Brexit” referendum that led the U.K. to decide to quit the European Union, was in Washington on Thursday to promote a new report on how best to help “fragile states” achieve a lasting democracy.
The report comes as many are questioning whether the appeal of Western-style democracy is fading, especially as populist sentiments have led to the rise of leaders with an affinity for strongman-rule, such as U.S. President Donald Trump.
Cameron dismissed the idea that Western democracy is in danger, but he said it could use a jolt of confidence.
“We need to rediscover our democratic mojo in the West, and be proud of the fact that we are real democracies,” Cameron said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters. “We don’t just have elections every five years. We have the rule of law, we have independent courts … we have the free press. These are the things that really mark us out.”
He acknowledged, however, that there’s been a backlash to the Western model. In countries such as Hungary, Poland and, some argue, the United States, populist and nationalist forces have gained ground in recent years. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, has complimented the Chinese and Russian models of governance and is pushing what's effectively one-party rule in his country.
The slim victory in the 2016 referendum by pro-Brexit forces has also been cited as the result of groundswell of nationalism. That referendum result prompted Cameron’s resignation as prime minister.
Cameron declined to answer questions specifically related to Brexit on Thursday morning. He argued more broadly, however, that the way to handle such situations is “to deal with the causes of populism.”
“We’ve got to make sure our economies are working for everybody, try and make sure people aren’t left behind by globalization,” he said.
In an earlier interview with CNN, Cameron said he didn’t regret allowing the 2016 referendum because he was keeping a promise, but that he wished the result had gone the other way.
Asked Thursday morning about Trump’s “America First” philosophy, which includes attempts to slash the amount the U.S. spends on foreign aid, Cameron said helping the developing world will simultaneously help the national security of wealthier states.
“If you want to have secure borders, if you want to control immigration, if you want to combat terrorism, then fragile broken states are something you should care about very deeply,” Cameron said.
Cameron has spent much of the past year chairing a commission looking at ways to help “fragile states” — loosely defined as poor countries with corrupt, ineffective governments — become stronger and more democratic.
One of the resulting report’s key recommendations is that Western countries should not push such fragile states toward holding elections before other key goals are achieved. Those goals may include creating more jobs and achieving some level of reconciliation among various feuding factions.