Doug Saunders offers a New Year’s resolution for Canada: Keep the undemocratic forces of the world in check, but do it more directly, independently and honestly than ever before.

When Robert Mugabe was finally pushed out of the presidential palace in Harare after 37 devastating years in November, the Zimbabwean people celebrated joyously. The departure of the 93-year-old dictator, however, was not primarily the work of those citizens or their movements, despite decades of patient protest. Rather, it was brought about in large part by foreign governments, which used their institutions, their political advice and their economic influence to provoke and guide the transition, ensuring that their values and aspirations were part of the new Zimbabwe.

A decade ago, that role might have been played in large part by Canada, whose agencies had poured tens of millions of dollars into opposition movements and democracy-building causes in Zimbabwe during a period when Mr. Mugabe overturned election results and tightened his dictatorship.

Hundreds of Canadians had worked to prepare Zimbabweans for just the sort of transition that took place this year. But Canada’s last project to return Zimbabwe to democracy and build the institutions of multiparty government, the $3.4-million Zimbabwe Civil Society Fund II, dried up in 2013 after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down its major democracy-promotion agencies, and withdrew resources from countries such as Zimbabwe as part of a larger shift in Canada’s foreign-policy focus.

Instead, the country that ended up playing an outsized role in Zimbabwe’s transition was China. Beijing hosted former vice-president Emmerson (the Crocodile) Mnangagwa when he was exiled by Mr. Mugabe in early November, reportedly worked closely with him to help engineer the military coup that pushed Mr. Mugabe out, and used its sizable investments in the country’s resource industries and infrastructure to ensure that the new regime is coherent with Beijing’s political values.

Competing for sway was Russia, which has used investments, diplomacy and influence to help the Zimbabwean dictatorship get around Western sanctions and steer away from multiparty elections. Zimbabwe’s popular opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been shunted to the sidelines by a new regime that appears to be putting stability ahead of democracy – in line with the values of its sponsor countries.

Democracy is in trouble these days, and not just in Zimbabwe. A half-dozen formerly democratic countries, from Cambodia to Turkey to Niger, have seen single parties or strongman rulers seize power and shut down opposition in the past couple of years; many others have seen the collapse of rule of law and fundamental rights, and even the most stable Western countries are threatened by populist movements. The monitoring organization Freedom House reports that the past year has seen a “dramatic decline” in democratic rights on every continent – just the latest in 11 straight years of erosion.

That’s partly because countries such as Russia and China are doing a better job winning the hearts and minds of foreign leaders, and spending more money selling their vision of one-party rule or “managed democracy.” By comparison, established democracies are often losing the war of ideas in poor and middle-income countries (and even in some Eastern and Central European states) – in part because many the traditional exporters, notably the United States, have fallen prey to illiberal forces at home, and have seen a loss of their international reputations in the wake of the failed regime-change missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s also because the number of countries pouring substantial funds into democracy movements and opposition parties abroad has dwindled.

This is where Canada can have a vital, disproportionately influential effect on the fate of the world. It is time for Ottawa to get back into the democracy business: A large-scale commitment to stopping the backslide of democracy and encouraging opposition movements would achieve far more than, for example, an increase in peacekeeping forces or a larger grant to a United Nations institution. It is the most important thing Canada could do, in the long term, to protect its national interests, its domestic security and its citizens’ livelihood, because the rise of undemocratic forces threatens to strip us of our trusted political and trading partners and foster a more threatening, less secure international neighbourhood.

A return to the field of full-scale democracy promotion, more robustly and directly than in previous decades, would be the missing linchpin in the Trudeau government’s other big international initiatives, including advocating for the rights of women and Indigenous peoples.

But it would not be a simple matter of restoring and expanding the institutions and budgets that existed in previous decades. If Canada is to be a successful exporter of democracy, we need to reinvent the way we do it. To sell democracy today, we need to an approach that is more direct, more independent and more honest.

To understand how Canada can bring democracy to the world today, we need to understand how we’ve done it in the past. Democracy promotion has been a significant part of the Canadian political vocabulary since the end of the Second World War – both through Ottawa’s significant role in setting up and funding democracy-building organizations in the United Nations and elsewhere to bring these ideas to the ruins of Europe and to the newly postcolonial countries of the developing world. (When future prime minister Lester B. Pearson helped establish NATO in 1949, he unsuccessfully tried to give it a democracy-building role, as well as its eventual military function.)

In the 1980s, when the Cold War began to transform into a postcommunist transition, the Mulroney government launched two new organizations intended to promote democratic institutions and ideals in the world. The first was an arms-length, semi-independent but taxpayer-funded organization called the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, which later operated under the abbreviated name Rights & Democracy. The second was a division within the foreign-aid agency Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), devoted to “Human Rights, Democratic Development and Good Governance.”

What they had in common was a mission to advocate for democracy indirectly: not by backing opposition movements and parties, as the United States was known for doing, but by using international treaties and agreements to support the development of rule of law, accountable public institutions, human rights and political freedom, and build a stable foundation.

These organizations were small and limited in scope, though. By the mid-2000s, it was glaringly apparent that they were no longer working – that is, the number of democratic countries had stopped growing. In response, in 2007, Canada appeared poised to make a big push into overt democracy promotion. A report by the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and International Development (under a Conservative minority government) called for the creation of a “Canada foundation” to actively advance democracy. It criticized Canada’s approach as “an incremental sprinkling of resources across an array of small organizations” and called for a big and assertive organization.

The Harper government did not take the committee’s advice – quite the contrary, once it had achieved a majority, Mr. Harper decided, in 2012, to eliminate both Rights & Democracy and CIDA entirely, replacing the first with a smaller institute devoted strictly to religious freedom, and wrapping the other into the foreign-affairs bureaucracy with a much smaller budget.

But Canada wasn’t completely out of the democracy game. Under both Mr. Harper and Justin Trudeau, Canada has quietly backed movements and promoted change in Ukraine, Venezuela and elsewhere, but this is done largely through its embassies (which must be careful not to be too openly political in their efforts), providing indirect funds and political support to domestic anti-authoritarian movements. Canada has also continued to support the UN bodies devoted to democratic institution-building.

In 2016, Justin Trudeau announced plans to restore some of the idealism and funding to Canada’s international institutions, and announced the creation of a new Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion, which replaces the Office of Religious Freedom with a larger rights-promoting body. With a modest $15-million annual budget, it has a special focus on women’s and Indigenous rights. He also created the much larger Peace and Stabilization Operations Program, which devotes about $150-million a year to post-conflict stabilization of formerly war-torn countries. Both institutions have a tangential role in building democracy, or at least in creating democracy-supporting institutions. But neither is explicitly designed to counter the rising tide of anti-democratic forces in the world.

A 2016 Ottawa workshop organized by Gabrielle Bardall, a veteran democracy-rights scholar who has worked with the major international institution-building groups, concluded that Canada needs a new “dedicated, semi-autonomous organization” devoted to democracy-promotion. “Of the many foreign policy tools at Canada’s disposal,” wrote Dr. Bardall (whose report was unrelated to her current position with the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems),”supporting democracy abroad is one of the least costly and most effective contributions the country can make to resisting these forces, upholding global values and protecting national security.”

But “supporting democracy abroad” does not mean what it used to. If Canada is to have a significant effect in countering anti-democratic forces in countries that need its help, it will not just need to do more, but do things rather differently in several ways.

A less soft approach. A decade ago, when Canada proposed yet another institution-building organization, political scientist Jennifer Welsh criticized this approach as “softening the edges of democracy promotion” – making it more about rights and institutions to avoid the appearance of a U.S.-style wholesale export.

Canada needs to shift, fast, to a less soft approach. We are no longer in an era when democratic institutions are merely being weakened or eroded – in more and more places, they are collapsing completely. We want to be promoting, funding and influencing democracy itself.

Recent years have shown that the slide into autocracy can be halted if citizens and their political movements are given direct support. The Ukrainian “Euromaidan” uprisings of 2013 and 2014, which led to new elections and a more democratic, pro-European government; the South Korean mass protests of 2016 and 2017 against a corrupt administration, which led to a democratic regime change; and the large-scale Romanian protests that began in January, 2017, and forced the government to retract rights-stripping legislation, all showed just how successful overt influence can be.

Fewer institutions, more real people. Democracy is not all, or even mainly, about elections. It requires institutions to support the rule of law, the security of markets and the protection of fundamental human rights. However, such establishments mean little if power is being seized by forces with different values and do not represent the public – precisely the emergency the world faces today.

“We were really, really focused on institutions previously – I think that’s a really Canadian thing, that we love institutions, so all of our democracy promotion was about building institutions abroad,” says Ben Rowswell, a former Canadian diplomat who got involved in hands-on democracy work in the Middle East during the Arab Spring uprisings and then, as ambassador, in Venezuela as it tilted into outright dictatorship in recent years.

“I don’t think we should abandon that institutional focus completely,” he says, “but there’s an opportunity to think about how Canada can promote democracy by encouraging mobilization of citizens and doing things to decrease political polarization by assisting the mobilization of movements overseas.”

That approach is politically risky. Canada faced criticism when it provided direct support to the Orange Revolution movement in Ukraine in 2004 – a movement (ultimately unsuccessful) that was directly opposed to the government. Likewise, Mr. Rowswell faced accusations from the Venezuelan regime of trying to undermine it by backing opposition movements.

There is certainly a lot more risk in the direct approach – but a far greater scope for tangible rewards. But it is much easier, and politically safer, to carry out through an arms-length organization that does not get Canada’s diplomats directly enmeshed in movements that seek to defeat autocratic governments.

Canadian democracy has its own imperfections, and when promoting democracy abroad, it should approach the task with humility.

A more humble, more equal voice. One of Canada’s greatest strengths in democracy promotion is that it is a flawed, imperfect place whose own democracy still struggles with serious problems. From the failure of Quebec to ratify the Constitution, to the two decades of secession crises, to the still imperfectly resolved constitutional role of Indigenous nations, Canada appears to the world less like an act of divine providence and more like a well-meaning experiment – something to which many less fortunate countries can relate.

“Democracy assistance is unique from other fields of international development in many ways – it can’t be measured the same way, it’s a constantly moving target, it reflects our own national values as well as our shortcomings,” Dr. Bardall says. The democracy-promotion business itself, she notes, has been subject to some of the worst inequities of Western societies – it is a largely male-driven field (none of the major democracy organizations has ever had a woman in charge). In that light, Ottawa’s current commitment to delivering feminist values in foreign policy isn’t so much a case of exporting Canadian virtues as acknowledging that we are struggling with many of the same weaknesses as “recipient” countries.

This could become a more general policy: One of the things Canada can promote is the fact that its democracy is flawed and unequal; it is a shared struggle rather than a colonial-style imposition. In this view, Prime Minister Trudeau’s UN General Assembly speech, in which he acknowledged at considerable length Canada’s failings in Indigenous relations, was a step toward a more mature kind of democracy promotion: It was selling a search for a path to democracy, rather than a complete product out of the box.

“Democracy promotion should be less about the idea that we are exporting the institutions that we more or less have figured out – what is sometimes characterized as ‘exporting democracy.’ I think the context today is that all democracies face similar challenges – it’s a little more about mutual learning and less about transplanting of existing institutions,” Mr. Rowswell says.

If it is sold with humility, brought directly to the people and their movements, and done through a hands-on organization that is unafraid of political controversy, then Canadian democracy could become one of our most significant service industries – one that could save the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

The Globe and Mail, December 29, 2017