Barack Obama Urges 'Fight' Against Autocracies at Home and Abroad

Former U.S. President Barack Obama called on democracies around the world to do more to push back the tide of authoritarianism, stressing the need to address "toxic" political discourse that is undermining democratic societies and institutions.

Speaking at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in the Danish capital on Friday, Obama told attendees they will "have to fight" for democracy in an age of political upheaval and looming global crises.

"We will have to nurture it, we will have to demonstrate its value again and again in improving the lives of ordinary people," Obama said at the event, which has been dominated by discussions of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the future global role of China.

The war in Ukraine, Obama said, "weighs heavily on our hearts and minds." The former president—who has previously been criticized for a lackluster response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and fomentation of revolt in the eastern Donbas region in 2014—lauded the "heroic resistance" on display in the war torn country.

"They've united to defend not just their sovereignty, but their democratic identity," he said. "And their actions have rallied much of the world behind the values of self determination and human dignity."

Barack Obama at CDS 2022 Denmark Copenhagen
Former President Barack Obama speaks during the Copenhagen Democracy Summit at The Royal Danish Playhouse in Copenhagen, Denmark on June 10. 2022. During his speech, Obama called on democracies around the world to do more to push back the tide of authoritarianism. PHILIP DAVALI/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Obama said the response of the West—in particular the sanctions offensive against Moscow, the imminent expansion of NATO, and the welcome of millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine—are all "signs of hope in the midst of despair."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added, "is failing to achieve his aims inside of Ukraine and beyond."

"But make no mistake, this war is far from over," Obama cautioned. "The costs will continue to mount, the course of events...are hard to predict. And our support for Ukraine must remain strong, steadfast and sustained until this conflict reaches a resolution."

Obama addressed the fifth instalment of the Copenhagen summit as lawmakers in the U.S. opened the public hearings of the committee investigating the events of January 6, 2022, when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol and attempted to overturn the results of the 2021 presidential election.

"In my own country, the forces that unleashed mob violence on our Capitol are still churning out misinformation and conspiracy theories," Obama said. "For those of us who firmly believe in the ideals of democracy, the question is how do we respond? And if nothing else, recent events should shake us out of complacency."

To stand a chance against the authoritarian currents spreading around the globe, Obama said, the world's democracies must be more proactive and more honest about their failings.

"We will also have to be willing to look squarely at the shortcomings of our own democracies," Obama said. "Not the ideal, but the reality of our own democracies. Only then will we be able to develop a better story of what democracy can be and must be in this rapidly changing world."

"Today, abstract appeals about democracy won't persuade the jobless youth on the outskirts of Paris may not persuade families in northern England struggling to pay the bills, or the displaced workers and the former factory towns of the American Midwest."

"And they barely register with the hundreds of millions of people trapped in poverty around the world."

The U.S. and other democracies, Obama said, are faced with a "contest of ideas" in which Chinese authoritarianism, in particular, appears "a model of orderly advancement and material improvement in people's lives."

"It won't be enough to just say what we are against," Obama said. "We have to describe clearly what we are for. It won't be enough to reaffirm a creaky status quo, to just put a new coat of paint on the existing order."

"That order has been shaken at its foundations by globalization, and financial crises, and social media. By rising inequality, and mass migration, and climate change, and a multipolar world."

"We are going to have to rebuild our democracies and their institutions," the former president said, "so they work better for more people for this new age."

Ukraine soldier near Donbas front line Russia
A Ukrainian serviceman speaks on a radio at a front line in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 10, 2022 amid Russia's invasion. Barack Obama said Friday that the West must continue its support for Ukraine until the conflict ends. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

"I don't have all the answers," Obama said, though suggested democratic systems must to a degree engage with "culture wars" and "identity politics" in striving to become more inclusive and more reflective of those they represent.

Advocates must also "develop models for a more inclusive and sustainable capitalism" that will more evenly distribute the prosperity that upholds such societies, Obama said.

"The version of capitalism that has come to dominate the global economy has also come to corrode democracy," the former president said, noting the "far-flung mega companies operating beyond the reach of national regulation or oversight for tax collection."

This economic system, he added, is exploiting and suffocating people in developing nations while having empowered authoritarian China, which he described as "the big winner" of globalization.

Political institutions, he added, need revitalization "so that people believe that participation is actually worth the effort." Obama mentioned the divisive Senate filibuster, which he said "has effectively made it almost impossible for either party, even when they have a majority, to get anything substantially through the Senate, and passed and signed into law."

Obama said democracies must also address the influence of "dark money" and expand civic education to better prepare young people for engaging with the democratic process, and being aware of movements seeking to undermine it and obstacles to its functioning.

One such obstacle, Obama added, is the toxic political discourse that has taken hold in the U.S. and abroad. "We have to take steps to detoxify our discourse, particularly the scourge of disinformation and conspiracy theories, of hate online that have polluted our political discourse."

To this end, he said, technology giants must "accept a degree of democratic oversight and accountability." The former president added: "Profit cannot be the only driver for platforms who require power that was once reserved for nation-states."