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Nancy Koehn On The Vulnerability of Democracy

Is Democracy Today As Vulnerable As It Was During World War I?

Britain WWI Centennial
Members of the armed forces take part in a remembrance parade and service in Fort William, Scotland, on Nov. 11, 2018, for the centennial of the end of World War I. The ceremony marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice which marked the end of the First World War.
Andrew Milligan/AP
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Nancy Koehn On The Vulnerability of Democracy

When the United States entered into World War I over a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson’s motivation was to make the world safe for democracy.

Now, as world leaders commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war's end, it's worth asking: Is democracy safe in the United States and abroad today?

Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School, said that democracy's place in the world in 2018 faces existential threats just as it did in the period around the Great War.

"[Democracy] is vulnerable in several different ways that rhyme with the ways it was vulnerable both before the war and after the war," Koehn told Boston Public Radio Tuesday.

Koehn pointed to the rise of populist leaders in the Philippines, Russia, Brazil and the United States, and said such leaders often fall into the dangerous trap of singling out groups in their countries to blame as scapegoats for broader societal ills.

"All over the place we are seeing the vulnerability of democracy, the rise of populism, the search for enemies of the state," Koehn said.

She believes that, at this juncture, America needs to be strengthening ties to its democratic allies abroad — not backing away from them.

"We want to be joining with countries like members of the G-7 to promote democracy, to talk about civil liberties and civil rights, to keep rededicating ourselves — as [Abraham] Lincoln would say — to the promise of government of the people, for the people, and by the people and of its critical importance to world stability, decency and peace," she said.

"America can't do it alone, and the G-7 can't do it without America," she added.

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