A recent Freedom House report reveals “a growing disdain for democratic standards,” “a disturbing decline in global freedom” and an ebbing of the global democratic tide that had been surging from 1984 through 2004. Specifically, Freedom House reports “an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year,” with 61 countries suffering declines in freedom and only 33 registering gains. “Acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.”
This represents a challenge to the United States. After all, America laid the groundwork for this international system, expanded it, and has sustained it—and America thrives in a world where free governments and free markets flourish. With America promoting liberal political and economic systems, as Robert Kagan observes, “The balance of power in the world has favored democratic governments.” The alternative, Kagan warns, is an international system where “great-power autocracies” like China and Russia undermine democratic norms, where there are “fewer democratic transitions and more autocrats hanging on to power,” where democracy is on the defensive.
That’s where we are today. But why?
It’s at least partly a function of the American public’s world-weariness. Just 22 percent of Americans say the United States should “promote democracy and freedom in other countries.” As recently as 2005, 70 percent of Americans considered building democracy in other counties an important foreign policy goal.
Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama has scaled back democracy-promotion initiatives; mustered at best muted reactions when pro-democracy movements have come under assault; shrunk the reach, role, and resources of democracy’s greatest defender (that would be the U.S. military); and shrugged at the work required to nurture democracy.
Consider his recent most recent State of the Union (SOU) address, which reflects a reticence about spreading, planting, and promoting democracy, even a sense that it’s a hopeless cause: “Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America…democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter…Our brand of democracy is hard.”
As the late Foaud Ajami observed during the president’s first term, there is an “ambivalence at the heart of the Obama diplomacy about freedom.” Hence, the president averted his gaze from Iran’s pro-democracy “Twitter Revolution.” The reaction was so bad that the protestors chanted, “Obama, Obama, are you with them or with us?” The nascent Iraqi democracy was left to fend for itself, with predictably disastrous consequences. Egypt was left lurching from autocracy to illiberal democracy back to autocracy. Ukraine’s democracy was mugged by Putin’s thugs, and left bleeding and maimed. And through it all, the president repeated his poll-tested refrain: “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
There’s a fascinating statistical compilation of words used by presidents in their SOU addresses. President Ronald Reagan used the word “freedom” more than all the surveyed SOU addresses, usually in the context of global freedom and human freedom, followed by President George W. Bush, who almost always spoke of freedom in that same context. Obama’s use of the word is dramatically lower. Obama used “freedom” twice in his 2016 SOU (neither having anything to do with the spread or defense of freedom globally), once in his 2015 SOU and once in his 2014 SOU.
This shift away from democracy-promotion and full-throated support for freedom was predictable. Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy swung back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. Again, this is a reflection of the national mood. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say the U.S. should not take the lead role in tackling international problems. And 52 percent say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.
But there are consequences to a foreign policy that is less committed to promoting democracy and less interested in buttressing an international system built on democratic ideals. It stands to reason that when the world’s strongest exponent of democracy and freedom pulls back, the democratic tide will lose momentum.
Critics counter that foreign-policy initiatives focused on promoting democracy, like the Bush administration’s post-9/11 “freedom agenda,” are costly aberrations. They argue that just as America’s actions cannot ensure democracy’s advance—they invariably point to Afghanistan and Iraq—America’s inaction cannot be blamed for democracy’s retreat.
But the stubborn truth is that democracy-promotion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. As President Franklin Roosevelt observed in 1942, “Freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world.”
As world war gave way to Cold War, President Harry Truman vowed “to help free peoples maintain their free institutions.”
Echoing FDR, President Dwight Eisenhower explained, “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation, and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”
President John Kennedy promised that America would “bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Reagan believed that democracy “needs cultivating.” So he declared, “It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation—in both the public and private sectors—to assisting democratic development.” Toward that end, Reagan pledged “to foster the infrastructure of democracy.”
In that brief interregnum between the terrors of Stalinism and jihadism, President Bill Clinton called for “engagement and enlargement” of the democratic community. “Enhancing our security, bolstering our economic prosperity and promoting democracy are mutually supportive,” he explained.
In short, democracy-promotion is anything but a post-9/11 aberration. Yet the United States and its fellow democracies seem increasingly wearied by the realization that democracy isn’t inevitable, that a liberal global order favoring free governments and free markets can’t be preserved by speeches or treaties, that the Free World doesn’t run on autopilot or grow by magic.
If we the world’s democracies lack the energy, the confidence, the will today to enlarge the Free World, then the least we can do is protect and preserve the Free World by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”
First, we should maintain the military strength—and summon the political will—to deter rising autocracies like China, revisionist governments like Russia, revolutionary regimes like Iran, and reactionary foes like North Korea.
The United States cannot defend the Free World on the cheap. In a time of war, the U.S. defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. Nor can the United States defend the Free World alone. NATO headquarters has been begging members to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense for a decade. Yet only four of NATO’s 28 members—democracies all—meet that standard.
Second, we should defend the democratic space. As FDR put it, “Let us say to the democracies: ‘We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world.”
What’s that mean in 2016? For starters, it means arms for democratic Ukraine rather than MREs and nonlethal aid. As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says, “One cannot win the war with blankets.” Likewise, the Kurdish Regional Government—a staunch ally and the closest thing to a cohesive, democratic nation-state in Iraq—deserves direct military aid, rather than the trickle of U.S. arms that pass through Baghdad. And as long as Taiwan remains committed to a peaceful status quo with the Mainland, the island democracy deserves the defensive weapons it has been promised to preserve its security.
In addition, we need to remind democracy’s enemies—and perhaps ourselves—that resisting aggression and deterring aggression do not constitute acts of aggression. “Such aid is not an act of war,” FDR matter-of-factly noted, “even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.”
Third, the Free World cannot allow autocracy or anarchy to roll back democratic gains. Russia cannot repeat—or be tempted to repeat—in the Baltics its salami-slice invasion of democratic Ukraine or democratic Georgia. And the world’s bloodied band of democracies must defeat those who use our freedom to cloak their attacks against freedom (e.g., al Qaeda and ISIS).
Fourth, we must promote (and practice) economic freedom. If Americans have learned anything from their well-intentioned efforts in the unforgiving lands of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that democratic elections alone don’t ensure freedom or promote stability. But the spread of economic freedom creates incentives for cooperation within and between nation-states. And more economic freedom at home means a stronger economy and the capacity to be “the great arsenal of democracy” for a small fraction of GDP.
Fifth, we should support and encourage political reformers. Reagan once argued that “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” In other words, it’s time, again, to employ rhetoric as a weapon. Reagan was masterful at this—calling the USSR “an evil empire,” dismissing communism as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history,” and explaining with impatient disdain, “The West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism.”
Of course, we know that actions speak louder than words. “If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals,” Reagan said in 1982, “we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.” America took those actions in the 20th century. It seems democracy needs America just as much in the 21st century. Read more on this subject at The Landing Zone.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the Providence journal’s daily blog.
Photo Credit: Protest Signs at the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong on September 30, 2014 (by Willy AuYeung on Flickr)