As the exponents of liberal democracy stand aside, the enemies of liberal democracy are filling the vacuum.

“China and Russia,” former Defense Secretary James Mattis warns, “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”

Beijing spends $10 billion a year on overseas propaganda and influence operations, yielding 500 government-funded institutes in 140 countries and 162 news bureaus outside China—all promoting Beijing’s brand of business-suit autocracy. Plus, China’s “One Belt One Road” program is part of a wider effort to tilt, if not replace, the current world order. If Beijing succeeds, the international order will be more like China—and hence more hostile to democracy. “Every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers,” Robert Kagan observes, ominously adding, “and every international order has changed when power shifted to others with different beliefs and different interests.”

In the past decade, Russia has invaded two nascent democracies (Ukraine and Georgia). Freedom House reports that Russia has “deepened its interference in elections in established democracies through…theft and publication of the internal documents of mainstream parties and candidates, and the aggressive dissemination of fake news and propaganda.” Moscow’s objective, a US intelligence report concludes, is to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process” and “the US-led liberal democratic order.”

Heaven’s Case

This is not the first time that democracy has been tested.

Eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, as democracies fell and dictatorships surged around the world, Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Americans to “look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world…freedom from want…freedom from fear.”

FDR understood that America’s interests and ideals were self-reinforcing—that freedom “over there” is an American ideal that serves American interests. So, even as regimes in Europe and Asia turned government from a servant of the people into a tool of conquest and oppression, the president called for “the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” Even as autocrats trumpeted autarky, he pushed for liberal and open trade—everywhere. Even as a new dark age descended on free peoples and free governments, FDR declared that America stood for freedom of speech—everywhere. And even during the high noon of godless tyrannies, he declared that America stood for religious liberty—everywhere.

Like the Founding Fathers—who grouped the freedoms of religious practice, speech, assembly, and the press under the broad umbrella of the First Amendment—FDR understood that democracy and religious liberty go hand in hand. As the US Commission on International Religious Freedom observes, “You cannot have religious freedom without the freedom of worship, the freedom of association, the freedom of expression and opinion, the freedom of assembly, protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, protection from interference in home and family.”

This has always been true: when the Lord, speaking through Moses, called on Pharaoh to “let my people go, so that they can celebrate a festival in the desert to honor me,” heaven was making the case for freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

Now, as then, dictatorships are enemies of both religious liberty and political liberty. Regimes that subordinate religion to the state see no limits on their power, no moral constraints on what they do. Since they believe nothing is above the state, they rationalize everything they do in the name of the state, the revolution, the Supreme Leader, Dear Leader, or Core Leader. That worldview informs every aspect of decision making in authoritarian regimes, which is why the West must be vigilant when dealing with such regimes. A regime that can justify imprisoning and killing people for peacefully practicing a faith—or for not practicing a faith—can justify anything: signing a treaty with the intent of breaking it, harboring or bankrolling mass-murderers, seizing international waterways, annexing territory against the will of indigenous populations.


What’s striking about FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech—and relevant to our discussion—is that the main focus of the speech was his description of “unprecedented” threats to “American security,” which further underscores his belief that interests and ideals are linked. This provides a roadmap for us. If today’s America lacks the energy and will to spread democratic government, it must at least protect democratic government by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”

First, the United States should be unequivocal about its commitment to defend the democratic space. “Let us say to the democracies,” in FDR’s words, “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 does that mean today? It means Washington cannot view decades-old alliances in transactional terms. NATO is a foundation stone in the liberal international order that America helped build and a critical component of America’s ability to project power. US defense treaties with South Korea and Japan serve as pillars to the security architecture of the entire Asia-Pacific. These alliances are anything but “obsolete” or “a bad deal.”

It means Russia cannot be tempted to repeat in the Baltics its invasion of democratic Ukraine—and China cannot be allowed to reincorporate democratic Taiwan without the consent of Taiwan’s people. These democracies deserve the defensive weapons needed to maintain their freedom. “Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be,” as FDR observed. He understood that resisting aggression (Ukraine) and deterring aggression (the Baltics and Taiwan) do not constitute aggression.

Second, America should field the military strength needed to deter rising autocracies (China), revisionist dictatorships (Russia), revolutionary regimes (Iran), and reactionary foes (North Korea) by pursuing what Roosevelt called “a swift and driving increase in our armament production.”

America cannot defend the democratic space on the cheap. In a time of war, the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration slashed the defense budget from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to around 3 percent by 2016. The Trump administration has reversed this decline. However, “it took us years to get into this situation,” Mattis explains. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

Nor can America defend democracy alone. NATO headquarters has been begging members to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense for a decade. Yet only six of the alliance’s 29 members meet that standard. South Korea’s defense budget is just 2.5 percent of GDP; Australia’s is less than 2 percent of GDP; Japan’s hovers around 1 percent of GDP. President Trump is right to challenge America’s allies to help the cause, but how he has made that case has been counterproductive.

Third, America and its democratic allies must reengage in the battle of ideas. Defending democracy requires more than troops and tanks.

The good news is that there are efforts underway to rally democracy to its own defense.

The Economist reports senior officials representing the so-called D10—an informal association of democracies enfolding the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the EU—“have quietly been meeting once or twice a year to discuss how to coordinate strategies to advance the liberal world order.”

Toward that same end, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former secretary-general of NATO, has launched an effort to unite the world’s democracies “in an unshakeable and undefeatable alliance for peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy.”

Similarly, the Atlantic Council’s Democratic Order Initiative focuses on identifying and articulating the principles necessary to maintain American leadership and a rules-based democratic order in the decades ahead—and educating the American people about the benefits of this democratic order. (The Sagamore Institute has joined the Atlantic Council in this important effort.)

The US government must also offer moral support to democratic opposition movements. As President Ronald Reagan argued, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”

Washington should provide a platform to Russia’s human rights activists and political dissidents; draw constant attention to China’s laogai prisons, underground churches, and Charter 08 signatories; build a coalition of democracies from throughout the Americas to resuscitate Venezuela’s democracy; use NATO’s carrots and sticks to lure Turkey away from autocracy; and challenge the legitimacy of rogues in Iran and North Korea by cataloging their crimes and shaming their enablers in high-profile venues.

In addition, Congress should reopen the US Information Agency to counter China and Russia. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of US European Command and NATO, recommends unleashing the Russian Information Group and the Global Engagement Center. The world’s foremost groupings of democracies—the G7, G10, EU, and NATO—should create an International Endowment for Democracy to monitor and expose Moscow’s meddling; answer China’s charm offensive; and help democracies under assault preserve their institutions.

When the forces of tyranny were far stronger and the world’s roster of democracies far smaller, President Reagan argued that “we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.” America took those actions in the twentieth century; it should do no less in the twenty-first.

Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.

Photo Credit: Detail of Save Freedom of Speech poster, by Norman Rockwell, between 1941–45. Source: National Archives.