Recent weeks have seen a remarkable surge of activity from the engines of the Free World. America and Britain unveiled a “New Atlantic Charter” vowing to “defend the principles, values and institutions of democracy.” The G-7 democracies vowed to “harness the power of democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” and “counter foreign threats to democracy.” The NATO summit recommitted history’s greatest alliance of democracies to defending “individual liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” The United States and European Union agreed to “write the rules of the road for the economy of the twenty-first century.”
This flurry of activity—and display of solidarity—couldn’t come at a better time. “We’re in a contest,” President Joe Biden explained during his trip to Europe, “with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing twenty-first century.”
In 2009, there were 100 democracies and 78 autocracies—a dramatic reversal from 1988, when there were 104 autocracies and 51 democracies. But today, the freedom wave is receding, and autocracies are surging—“shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny,” Freedom House observes. “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.”
China and Russia—the world’s largest countries by population and territory—serve as patron-protectors of an autocratic bloc enfolding North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and Belarus. They’re expanding the autocratic footprint by invading, occupying, annexing, and absorbing once-free peoples; working to lure Turkey, Hungary, and others into the autocratic fold; exploiting cyberspace to weaken democratic institutions within the Free World; and sowing chaos from the Arctic to the Himalayas, the South China Sea to the South Pacific, the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, cyberspace to outer space.
China is the world’s top manufacturing nation, top exporting nation, and second-largest economy. Beijing’s cultural reach is evident in everything from its influence over Hollywood to the 480 Confucius Institutes sprinkled around the world. Beijing is conducting a relentless cybersiege of the Free World, penetrating defense firms, siphoning everything from F-35 schematics to OPM records, and interfering in free elections. China has a 350-ship navy (now the world’s largest), is doubling its nuclear arsenal, has exploded its defense budget 517 percent since 2000, has absorbed Hong Kong, openly talks about seizing Taiwan, and envisions “security and strategic coordination” with Russia. In short, Xi Jinping’s China has no interest in joining an international system premised on free government, free markets, and the rule of law—only to supplant it.
Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seeks to undermine the international system and fracture the Free World. During Putin’s reign, Russia has waged wars to annex parts of Ukraine and occupy parts of Georgia, conducted cyberwar against Estonia, armed Taliban forces waging war against NATO personnel operating under a UN mandate, hacked and attacked the US power grid, launched destabilizing snap military exercises, used chemical weapons, violated arms treaties, and propped up regimes that gas (Syria) and starve (Venezuela) their own people. Russia is using intelligence agencies and cyber-pirates to wreak havoc inside Free World economies; sway public opinion via manipulation of traditional media; and exacerbate racial tensions and religious divisions via social media.
With Russian and Chinese backing, Iran has emerged as a regional powerbroker—setting up outposts in Syria and Iraq, fomenting wars and revolts in Yemen and Bahrain, funneling resources to terrorists across the region, careening toward nuclear breakout at home, and conducting assassinations abroad.
To be sure, nations in the autocratic bloc have different political structures, economic systems, and views on religion. But they have one important thing in common: they are ardent enemies of the international order the Free World began building after World War II.
“We’re in a battle between democracies and autocracies,” Biden concludes. If recent summitry is any indication, Biden isn’t alone in recognizing this grim reality.
“Democracies rallied together,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “to issue extraordinary back-to-back rebukes of Beijing” in the form of a sharp NATO communique criticizing China’s “coercive policies” that “stand in contrast to the fundamental values” NATO has championed—and a sharper G-7 statement calling on China “to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” NATO declared that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and that Moscow “continues to breach the values, principles, trust and commitments” on which post-Cold War security was built. The G-7 condemned Russia’s “interference in other countries’ democratic systems.”
But words, while important, aren’t enough when dealing with dictators. What Winston Churchill said of his Russian counterparts remains true of Xi and Putin: “There is nothing which they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.”
The Free World has a mixed record in heeding Churchill’s counsel.
On the positive side of the ledger, NATO democracies are pouring fresh resources into deterrence, with NATO’s European and Canadian members adding 131,000 troops and $130 billion in fresh defense spending since 2016. The US, India, Japan, and Australia have breathed life into the Quad security partnership—launching joint naval maneuvers; deepening cooperation on military basing, intelligence-sharing, and supply-chain resilience; and forming the core of a coalition of “techno-democracies” to outcompete “techno-autocracies” (Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s terms). The US and EU have agreed to create “a common market for tech,” and Britain is rallying the D-10 (the G-7 plus Australia, South Korea, and India) to reconfigure supply chains, pool technological resources, harness interoperability, and forge a Free World 5G network.
Still, the other side of the ledger suggests the Free World may not be as resolute or unified as its words suggest.
Free World bulwarks such as Germany seem unconcerned about China and Russia. Strategically positioned partners such as Turkey and the Philippines have grown less democratic and more susceptible to meddling by the Beijing-Moscow axis. The past decade has seen America retreat and retrench abroad—and tear itself apart at home.
Regarding the former, the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration lopped hundreds of billions from the arsenal of democracy. The Obama administration pulled back from commitments to Europe and the Middle East; the Trump administration pulled away from NATO; the Biden administration pulled out of Afghanistan and recently scaled back Navy shipbuilding plans from 355 warships to 321. The Navy has just 296 ships underway; it needs 450 ships.
Is it a coincidence that the autocracies surged as America retreated into what Gen. James Mattis calls “a reactive crouch”?
As to America’s home-front divisions, Russia and China are using the riots of 2020 and insurrection of 2021 as ammunition in the battle for hearts and minds being waged between the Free World and the autocrats. China’s foreign ministry cheers, “The beacon has fallen.” A Russian official adds, “The United States certainly cannot now impose electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world’s ‘beacon of democracy.’”
In short, the Free World has work to do.
First, the leader of the Free World must maintain deterrent military strength. If, as Henry Kissinger and Niall Ferguson argue, we are entering a new Cold War, then America needs to return to a Cold War footing when it comes to investing in defense. The twentieth century taught that military strength deters aggression, while military weakness invites it. Yet with China on the rise and Russia on the march, America’s defense budget is just 3.1 percent of GDP. The Cold War average was more than twice that. Amidst the soaring costs of COVID “recovery” and “rescue” plans, defense spending is technically falling given the voracious return of inflation. Indeed, the US faces growing fiscal challenges that are straining America’s military and jeopardizing the Free World’s security.
The silver lining in these darkening clouds is that America isn’t alone—and that the Free World is bigger than it was during Cold War I. The US in partnership with democratic allies in the Americas, Europe, Indo-Pacific, and Middle East enfolds 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen calls “a thousand-ship navy.” Now more than ever, the Free World must work together.
That brings us to a second item for the Free World’s to-do list: It’s time for an international coalition of democratic nations. Toward that end, Biden plans “to invite an alliance of democracies to come here to discuss the future.” This Summit of Democracy will “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “push back authoritarianism’s advance.”
Biden is not alone here. “The world’s democracies should unite in an Alliance for Democracy to strengthen the forces of liberty against the forces of oppression,” argues former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He envisions “an unshakeable and undefeatable alliance for peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy.” The late John McCain championed “a worldwide League of Democracies” to “advance our values and defend our shared interests.” Ivo Daalder (US ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama) has sketched the outlines of a “Concert of Democracies.”
The roots of this idea stretch back more than a century. President Woodrow Wilson argued that “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” Churchill concluded that “civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.” President Ronald Reagan called for “an army of conscience” to confront tyranny. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”
That leads to a third item: the Free World should return to what President Franklin Roosevelt called “armed defense of democratic existence.” This isn’t about toppling autocracies; it’s about defending democracies. “Let us say to the democracies,” as FDR declared, “‘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.’”
Today, that would translate into a NATO command dedicated to Arctic security, permanent (rather than rotational) NATO deployments in Eastern Europe, and a flow of defensive weaponry to democratic Ukraine and democratic Georgia—all aimed at deterring Putin from being tempted to repeat his salami-slice invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. Ukrainian military commanders point out, as DefenseNews reports, that when their troops “began using US-provided Javelin anti-tank weapons, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers that once operated with devastating impunity… backed off.” There’s a lesson here: when Putin sees that there are costs to aggression—and that the costs are greater than any potential benefits—his behavior moderates. That’s the essence of deterrence, and it works.
Putting forth resources toward defending the Free World means encouraging the exodus of wealth and talent from occupied Hong Kong, as Britain has shown through its special visa program. It means conducting continual freedom-of-navigation operations to delegitimize Beijing’s illegal claims and manmade islands in the South China Sea. And it likely means offering an unambiguous security commitment to Taiwan, along with the requisite defensive assets. “Such aid is not an act of war,” FDR noted, “even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.” Hardened against moral relativism, FDR understood that resisting aggression and deterring aggression do not constitute aggression.
Fourth, the Free World should reengage the battle of ideas. Reagan argued that “a little less détente… and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Free World leaders should offer high-profile platforms to independent journalists, human-rights activists, religious minorities, political dissidents, and other victims of Putinism; highlight Beijing’s contempt for human rights by drawing attention to its laogai prisons, abuse of Muslims, Christians, and Tibetans, and mistreatment of Charter 08 signatories; and wield China’s willful mishandling of COVID-19 as a constant counterpoint to Xi’s claim that business-suit authoritarianism is the way of the future.
Nation-states with the capabilities and credentials to build a freer world have “special stewardship responsibilities,” the Providence declaration on faith and foreign policy argues, “to encourage, grow, and defend the institutions and culture of ordered liberty among the community of responsible sovereign nations.”
Those responsibilities are heavy. But they must be shouldered. What the Free World built from the rubble of World War II isn’t perfect. But it’s unquestionably better than the alternative being pushed by Xi and Putin—and it’s definitely worth defending.