Freedom House monitors the state of political freedom around the world. Its two most recent reports reveal “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. Freedom House has found that 72 countries suffered a decline in freedom in 2015, and 105 countries saw a decline in freedom over the past 10 years. “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.”
Given that America laid the groundwork for an international system that favors free government—and that America thrives in a world where free governments and free markets flourish—this represents a challenge to the United States.
With America promoting liberal political and economic systems, as the Brookings Institution’s 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.”
That’s where we are today. But why?
It’s 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 democracy-promotion an important foreign-policy goal.) Reflecting the national mood, policymakers have phased out democracy-building efforts; scaled back democracy-promotion initiatives; mustered muted reactions when pro-democracy movements have come under assault; and shrunk the reach, role and resources of democracy’s greatest defender: the U.S. military.
This shift away from democracy-promotion was predictable. Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy was bound to swing back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. But there are tradeoffs and consequences to a foreign policy that is less committed to promoting democracy: When the world’s strongest exponent of democracy pulls back, the democratic tide loses momentum.
The realists counter by arguing that the post-9/11 “freedom agenda” pursued during the administration of President George W. Bush was an aberration—and a costly one at that. They argue that just as America’s actions cannot ensure democracy’s growth—they 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 for decades.
President Franklin Roosevelt argued in 1942 that “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.”
President Harry Truman vowed “to help free peoples maintain their free institutions.”
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.”
President Ronald Reagan believed 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—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” It’s no coincidence that the democratic tide began surging during Reagan’s presidency.
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 was anything but a post-9/11 aberration. In fact, the Obama administration’s de-emphasizing of democracy is the aberration. The examples abound.
Let’s begin with the Obama administration’s rhetoric. There’s a fascinating statistical compilation of words used by presidents in their State of the Union addresses. Reagan used the word “freedom” more than all the surveyed SOU addresses, usually in the context of global freedom and human freedom, followed by Bush 43, who almost always spoke of freedom in that same context. President Barack 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.
In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three Ds: defense, diplomacy and development.” There was no mention of that other D that has defined U.S. foreign policy: democracy.
Sadly, the Obama administration’s de-emphasis on democracy was not limited to word choice.
When the Iranian regime crushed its opponents after the farcical 2009 election, Obama responded to the “Twitter Revolution” by averting his gaze. The reaction was so bad that the protestors chanted, “Obama, are you with them or with us?” No one was calling on him to send in the 82nd Airborne. But freedom-loving people look to America for signals. And the president’s signals were loud and clear that summer. The sad irony of the president’s inaction in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never notice. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 speech in Berlin. The Iranian people know the answer.
The nascent Iraqi democracy was left to fend for itself, with predictably disastrous consequences.
In Libya, Obama authorized airstrikes to topple a dictator but did nothing to follow through in planting or nurturing a democratic government.
Egypt was left lurching from autocracy to illiberal democracy and then back to autocracy. Standing up for democracy while standing by less-than-democratic friends is one of the great tests of American statecraft. Regrettably, it’s a test Obama failed in Egypt. If he had followed Reagan’s example, things could have been different.
When Corazaon Aquino defeated longtime anti-communist bulwark Ferdinand Marcos at the ballot box, Reagan appealed to Marcos to accept the results and refrain from using force to stay in power—and then quietly provided America’s old friend a dignified way out. Reagan’s solution: offering Marcos a one-way ticket to Hawaii.
Obama’s solution in Egypt: pulling the rug out from under Mubarak, doing nothing as Egypt’s first democratically-elected president was toppled by Egypt’s army, and then keeping quiet as that army massacred hundreds of protesters.
When Ukraine’s fledgling democracy was mugged by Putin’s thugs, Obama sent MREs and other non-lethal aid. It’s hard to imagine Reagan taking that course of action. In fact, Reagan sent anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles to help Afghanistan fend off Moscow’s invaders.
Intent on building a legacy, Obama traveled to Havana to meet with Cuba’s tyrants. Hours before Obama arrived, Castro’s police and a regime rent-a-mob attacked a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of political prisoners. Just two days after Obama departed Cuba, Castro’s thugs rounded up and beat up pro-democracy demonstrators in Havana.
If the United States now lacks the energy, confidence and will to enlarge the Free World, then we must at least protect the Free World by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”
First, we should maintain the military strength needed 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.
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. As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says, “One cannot win the war with blankets.” It means China cannot be allowed to reincorporate Taiwan without the consent of Taiwan. It means reminding the enemies of freedom—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, we should offer moral support to democratic opposition movements. This presents a conundrum because, as historian Walter Russell Mead notes, there is a “tension between America’s role as a revolutionary power and its role as a status quo power.” The way to bridge this tension is to be a reforming power—ready to maintain and sustain the pillars of the liberal post-World War II order (free markets, free trade, free governments), willing to support any effort to move internal political systems in the direction of this liberal international order, but unwilling to support movements or groups that would steer a nation away from this liberal international order.
Reagan 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.”
Words like this have a power all their own—especially when backed up, like Reagan’s, by action. Rather than cutting deals with the mullahs, shaking hands with the Castros, making nice with Putin’s puppets, and treating Beijing’s business-suit autocrats like equal partners, Washington should focus on the victims of these tyrannies. “Do not forget those who suffer under tyranny and violence,” Reagan counseled. “Do not abandon them to the evils of totalitarian rule or democratic neglect.”
As he left office, Reagan recounted a story that underscored how his administration lived up to those words. “Back in the early 1980s, at the height of the boat people,” Reagan began, “a sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea.” As it cut through the choppy waves, the Midway came across “a leaky little boat” crammed with refugees from Indochina. They hoped to do the impossible—to reach America’s shores and to find freedom. But on this day, freedom found them first. The Midway changed course to pluck the refugees from danger, and as the giant ship drifted toward the tiny raft, one of the refugees yelled out in broken English, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man!” It was, as Reagan concluded, “a small moment with a big meaning…because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood, again, for freedom.”
We haven’t these last seven years. Sadly, “freedom man” was under orders to sail by.