U.S. Must Put Democracy at the Center of its Foreign Policy

U.S. Must Put Democracy at the Center of its Foreign Policy

Dear Presidential Candidates:

The United States is founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and for decades, support for democracy and human rights around the world has been a central tenet of American foreign policy. While the United States must maintain relations with many autocratic governments abroad, there are excellent reasons why most of our closest allies are democracies.

Free nations are more economically successful, more stable, and more reliable partners for the United States. Democratic societies are less likely to launch aggression and war against their neighbors or their own people. They are also less likely to experience state failure and become breeding grounds for instability and terrorism, as we have seen, for example, in Syria. This means that the advance of democracy serves U.S. interests and contributes to order and peace around the globe.

During the past four decades, the number of countries that are free and democratic has more than doubled. From Latin America and Central Europe to East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, people have opted for accountable government. This remarkable progress is rooted in the universal longing for liberty and dignity — but it is also due to America’s strong support for human rights and democracy, under administrations of both parties. This support has been not only a means of expressing the values upon which our nation was founded, but also a pragmatic choice to promote the governing system that advances security, provides stable markets, and protects human rights. We write to urge you to embrace this cause and to make it a central part of your foreign policy platform.

In recent years, authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China have become more repressive; they see the advance of democracy not only within their borders but in neighboring states as a threat to their monopoly on political power. A regime’s treatment of its own people often indicates how it will behave toward its neighbors and beyond. Thus, we should not be surprised that so many of the political, economic and security challenges we face emanate from places like Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and Damascus.

Repressive regimes are inherently unstable and must rely on suppressing democratic movements and civil society to stay in power. They also are the source and exporter of massive corruption, a pervasive transnational danger to stable democratic governance throughout the world.

The result is that democracy is under attack. According to Freedom House, freedom around the world has declined every year for the past decade. That heightens the imperative for the United States to work with fellow democracies to reinvigorate support for democratic reformers everywhere.

Supporting freedom around the world does not mean imposing American values or staging military interventions. In non-democratic countries, it means peacefully and creatively aiding local activists who seek democratic reform and look to the United States for moral, political, diplomatic, and sometimes material support. These activists often risk prison, torture, and death struggling for a more democratic society, and their resilience and courage amid such threats demand our support. Helping them upholds the principles upon which our country was founded.

Supporting democracy involves partnerships between the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations that are struggling to bring freedom to their countries. Often, it means partnering as well with emerging democracies to strengthen their representative and judicial institutions. This requires resources that Congress must continue to provide, and foreign assistance must be linked to positive performance with regard to human rights and the advancement of fundamental freedoms.

It also requires diplomatic backing at the highest levels of the Executive Branch, throughout the different agencies of government, and from the Congress as well. It means meeting with democratic activists from various parts of the world and speaking out on their behalf. Demonstrating solidarity with and support for these brave individuals’ efforts to build a better future for their country is the right thing to do. In aiding their struggles for freedom and justice, we build a more secure world for the United States.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to supporting democracy and human rights, but there are fundamental, universal features we should emphasize: representative institutions, rule of law, accountability, free elections, anti-corruption, free media (including the Internet), vibrant civil society, independent trade unions, property rights, open markets, women’s and minority rights, and freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion.

Many Americans question why the United States should have to shoulder the burdens of supporting freedom and democracy throughout the world. But a growing number of democracies in Europe and Asia, as well as international organizations, are expending significant resources to lend this kind of assistance. We should continue to build on our partnerships with like-minded organizations and countries, including relatively new democracies that are eager to help others striving for freedom.

Some argue that we can pursue either our democratic ideals or our national security, but not both. This is a false choice. We recognize that we have other interests in the economic, energy, and security realms with other countries and that democracy and human rights cannot be the only items on the foreign policy agenda. But all too often, these issues get shortchanged or dropped entirely in order to smooth bilateral relationships in the short run. The instability that has characterized the Middle East for decades is the direct result of generations of authoritarian repression, the lack of accountable government, and the repression of civil society, not the demands that we witnessed during the Arab Spring of 2011 and since for dignity and respect for basic human rights. In the longer run, we pay the price in instability and conflict when corrupt, autocratic regimes collapse.

Our request is that you elevate democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda. These are challenging times for freedom in many respects, as countries struggle to make democracy work and powerful autocracies brutalize their own citizens while undermining their neighbors. But these autocracies are also vulnerable. Around the world, ordinary people continue to show their preference for participatory democracy and accountable government. Thus, there is real potential to renew global democratic progress.

For that to happen, the United States must exercise leadership, in league with our democratic allies, to support homegrown efforts to make societies freer and governments more democratic. We ask you to commit to providing that leadership and to embracing the cause of democracy and human rights if elected president of the United States.

Thank you,

Elliott Abrams
Former assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs

David Adesnik

Anne Applebaum

Brian Atwood
Former administrator, USAID

Michael Auslin

Hattie Babbitt
Former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States

Shawna Bader-Blau
Solidarity Center

Elizabeth Bagley
Former U.S. ambassador to Portugal

Rodney Bent

Howard Berman
Former member of Congress

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca

Dennis Blair
Sasakawa Peace Foundation, USA

James Blanchard
Former U.S. ambassador to Canada
Former member of Congress
Former governor of Michigan

Cole Bockenfeld
Project on Middle East Democracy

Paul Bonicelli

Ellen Bork
Foreign Policy Initiative

Anna Borshchevskaya
Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Jeanne Bourgault

Charles J.Brown
Strategy for Humanity

Ian Brzezinski

Nicholas Burns
Harvard University

Daniel Calingaert
Freedom House

Thomas Carothers
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Scott Carpenter

Johnnie Carson
Former assistant secretary of state for Africa

Richard Celeste
Former U.S. ambassador to India
Former governor of Ohio

Eliot A. Cohen

Jared Cohen

Lorne Craner
Former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Seth Cropsey
Hudson Institute

John Danilovich
Former chief executive officer, Millennium Challenge Corp.
Former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica and Brazil

Robert Danin

Aleksander Dardeli

Charles Davidson
Hudson Institute

Kim Davis
Charlesbank Capital Partners

Howard Dean
Former governor of Vermont

Larry Diamond
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Paula Dobriansky
Former under secretary of state for Democracy and Global Affairs

Thomas Donnelly
American Enterprise Institute

Michele Dunne
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Charles Dunne
Middle East Institute

Nicholas Eberstadt

Eric Edelman
Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey

Lee Feinstein
Former U.S. ambassador to Poland

Richard Fontaine

Benjamin Freakley
Lieutenant general, U.S. Army (Ret)
McCain Institute for International Leadership

Martin Frost
Former member of Congress

Francis Fukuyama
Stanford University

Laurie Fulton
Former U.S. ambassador to Denmark

Thomas Garrett
International Republican Institute

Jeffrey Gedmin

Sam Gejdenson
Former member of Congress

Carl Gershman
National Endowment for Democracy

Mark Gitenstein
Former U.S. ambassador to Romania

John K. Glenn

David Gordon

Mark Green
International Republican Institute

Shannon Green

Christopher Griffin

Barbara Haig
National Endowment for Democracy

Joseph Hall
Halifax International Security Forum

Amy Hawthorne
Project on Middle East Democracy

Bobby Herman
Freedom House

Donald L. Horowitz
Duke University

William Inboden
University of Texas-Austin

Karl F. Inderfurth
Former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs

Bruce Pitcairn Jackson

Ash Jain
Atlantic Council

Robert Kagan

Ted Kaufman
Former U.S. senator

Richard Kauzlarich
Former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bosnia and Herzegovina
George Mason University

Zalmay Khalilzad
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations

Monica V. Kladakis
McCain Institute for International Leadership

Jim Kolbe
Former member of Congress

Richard Kraemer
National Endowment for Democracy

David J. Kramer
McCain Institute for International Leadership

Mark Lagon
Freedom House

Sam LaHood
International Republican Institute

Greg Lebedev

Delano Lewis
Former U.S. ambassador to South Africa

Tod Lindberg
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Kristin Lord

Princeton Lyman

Elisa Massimino
Human Rights First

Michael McFaul
Stanford University

Gerald S. McGowan
Former U.S. ambassador to Portugal

Stephen McInerney
Project on Middle East Democracy

Michael Miklaucic
National Defense University

Joshua Muravchik

Moises Naim
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrew Nathan
Columbia University
National Endowment for Democracy

Andrew Natsios
Former Administrator, USAID

Diana Villiers Negroponte
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Constance Newman
Former assistant secretary of state for Africa
Carmen Group

Suzanne Nossel

Michael O’Hanlon
Brookings Institution

Gardner Peckham
Prime Policy Group

William Perry
19th U.S. secretary of defense
Stanford University

J. Peter Pham
Atlantic Council

Ted Piccone
Brookings Institution

Marc F. Plattner
Journal of Democracy

Michael C. Polt
Former U.S. ambassador to Serbia and Estonia
McCain Institute for International Leadership

Carlos Ponce
Freedom House

Keith Porter
The Stanley Foundation

Arch Puddington
Freedom House

Stephen Rickard
Open Society Policy Center

Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute

Nancy Rubin
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

Dan Runde

Douglas Rutzen

Nadia Schadlow

Kori Schake
Hoover Institution

Randy Scheuneman

Gary Schmitt

Amanda Schnetzer
George W. Bush Institute

Nina Shea
Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom

George Shultz
60th U.S. secretary of state
Hoover Institution

Sichan Siv

David Skaggs
Former member of Congress
National Endowment for Democracy

Anne-Marie Slaughter
Former director of policy planning, U.S. Department of State

Julianne Smith
Former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden

Alan Solomont
Former U.S. ambassador to Spain

John Sullivan

Louis Susman
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom

Bill Sweeney
International Foundation for Electoral Systems

Dorothy Douglas Taft
The Tantallon Group

Tomicah Tillemann

Harold Trinkunas
Brookings Institution

Robert H. Tuttle
National Endowment for Democracy

Daniel Vajdich
Atlantic Council

Peter Van Praagh
Halifax International Security Forum

Melanne Verveer
Former U.S. ambassador for Global Women’s Issues

Kurt Volker
Former U.S. ambassador to NATO

Christopher Walker
National Endowment for Democracy

Erin Walsh

Vin Weber

George Weigel
Ethics and Public Policy Center

Jeremy Weinstein

Ken Weinstein
Hudson Institute

Maureen White
Johns Hopkins SAIS

Leon Wieseltier

Clint Williamson
Former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues
McCain Institute for International Leadership

Andrew Wilson
Center for International Private Enterprise

Tamara Wittes
Brookings Institution

Paul Wolfowitz
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense
Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia

Kenneth Wollack
National Democratic Institute

Tom Wright
Brookings Institution

Diane Zeleny

Total signatories: 146. Institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only.

Update, March 28, 2016: The following additional signatories were added: Michael Auslin, Anna Borshchevskaya, Ian Brzezinski, Ash Jain, Michael Rubin, Julianne Smith, Paul Wolfowitz, Tom Wright.

Photo credit: The Library of Congress