Elephants in the Room
Defending America Means Defending Democracy
With China and Russia on the rise, the United States leaves the field uncontested at its peril.
In its new strategy documents, the Trump administration identifies America’s central security challenge as the re-emergence of great power competition. China and Russia seek to “change the international order in their favor,” the National Security Strategy asserts, while the recent National Defense Strategy holds that they “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” The administration rightly characterizes the contest as one of political systems as well as nations, and the implication is that America’s future security and freedoms hang in the balance.
The National Defense Strategy highlights the loss of America’s competitive edge in every military domain, as great power rivals continue making major investments in power projection. But our country’s response to the great power challenge must go beyond building a stronger military. It also requires doubling down on America’s support for democracy in the world.
The reasons are straightforward. Friends and allies add strength to American power. Existing and potential partners must be able to make their own strategic choices, free of Chinese or Russian coercion. They must be able to resist outside attempts to fracture their political systems, foster corruption and sow disinformation, or undermine elections and the rule of law. Internally riven countries have trouble projecting power effectively, and they make for weaker and less reliable security partners.
Today the dangers to many countries’ sovereignty and security come not from a United States that spent the last decade retrenching, but from what the National Endowment for Democracy calls “sharp power” — foreign influence operations designed to subvert democratic institutions for strategic advantage. Effectively contesting the new world of great power competition requires the United States to work with a panoply of strong and confident foreign partners. Active U.S. support for better governance makes countries more resilient in the face of pressure from revisionist powers.
Russia views western democracies as a threat to its security. Its answer? Weaken democratic practice in them. Hence Moscow’s combination of election meddling, propaganda, fake news, trolling, and other forms of subversion that polarize politics by pitting citizens against each other. Russia lacks the power to challenge NATO directly, but it has succeeded in sowing allied disunity. It was an early mover on this plane of competition against the United States.
Similarly, China now meddles in the domestic political affairs of countries as disparate as Australia, Greece, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe. China’s Belt and Road investment scheme has imported corrupt and opaque deals to a host of countries, and its influence operations in countries including New Zealand and Singapore have prompted domestic outrage. Beijing’s political support for autocratic leaders in Africa has elicited local charges of a new colonialism, and China has moved to restrict free speech in countries with which it has close economic ties.
How countries are governed, and how that governance impacts their strength and their geopolitical alignments, matters — particularly in an era when America’s rivals are sowing discord aimed at weakening nations friendly to the United States and edge them away from partnerships with it. Strong democracies are far less likely to be coopted by China or Russia than are one-party states whose leaders are too often tempted to privilege personal gain over national interest. And as the United States competes for allies and friends, the strength of those partners will turn in large measure on the resiliency of their political institutions. It is precisely this fortitude that China and Russia are undermining.
The United States leaves the field uncontested at its peril. With Beijing and Moscow active, and amid what Freedom House describes as a 12-year decline in freedom around the world, it is time for Washington to renew its support for democracy abroad. This requires actively promoting the growth of liberal institutions and defending them against invidious assault.
American support for democracy and rule of law is often seen as the softer side of U.S. foreign policy: nice-to-have elements of a values agenda that should be subordinated to the hardheaded pursuit of security. But done right, these approaches work in tandem, giving the United States a competitive edge its adversaries lack. A world of fewer democracies — in more disarray, adding less weight to U.S. power and under siege from revisionist autocracies — is not only offensive to American values but dangerous to the security of the American people.
As the administration’s new strategies prompt needed discussions about how the United States should best compete in a world of great powers, there will be a natural focus on defense investments, military technology, economic growth, and multilateral security arrangements. This is good, but incomplete. A program of strengthening and expanding the world’s democracies must be part of any successful approach to navigating today’s new geopolitical terrain.
Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the Bush administration.
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