America’s Silence Helps Autocrats Triumph
Without the support of the U.S. government, pro-democracy forces around the world will wither as authoritarianism gains ground.
Since the end of the Cold War, democracy has made many gains. But the fate of freedom is now hanging in the balance globally. With astonishing courage and resolve over the last several months, ordinary citizens in Algeria, Sudan, Venezuela, and Hong Kong—in numbers and creativity that nearly defy comprehension—have shown that aspirations for democracy did not die with the implosion of the Arab Spring in 2013 or the relentless, bullying rise of a neototalitarian China.
In the face of sometimes brutal and even deadly state repression, the courageous mobilization of ordinary citizens, standing up for their rights, should inspire all of those who live in established, liberal democracies. At the same time, the ill winds of strongman populism, intolerance of minorities, and readiness to eclipse constitutional norms—which have already eviscerated democracy in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Bangladesh—now cast a shadow over the future of democracy in the Philippines, Poland, and India, particularly with the recently reelected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dismissal of the state government in Kashmir.
The more than decadelong recession of freedom and democracy could accelerate into a tumultuous wave of democratic breakdowns, in which global political momentum would decisively shift to autocracies that are actively trying to shape their regions and the world in their image—cynical and ambitious dictatorships such as those in Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China. Alternatively, the peaceful mobilization of people power and smart organization of pro-democracy movements could give rise to what U.S. President Abraham Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.”
People make their own history, but they do not make it in a vacuum. And the U.S. government cannot deliver freedom as a gift to any country—whether at the point of a gun or in a ceaseless flow of dollars. But in any era, what the world’s most powerful democracies do (or fail to do) to defend rights, support democrats, strengthen institutions, and deter repression can help to tip the balance between dictatorship and democracy. And this balance can be tipped peacefully, without resorting to the use of military force.
The world is now at a hinge point in history, when Americans must decide anew to use their collective voice—and diplomatic and financial resources—to stand up for freedom or step back and say, “It’s not our fight; it’s none of our business,” instead pursuing narrow national interests, however ugly that may look.
In today’s globalized world, models, trends, and ideas cascade across borders. Any wind of change may gather quickly and blow at gale-force strength—and the United States cannot afford to remain silent. People everywhere form ideas about what is a good (or irresistible) way to govern based on what they see happening elsewhere—on CNN, on Al Jazeera, or on Twitter.
The world is now immersed in a fierce global contest of ideas, information, and norms. In the digital age, that contest is moving at lightning speed on an hourly basis, and it is shaping how people think about their political systems and the future world order. Now especially—when doubts and threats to democracy are mounting in the West—this is not a contest that the democracies can afford to lose.
The situation is all the more precarious because authoritarian regimes increasingly pose a direct threat to popular sovereignty and the rule of law in established democracies. Covert foreign flows of money, influence, and social media messaging are subverting and corrupting democratic processes and institutions from the United States to the European Union. If Americans want to defend core principles of self-government, transparency, and accountability at home, there is no choice but to promote them globally.
Moreover, if Americans do not worry about the quality of governance in lower-income countries, the world will have more and more troubled and failing states. Famine and genocide are the curse of authoritarian, not democratic, states. And state collapse is also the ultimate bitter fruit of tyranny.
When states like Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan descend into civil war; when poor countries in Africa fail to generate jobs and improve the lives of their people due to bad governance; when Central American societies are held hostage by brutal criminal gangs and cavalier kleptocratic rulers, people flee.
And they frequently flee to the United States and the EU. The world has simply grown too small and flat to wall off rotten states and pretend they are on some other planet. Europe and the United States can’t withstand rising pressures of immigration in the long run—and the political backlash such immigration is feeding—unless they work to generate better, more stable, and more accountable government in troubled countries.
There are also harder security interests at stake. As the Trump administration’s own National Security Strategy makes clear, the primary threats to U.S. national security all stem from authoritarian states—especially Russia and China, but also Iran, North Korea, and others—and antidemocratic terrorist movements such as the Islamic State.
Supporting democratic development around the world is a vital way of denying these authoritarian adversaries the geopolitical running room they seek. Just as Russia, China, and Iran are trying to undermine democracies to bend other countries to their will, the United States can contain their ambitions for greater power by helping other countries build effective, resilient democracies.
Democratically elected governments with open societies will not support the U.S. line on every issue. But no free society wants to mortgage its future to another country. The United States’ vital national interests would be best secured by a pluralistic world of free countries, in which powerful adversaries cannot use corruption and coercion to gobble up resources, alliances, territory, and sea lanes.
There are plenty of critics of this approach. Detractors say that democracy promotion is arrogant, or none of America’s business. That’s false, but it doesn’t mean Washington should push its own model of democracy on others. Nor does democracy promotion require an arrogant tone.
Like many American lecturers as well as diplomats abroad, I have found that openness and humility count for a lot. When one presents the United States in a balanced light, honestly reflecting on its democratic shortcomings, it preempts a lot of suspicion and criticism. It conveys the idea that we are all on a journey toward better, freer, more accountable government, and that both sides gain from partnership. And, most of all, it shows that a real democracy is one where even those speaking or working on its behalf are willing—and free—to be critical of their own government.
Another critique is that Americans and Europeans should not push so-called Western values on non-Western societies. This kind of cultural relativism is a deeper form of arrogance, on three levels.
First, it suggests that freedom, while precious to people in the West, isn’t important to or needed by people elsewhere; it implicitly argues that people elsewhere don’t have the same innate rights as human beings. But since the end of World War II, numerous international treaties and declarations have codified civil and political rights as universal human rights.
Second, this brand of cultural relativism falsely suggests that liberal democratic values of individual rights, political accountability, and limited government only have their roots in the Western enlightenment, when in fact one can point to relevant traditions in many other cultures, from Confucian norms mandating good governance and justifying the people’s right to rebel against despotism to India’s vaunted traditions of pluralism, tolerance, and deliberation.
And, finally, it just doesn’t reflect the evidence from public opinion surveys, which shows that the desire for democratic, accountable government—rooted in the rule of law—is broadly and even intensely shared across cultures.
There is another critique that holds that Americans need to put America first, and that means backing authoritarian allies whenever necessary—even when they are corrupt and unsavory figures like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. No serious strategy for democracy promotion argues for an exclusive focus on that alone. But even among authoritarian allies, U.S. diplomats can—and should—raise human rights concerns, support advocates for freedom and accountability, and encourage gradual political reform.
The old alleged Franklin D. Roosevelt line about Nicaragua’s strongman, Anastasio Somoza, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” only goes so far in securing the national interest. Somoza fell to an anti-American revolution. So did the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. When Washington blindly backs these kinds of regimes and just assumes they will hang on, it often ends badly both for their people and for Americans.
Some America Firsters say it’s too expensive to support democratic development around the world. But foreign aid in all forms only represents 1 percent of the annual U.S. federal budget, and the amount spent to promote democracy, freedom, and accountability around the world represents approximately one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget.
Finally, critics argue that it’s too risky, or democracy promotion can’t make a difference. History says otherwise. From Portugal to South Africa to Chile, international assistance has helped nudge fraught transitions toward democracy under perilous circumstances. It is highly unlikely that people in the Philippines or Tunisia or Ukraine will be better off—or that the United States will be more secure—if these countries slide back to autocracy. And it is hard to imagine that life in disintegrating autocracies such as Venezuela, Algeria, and Sudan—or in Hong Kong’s decaying and crisis-ridden system—would be worse under a genuine democracy.
There is no guarantee that an attempt to establish democracy will succeed. But it is not for the United States to tell people struggling for freedom to stand down—that it’s too risky for them, and inconvenient for Americans. Helping them to defend their freedom is important to U.S. national security and to who Americans are as a people.
This essay is adapted from Larry Diamond’s new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.