WASHINGTON — These are hard times for democracy, reminiscent of 40 years ago, when communist governments, autocrats, military juntas, and white-minority rulers were firmly in control of most countries, and the United States largely accepted them as a permanent fixture of the international landscape. But that time 40 years ago marked the beginning of a historic wave of democratization. The United States came to champion the cause of democratic change and to exert significant influence in bringing that change about.
The Obama administration is hesitant to push for democracy abroad and exercise US leadership in defense of democratic principles. In this, it is in sync with a significant segment of the Republican Party and the American public. Its apprehension is partly a response to recent setbacks for democracy and US failures to advance democratic change, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Freedom House’s annual country-by-country survey, on political rights and civil liberties have suffered eight straight years of global decline.
Democracy is more widespread than it was four decades ago—45 percent of countries were rated “free” in 2013 by Freedom House as compared to 25 percent in 1975. There is no central ideological challenge to democracy, as communism presented back then, and with rare exceptions, authoritarian rulers claim a popular mandate through elections, whether fair or flawed.
These rulers typically have integrated their countries into the global economy and presented themselves as respectable members of the international community, who launch diplomatic initiatives to advance peace, for instance to rid Syria of chemical weapons, chair intergovernmental bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and host Olympic games, soccer World Cups, and international expos.
Modern authoritarians usually are subtler than the thuggish dictators of old, but are equally pernicious. They maintain the outward appearance of pluralism, with elections, civil society, and independent media, as they undermine its content. They incrementally gain control over key state institutions, such as parliament and the judiciary, that are meant to check their power, and they silence their most vocal critics in underhanded ways even as they permit some autonomous groups to operate and allow some measure of media diversity.
Authoritarian governments export their repressive practices and undermine human rights standards internationally. And they regularly challenge US interests. Our greatest adversaries are authoritarian governments, which increase the risks of regional conflicts or nuclear weapons proliferation, defend the perpetrators of mass atrocities, allow large-scale theft of US intellectual property, or otherwise thwart US foreign policy goals.
US influence in promoting democracy abroad is limited—after all democracy is by definition home grown—but is still significant. What we say and do has consequences, as does our silence and inaction. When President Obama declares US support for political reform in the Middle East a “top priority,” as he did in May 2011, and then in September 2013, in a speech to the United Nations, drops it from his list of priorities, he leaves friends and foes alike to wonder whether his administration has given up on democracy in the region and even further afield. The setbacks of the past two years in Egypt and Bahrain are insufficient reason to reverse course. If democracy matters, the United States should continue to press for it.
The United States has contributed to past democratic transitions in a variety of countries, from the Philippines in 1986 and Chile in 1988 to Ukraine in 2004, by assisting national movements for change or putting pressure on authoritarian rulers to exercise restraint. More recently, US engagement helped nurture a significant political opening in Myanmar.
At key times and places, the United States can affect the outcome of the struggle for democracy. US leverage can, for example, reinforce local demands in Ukraine for free and fair presidential elections by February 2015, restrain the Turkish government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and encourage Bahrain’s government to introduce genuine reforms.
Elsewhere, for instance in Russia, Venezuela, and Ethiopia, movement toward democracy is slow and difficult, and is at times set back, but US promotion of democracy in word and deed can make a difference. It can chip away at the international stature of authoritarian rulers and strengthen the efforts of local groups to hold their government to account and give citizens greater say in determining the future of their country.
US leadership in advancing freedom is neither an easy sell at home nor a simple undertaking abroad. But it is essential to reverse the current decline of freedom globally and turn the international order more toward US values and interests.