Capstones: Freedom in Retreat

By Alan W. Dowd, 11.4.16

“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,” Freedom House grimly concludes. In addition, Freedom House reports “an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year,” with 72 countries suffering a decline in freedom in 2015 and 105 countries suffering a decline over the past 10 years.

At the same time that political freedom is ebbing, there has been a plateauing—if not an outright decline—in economic freedom around the world. After 20 years of steady increases, the average economic freedom score for developed countries has dropped since 2000 (see page 20) and flattened for all countries since 2005 (see page 16). The U.S., for instance, has fallen from 2nd to 16th. Given China’s tightening grip, first-place Hong Kong is in danger of losing economic freedoms.

The retreat of economic and political freedom represents a challenge to the United States. After all, America laid the groundwork for a liberal international system founded on political and economic freedom, expanded it and sustained it—and America thrives in a world where free governments and free markets flourish. With America promoting liberal political and economic systems, as 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,” where free government and free markets are on the defensive.

Welcome to the autumn of 2016. How did we get here? And more importantly, how can the United States and other liberal democracies reverse this trend?

Falling Back

One of the reasons freedom is in retreat is 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 building democracy an important foreign policy goal.

Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama scaled back democracy-promotion initiatives; mustered at best muted reactions when pro-democracy movements came under assault; focused on “nation-building here at home”; and, with the help of Congress and the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, shrank the reach, role and resources of democracy’s greatest defender (the U.S. military).

The presidential campaign revealed that the nation-building-at-home caucus represents a sizeable swath of the political spectrum: Echoing Obama, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) promised to “build some bridges here at home.”  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowed “to rebuild America’s strength at home.” Real-estate mogul Donald Trump (R-N.Y.) declared, “We have to build our own nation” and embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label. (To her credit, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) expressed concerns about America “hunkering down and pulling back.”)

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 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. 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 they forget that democracy-promotion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for decades. 

President Franklin Roosevelt argued 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.” He 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.”

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. As the late Foaud Ajami noticed during the president’s first term, there is “ambivalence at the heart of the Obama diplomacy about freedom.”  Sadly, the examples abound.

When the Iranian regime crushed its opponents after the farcical 2009 elections, Obama responded to the “Twitter Revolution” by averting his gaze. The reaction was so bad that 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 2009 was that it answered his own rhetorical question. “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 in 2011, with predictably disastrous consequences. 

In Libya, Obama authorized airstrikes to topple a dictator but did nothing to follow through in nurturing a democratic government.  

Egypt was left lurching from autocracy to illiberal democracy, then back to autocracy. 

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, both Reagan and President Jimmy Carter sent anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles to help Afghanistan fend off Moscow.

In a fitting coda to his presidency, Obama traveled to Havana to meet with Cuba’s tyrants. Hours before the president’s arrival, Castro’s police and a regime rent-a-mob attacked a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of political prisoners. Two days after Obama departed, Castro’s thugs rounded up pro-democracy demonstrators in Havana. 

Standing Up
If America lacks the energy, confidence and will to enlarge the Free World, then the least we can do is protect and preserve the Free World by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”

First, we should maintain the military strength 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. Nor can the United States defend the Free World alone. Japan, Australia and India are rising to the occasion by rising to the challenge posed by China. Now it’s time for Europe to step up. NATO has been begging members to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense for a decade. Yet only five of NATO’s 28 members meet that standard.

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 today? For starters, it means arms for democratic Ukraine rather than MREs. As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says, “One cannot win the war with blankets.” Likewise, the Kurdish Regional Government—the closest thing to a cohesive, democratic nation-state in Iraq—deserves direct military aid. And as long as Taiwan remains committed to a peaceful status quo with the Mainland, the island democracy deserves the defensive weapons it has been promised to preserve its security.

In addition, we need to remind democracy’s enemies—and perhaps ourselves—that providing the tools to resist and deter aggression does not constitute 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, the Free World cannot allow autocracy or anarchy to roll back democratic gains. Russia cannot repeat—or be tempted to repeat—in the Baltics its salami-slice invasion of democratic Ukraine or democratic Georgia. And the world’s bloodied band of democracies must defeat those like al Qaeda and ISIS who use freedom to cloak their attacks against freedom.

Contrary to the nation-building-at-home caucus, promoting and defending liberal democracy is very much in America’s interests. Liberal democracies don’t go to war with one another; they don’t threaten their neighbors; they are more stable than autocracies; they embrace human rights, majority rule and minority rights, free markets and free trade, and the rule of law within and between nations. To get a sense of the profound difference between a world populated by liberal democracies and one dominated by autocracies, compare the Europe of today and the Europe of 1964 or 1939 or 1914, or imagine if America’s neighbors were autocracies.

Fourth, we must promote (and practice) economic freedom. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt remind us that democratic elections alone don’t ensure freedom or promote stability. But the spread of economic freedom creates incentives for cooperation within and between nations. After 20 years of empirical studies, Fraser Institute researchers call economic freedom “a necessary condition for democratic development.” Plus, more economic freedom at home means a stronger economy and the capacity to be “the great arsenal of democracy” for a small fraction of GDP.

Fifth, we should offer moral support to political reformers. 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, 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. 

As former National Security Council official Paul Miller observes, “Liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security.” Indeed, if the post-World War II decades taught us anything, it’s that the community of liberal democracies counts on America. The retreat of American power leads to the fraying of the liberal economic and political order, the rise of systems hostile to Western values, and the spread of chaos and conflict, as we are seeing today.

Reagan argued that “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” 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 that “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 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.” 

Washington should offer a platform to the victims of Putinism—free-speech activists, independent media, human rights activists, evangelical Christians, political dissidents and those persecuted for their sexual orientation. Washington should highlight Beijing’s contempt for human rights by continually drawing attention to China’s laogai prisons, underground churches, Tibetan independence advocates, Charter 08 signatories and political dissidents. And Washington should challenge the legitimacy of the North Korean and Iranian regimes by cataloguing their behavior in high-profile settings such as the president’s annual address at the UN, State of the Union addresses, and gatherings of the G-7 and NATO. 

Of course, we know that actions speak louder than words. “If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals,” Reagan said in 1982, “we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.” America took those actions in the 20th century. Democracy needs America just as much in the 21st century.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose