Capstones: Rescuing the Democratic Order

By Alan W. Dowd

The natural order of the world is not all that orderly. That’s a problem because order is important. In fact, it’s essential for individuals and nations alike. We need some modicum of order to live our lives and interact with others, to maintain free government within nations, to carry out trade among nations, and to keep the peace between nations. Of course, too much order is not good; it’s known as tyranny. But too little is just as bad; it’s known as chaos, which seems to be where the world is headed.

America and its closest allies began building a particular kind of order during World War II. Some call it a “rules-based, democratic order,” others a “liberal international order.” Both terms aim to describe how the peoples of the West have tried to make the world work and indeed manage the world: They embraced and encouraged democratic governance; developed rules and norms of behavior; promoted liberal (freedom-oriented) political and economic institutions; and called upon governments to live up to the responsibilities of nationhood by promoting good order within and around their borders.

Elements of this democratic order date to Wilson’s Fourteen Points and his vision for a durable postwar peace. Wilson believed that a world torn between dictatorships and democracies was inherently dangerous for America. Thus, when he declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty,” he wasn’t talking about a utopian crusade; he was talking about building a safer world for America’s democracy. Wilson seemed to recognize this would be an ongoing process. However, it was a mission America was not ready to shoulder in 1918-19.

That began to change in August 1941, when Churchill and FDR used Wilson’s postwar vision as a starting point for the Atlantic Charter. Their goal was “to make known certain common principles”: self-government, respect for borders and sovereignty, the rule of law, human dignity, an equitable peace, open markets and freedom of the seas. These war aims gave the Allies something to fight for: “a better future for the world,” in the words of the Atlantic Charter. Ever the visionary, Churchill believed the Charter would “remain a guide for both our peoples and for other peoples of the world.” That’s exactly what came to pass.


FDR and Churchill weren’t so naïve as to think they could remedy the world’s ills with a piece of paper. Advancing the principles they outlined in the Atlantic Charter would require constant effort on the part of those nations that embrace them. Just as the democratic order they envisioned would not emerge without great cost, it does not run on autopilot or grow organically. It depends on the world’s democracies deterring aggressive states, enforcing international norms of behavior and serving as civilization’s last line of defense. As historian Robert Kagan bluntly explains, “International order is not an evolution; it is an imposition. It is the domination of one vision over others—in America’s case, the domination of liberal free market principles of economics, democratic principles of politics, and a peaceful international system that supports these over other visions.”

The world is fortunate the United States emerged from World War II and the Cold War as that dominant power. Had the Axis won in 1945, world order would have been characterized by fascist totalitarianism. Had the Soviets won in 1989, world order would have been characterized by Leninist totalitarianism. If ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have their way—recall that they take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah’”—world order will be characterized by theocratic totalitarianism. And if Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia gain the upper hand, world order will be characterized by strongmen trampling over weak institutions and by might-makes-right lawlessness, which is no order at all.

“The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it,” Kagan observes. “Every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers,” he explains, ominously adding, “and every international order has changed when power shifted to others with different beliefs and different interests.”

“China and Russia,” former Defense Secretary James Mattis warns, “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”

Likewise, a recent report issued by DNI Dan Coats warns that hostile regimes like Russia and China are “taking advantage of…the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals.”


This is not a matter just for generals, spymasters and policy wonks. The erosion of the democratic order has real-world implications.

Putin’s Russia has invaded and occupied democratic Ukraine, annexed Crimea and the Sea of Azov, invaded and lopped off part of democratic Georgia, violated numerous treaties that served as the foundation of post-Cold War peace, aided and abetted Assad’s beastly war, and regained a base of operations in the Middle East.

In response to Putin’s assault on Ukraine, the Swedish government has reintroduced military conscription and is for the first time since 1961 distributing pamphlets informing all citizens what to do in the event of a military attack. Likewise, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry has distributed a new emergency-response manual “to gird citizens for the possibility of invasion, occupation and armed conflict,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. And all three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are training civilian groups in insurgency tactics and irregular warfare.

Whether coordinated or coincidental, China also is chipping away at the democratic order. China’s “One Belt One Road” program, for instance, is part of a wider effort to tilt or alter the current world order in its favor. If Beijing succeeds, the international order will be more like China—and more hostile to democracy.

In a bid to annex the South China Sea piecemeal, Xi has constructed 3,200 acres of illegal islands in international waters—deploying SAM batteries, anti-ship missiles and radar systems on some of these “Made in China” islands. One of the islands features a 10,000-foot airstrip—long enough for bomber aircraft. All told, Beijing now has 27 military outposts sprinkled across the South China Sea, many of them in waters and territories claimed by other nations.

Chinese warships and warplanes are routinely encroaching on Japanese territory. However, China is not Japan’s only worry. While the Balts and Sweden brace for a Russian invasion, Japan is bracing for a North Korean nuke. Japan’s government has revised its civil-defense plans to include new guidelines for responding to a North Korean missile salvo. The updated document matter-of-factly notes that it is “difficult to specify the kind of warheads (conventional warheads or nuclear, biological and chemical warheads) before they land.”

In the Middle East, Iran has emerged as a regional hegemon—setting up outposts in Syria, fomenting wars and revolts in Yemen and Bahrain, and consolidating its position in Iraq, while conducting provocative missile tests at home and assassinations abroad. With Iran and its proxies on the march, the IDF grimly warns that Israel is preparing for war on six fronts.

Add to this worrisome news a recent Freedom House report, which concludes that 71 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties in the most recent measured year (2017)—“the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”

All of this is contributing to increased risks and increased costs for the American people.

Interestingly, this cascade of challenges to the democratic order began as Washington, in a bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, drastically reduced the reach, role and resources of democracy’s greatest defender: the American military. What we have been re-reminded in the years since sequestration took a meat clever to the arsenal of democracy is that retrenchment is penny-wise but pound foolish; that dictators respect strength, not words; that if we want the benefits of a democratic order that sustains the American way of life, we need to sustain the democratic order.

As Mattis wrote in his letter of resignation, “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values.”

President Obama’s policy of “nation building here at home” and President Trump’s policy of “America first” may indeed reflect the world-weariness of the American people. But neither policy has advanced the rules-based, democratic order, and both remind us that presidential leadership demands far more than tapping into the national mood.

Leadership, especially on matters of national security, is often about persuading the American people to follow a path they would rather not take. Think about Jefferson abandoning a policy of appeasement and instead waging war on piracy half a world away, Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle merely to preserve the Union into a struggle to abolish slavery, FDR dragging America back onto the world stage, Truman arguing for open-ended engagement and global containment of Moscow, Reagan reviving the nation’s flagging commitment to what Truman began, the elder Bush building support for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Clinton wading into the Balkans, the younger Bush defending the surge.


A range of efforts are underway to rally America and other democracies to defend what they began building in 1941.

The Atlantic Council—a D.C.-based think tank that promotes U.S. leadership and engagement in the world based on the central role of the Atlantic community—is advancing this important cause at home and abroad. The Atlantic Council’s Democratic Order Initiative focuses on identifying and articulating the fundamental values and principles necessary to maintain American leadership and a rules-based democratic order. The Sagamore Institute has joined the Atlantic Council in its efforts and recently hosted a conference spotlighting this initiative.

The Economist reports that senior officials representing the D10—an informal association of democracies enfolding the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea and the EU—“have quietly been meeting once or twice a year to discuss how to coordinate strategies to advance the liberal world order.”

Toward that same goal, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has launched a global effort to “revitalize the world’s democracies” and “bring them together in an unshakeable and undefeatable alliance for peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy,” which he labels an “Alliance of Democracies.”

These groups realize that if we want to rescue the democratic order, we cannot count on the UN Security Council making things right, or the “arc of history” bending inexorably toward progress, or the enemies of civilization feeling shamed by sitting on “the wrong side of history.” After all, the UN is a place where there’s no distinction between democracies and dictatorships, where autocratic regimes stymie the advancement of democratic principles. History shows that when liberal powers fail to promote a liberal international order, the “arc of history” bends toward darkness—or chaos. And the shameless simply cannot be shamed.

In short, only democratic nation-states and democratic institutions can save the democratic order. Wilson grasped this a hundred years ago. Although he is often criticized for being overly idealistic, it was Wilson who warned that “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained, except by a partnership of democratic nations.”

A generation later, Churchill noted that “Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.”

America and its democratic allies have the power—the political legitimacy, economic capacity, military strength—to rescue the democratic order. What remains to be seen is if they have the will.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.  A version of this essay appeared in Providence