This past summer saw a remarkable surge of activity from the engines of the Free World. America and Britain unveiled a “New Atlantic Charter” vowing to “defend the principles, values and institutions of democracy.” The G-7 democracies committed to “harness the power of democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” and “counter foreign threats to democracy.” The NATO summit recommitted history’s greatest alliance of democracies to defending “individual liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” The U.S. and EU agreed to “write the rules of the road for the economy of the 21st century.”
This flurry of activity—and display of solidarity—couldn’t come at a better time. “We’re in a contest,” President Joe Biden explained during his trip to Europe, “with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.”
In 2009, there were 100 democracies and 78 autocracies—a dramatic reversal from 1988, when there were 104 autocracies and 51 democracies. But today, the freedom wave is receding and autocracies are surging—“shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny,” as Freedom House observes. “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.
China and Russia—the world’s largest countries by population and territory—serve as patron-protectors of an autocratic bloc enfolding North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and Belarus. They’re expanding the autocratic footprint by invading, occupying, annexing and absorbing once-free peoples; working to lure Turkey, Hungary and others into the autocratic fold; exploiting cyberspace to weaken democratic institutions within the Free World; and sowing chaos from the Arctic to the Himalayas, the South China Sea to the South Pacific, the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, cyberspace to outer space.
China is the world’s top manufacturing nation, top exporting nation and second-largest economy. Beijing’s cultural reach is evident in everything from its influence over Hollywood to the 480 Confucius Institutes sprinkled around the world. Beijing is conducting a relentless cybersiege of the Free World, penetrating defense firms, siphoning everything from F-35 schematics to OPM records, and interfering in free elections. China has a 350-ship navy (now the world’s largest), is doubling its nuclear arsenal, has exploded its defense budget 517 percent since 2000, has absorbed Hong Kong, openly talks about seizing Taiwan, and envisions “security and strategic coordination” with Russia. In short, Xi’s China has no interest in joining an international system premised on free government, free markets and the rule of law—only to supplant it.
Likewise, Putin’s Russia seeks to undermine the international system and fracture the Free World. During Putin’s reign, Russia has waged wars to annex parts of Ukraine and occupy parts of Georgia, conducted cyberwar against Estonia, armed Taliban forces waging war against NATO personnel operating under UN mandate, hacked and attacked the U.S. power grid, launched destabilizing snap military exercises, used chemical weapons, violated arms treaties, and propped up regimes that gas (Syria) and starve (Venezuela) their own people. Russia is using intelligence agencies and cyber-pirates to wreak havoc inside Free World economies; sway public opinion via manipulation of traditional media; and exacerbate racial tensions and religious divisions via social media.
With Russian and Chinese backing, Iran has emerged as a regional powerbroker—setting up outposts in Syria and Iraq, fomenting wars and revolts in Yemen and Bahrain, funneling resources to terrorists across the region, plotting attacks on U.S. bases, interfering with international shipping in the Gulf, threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, attacking commercial and military vessels, careening toward nuclear breakout at home, conducting assassinations abroad.
To be sure, nations in the autocratic bloc have different political structures, economic systems and views on religion, but they have one important thing in common: They are ardent enemies of the international order the Free World began building after World War II.
“We’re in a battle between democracies and autocracies,” Biden concludes. If recent summitry is any indication, Biden isn’t alone in recognizing this grim reality.
NATO has criticized China’s “coercive policies,” declared that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and announced that Moscow “continues to breach the values, principles, trust and commitments” on which post-Cold War security was built. The G-7 has called on China “to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms” and has condemned Russia’s “interference in other countries’ democratic systems.”
But words, while important, aren’t enough when dealing with dictators. What Winston Churchill said of his Russian counterparts remains true of Xi and Putin: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.”
The Free World has a mixed record in heeding Churchill’s counsel.
On the positive side of the ledger, NATO democracies are pouring fresh resources into deterrence, with NATO’s European and Canadian members adding 131,000 troops and $130 billion in fresh defense spending since 2016. The U.S, India, Japan and Australia have breathed life into the Quad security partnership—launching joint naval maneuvers; deepening cooperation on military basing, intelligence-sharing and supply-chain resilience; and forming the core of a coalition of “techno-democracies” to outcompete “techno-autocracies” (Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s terms). The U.S. and EU have agreed to expanded collaboration, and Britain is rallying the D-10 (the G-7 plus Australia, South Korea and India) to reconfigure supply chains, pool technological resources, harness interoperability and forge a Free World 5G network.
Still, the other side of the ledger suggests the Free World is not be as resolute or unified as its words suggest.
While the Biden administration’s words, plans and communiques in the spring and summer made a powerful statement about America’s recommitment to defending democracy, the collapse and chaos in Kabul has done enormous damage to the cause of democracy-promotion globally. It pays to recall that the Afghan government swept aside by the Taliban in August was democratically elected. Afghanistan held seven elections between 2001 and the Taliban’s return in 2021. America’s abandonment of Afghanistan’s democracy sends a terrible message to Taiwan, India, Georgia, Ukraine, Iraq and Israel—democracies all—and their foes in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.
Moreover, Free World bulwarks such as Germany seem unconcerned about China and Russia. Strategically positioned partners such as Turkey and the Philippines have grown less democratic and more susceptible to meddling by the Beijing-Moscow axis. And the past decade has seen America retreat and retrench abroad: The bipartisan gamble known as sequestration lopped hundreds of billions from the arsenal of democracy. The Obama administration pulled back from commitments to Europe and the Middle East; the Trump administration pulled away from NATO; the Biden administration pulled out of Afghanistan and recently scaled back Navy shipbuilding plans. The Navy has just 296 ships underway; it needs 450 ships.
Can it be a coincidence that the autocracies surged as America retreated into what Gen. James Mattis calls “a reactive crouch”?
In short, the Free World has work to do.
First, the leader of the Free World must maintain deterrent military strength. If, as Henry Kissinger and Niall Ferguson argue, we are entering a new Cold War, then America needs to return to a Cold War footing when it comes to investing in defense. The 20th century taught that military strength deters aggression, while military weakness invites it. Yet with China on the rise and Russia on the march, America’s defense budget is just 3.1 percent of GDP. The Cold War average was more than twice that. Amidst the soaring costs of COVID “recovery” and “rescue” plans, defense spending is technically falling given the voracious return of inflation. Indeed, the U.S. faces growing fiscal challenges that are straining America’s military and jeopardizing the Free World’s security.
The silver lining in these darkening clouds is that America isn’t alone—and that the Free World is bigger than it was during Cold War I. The U.S. in partnership with democratic allies in the Americas, Europe, Indo-Pacific and Middle East enfolds 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen calls “a thousand-ship navy.” Now more than ever, members of the Free World must work together.
That brings us to a second item for the Free World’s to-do list: It’s time for an international coalition of democratic nations. Toward that end, Biden plans “to invite an alliance of democracies to come here to discuss the future.” This Summit of Democracy will “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “push back authoritarianism’s advance.”
Biden is not alone here. “The world’s democracies should unite in an Alliance for Democracy to strengthen the forces of liberty against the forces of oppression,” argues former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He envisions “an unshakeable and undefeatable alliance for peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy.” The late John McCain championed “a worldwide League of Democracies” to “advance our values and defend our shared interests.” Ivo Daalder (U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama) has sketched the outlines of a “Concert of Democracies.” A coalition of British MPs has even proposed a Democracies Alliance Treaty Organization (DATO) that would, among other things, counter and deter Beijing’s coercive trade practices. “Any democratic nation would be welcome to join, including Taiwan,” DATO’s advocates explain.
The roots of this idea stretch back more than a century. President Woodrow Wilson argued that “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” Churchill concluded 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.” President Ronald Reagan called for “an army of conscience” to confront tyranny. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”
Between now and the time an Alliance for Democracy or DATO is finally stood up, the Free World must empower, utilize and unleash existing groupings of democratic nations such as the Quad, the G-7, the European Union, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and NATO.
Third, the Free World should return to what President Franklin Roosevelt called “armed defense of democratic existence.” This isn’t about toppling autocracies; it’s about defending democracies. “Let us say to the democracies,” as FDR declared, “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.”
Today, that would translate into a NATO command dedicated to Arctic security, permanent (rather than rotational) NATO deployments in Eastern Europe, and a flow of defensive weaponry to democratic Ukraine and democratic Georgia—all aimed at deterring Putin from being tempted to expand his salami-slice invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, to try those tactics in the Baltics. Ukrainian military commanders point out, as DefenseNews reports, that when their troops “began using U.S.-provided Javelin anti-tank weapons, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers that once operated with devastating impunity…backed off.” There’s a lesson here: When Putin sees that there are costs to aggression—and that the costs are greater than any potential benefits—his behavior moderates. That’s the essence of deterrence, and it works.
Putting forth resources toward defending the Free World also translates into conducting continual freedom-of-navigation operations to delegitimize Beijing’s illegal claims and manmade islands in the South China Sea. And it likely means offering an unambiguous security commitment to Taiwan, along with the requisite defensive assets. “Such aid is not an act of war,” FDR noted, “even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.” Hardened against moral relativism, FDR understood that resisting aggression and deterring aggression do not constitute aggression.
Fourth and finally, the Free World should reengage the battle of ideas. Reagan argued that “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Free World leaders should offer high-profile platforms to independent journalists, human-rights activists, religious minorities, political dissidents and other victims of Putinism; highlight Beijing’s contempt for human rights by drawing attention to its laogai prisons, abuse of Muslims, Christians and Tibetans, and mistreatment of Charter 08 signatories; and wield China’s willful mishandling of COVID-19 as a constant counterpoint to Xi’s claim that business-suit authoritarianism is the wave of the future.
Sadly, what Washington allowed to transpire in Afghanistan will surely be wielded by Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and other enemies of democracy to raise doubts about what the Free World has to offer. In fact, that’s already happening (see here and here). It will take many years for America and the Free World to overcome this self-inflicted wound.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.