Democracy doesn't happen on its own

From Tunisia to Turkey, Kiev to Caracas, people around the world are making their desire for democracy and greater freedom overwhelmingly clear.  But what is the proper role for the United States?

The movements for change that have swept the world since 2011 are connected. The protesters on the Maidan in Ukraine surely looked to Egypt and Tunisia for motivation. What began as a student movement in Venezuela could have remained small and isolated had Venezuelans not had the example of ongoing protests in Turkey and Bahrain. 

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What unites the protesters is their yearning for human rights and dignity. These movements are a response to extensive corruption, impunity, and political favoritism.  There is no common ideology connecting them, no one mouthpiece representing them. They are not the schemes of Western leaders, intent on overthrowing rival governments for their own purposes. In fact, many of the governments affected were or remain strong allies of the West.  

It is precisely this universality of desire for fundamental rights that strikes fear in authoritarian leaders. Though they try, they cannot credibly blame capitalists, terrorists, or neo-fascists when these movements cut across the population, often with little connection to social status, political party, or ethnicity. It is harder for authoritarians to label all protesters as terrorists when anyone can watch video of security forces throwing tear gas into a crowd of women and children or shooting live ammunition at students.

But no dictator’s fall is inevitable.  And even the fall of an authoritarian does not mean democracy will follow. 

The democratic world has sat idle as Egypt slipped into greater authoritarianism. In Syria, the uprising to end a decades-long dictatorship was co-opted by extremist militias and became a morass of atrocities. The threat of democracy led to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Clearly, hope and good intentions are not enough on which to build a stable democracy.  A democratic transition takes savvy local leaders willing to subsume personal gain for the good of the country, a strong constitutional foundation on which to build a new government, and investment in training and infrastructure such as an independent judiciary, knowledgeable civil society, and a reliable police force. Leaders dedicated to true reform will require sustained assistance from the United States, the European Union, and other democracies.

Americans and their leaders have shown great reluctance to take on the challenges of the current environment.  Burned by the missteps of the Bush “Freedom Agenda,” or skeptical of new American engagements, many in the U.S. government see democracy promotion as a risky foray into internal matters.  But events will continue to unfold with or without the U.S.; if we want change for the better, America must support those who are working towards societies that respect the rule of law, protect human rights, and abide by democratic principles.  Fear of becoming involved on our own terms early on can lead to the U.S. later having to face more treacherous conditions.

But what can we do?

The United States and other democratic countries must consistently speak out in support of universal values and condemn abuses, no matter where they happen. Human rights should be part of the discussion about every country. We must be ready to support human rights activists publicly where appropriate and in more quiet ways when prudent. Robust foreign assistance programs in support of democracy and human rights should be a consistent hallmark of U.S. foreign policy.  Calls for cuts of up to 20% by some Republicans are short-sighted, and could leave us unprepared to respond to the next Ukraine or Syria. Tougher measures such as sanctions, visa bans, and embargoes, should be on the table for use in the most serious cases.

It is Ukrainians, Venezuelans, Egyptians, and Syrians, who must ultimately determine their fates.  But the forces of authoritarianism will make every effort to shape these environments to their advantage, sometimes using exceptional levels of violence.  The United States and other democracies must prove that we will not leave those striving for freedom to struggle alone.

Trister is a senior advocacy manager at Freedom House.

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