Why democracy support matters
© Greg Nash

President Obama's call to arms against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), like his response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine, steps up U.S. efforts to curb major threats to U.S. interests. Does it also signal a greater commitment by Obama to stand up for democracy in the world? Probably not. But he should make democracy a priority.

In the current period of global turmoil, support for democracy abroad may seem a misplaced priority, if not a luxury we cannot afford. But the tepid approach we take now is shortsighted. Democracy support deserves a strong emphasis in U.S. foreign policy, because it serves U.S. interests, extends U.S. influence in the world and strengthens our ties to people abroad who share our values.

Our greatest adversaries are authoritarian regimes, which instigate or exacerbate regional conflicts, increase the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, defend the perpetrators of mass atrocities, launch cyber-attacks on American institutions, allow large-scale theft of U.S. intellectual property or otherwise thwart U.S. foreign policy goals.


Threats to U.S. interests almost invariably emerge from undemocratic environments. Often they are direct outgrowths of repressive rule. For example, the anti-American posture of governments from Russia and Iran to Egypt and Venezuela is a deliberate effort to deflect attention from their mismanagement and corruption, blame the United States for their country's ills and discredit the idea of democracy as discontented citizens seek to hold these governments to account.

Democracy support extends U.S influence internationally at a time when other countries are growing in strength relative to the United States. Amidst this "rise of the rest," democracy makes the United States more attractive in the world than authoritarian regimes and thus is a source of soft power. When we fail to stick up for democracy abroad, we fail to exercise this soft power and cede influence to authoritarian regimes.

There is extensive collaboration among modern authoritarians in pushing back on democracy. They propagate a model of economic growth combined with political repression. They have built close economic and military ties to each other, replicated one another's repressive laws and practices, and exported surveillance technology to less technologically advanced governments that abuse the rights of their citizens.

Moreover, modern authoritarians work together to water down accepted international standards for human rights and to impede or even gut international institutions that protect political and civil rights, for instance in Europe and the Americas. Such authoritarian internationalism merits a vigorous response from democratic countries.

Democracy support is a natural expression of who we are as Americans. We are defined as a nation by our commitment to political freedom, individual liberties and government that serves the people. A foreign policy that reflects these beliefs is a far more natural fit for us than an approach that sets aside our beliefs when we look beyond our waters' edge.

American interest in the expansion of democracy may compete with U.S. security concerns and economic goals in the immediate term, but the U.S. government is able to pursue different interests simultaneously. We can, for example, push back on Chinese encroachments in the South China Sea, press for fair treatment of U.S. businesses in China and maintain substantial trade and investment without soft-pedaling human rights issues.

Moreover, democracy support is less at odds with U.S. security concerns than is often supposed. U.S. backing for repressive governments in Egypt and Bahrain, for example, does little to enhance stability, because the repression there is fueling instability and political extremism. In Iraq, the authoritarian and sectarian rule of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sowed deep resentments among the Sunni population and thereby facilitated the large advances the self-proclaimed Islamic State has made across the country's territory.

The expansion of democracy over time contributes to reduced risk of violent conflict and improved prospects for promoting U.S. economic interests, such as fair competition in trade and protection of U.S. property and investment. We will always have differences, and at times sharp disagreements, with other democratic countries, but we usually can address differences more constructively with them than with authoritarian governments, and our core interests more often converge with those of democratic governments.

Support for democracy abroad is intensely challenging and rarely pays off in the short term. It may not seem worthwhile, particularly at times of democratic setbacks, as in the Middle East today. But the challenge of supporting democracy is insufficient reason to let up. The expansion of democracy serves U.S. interests. The United States should vigorously press for it.

Calingaert is executive vice president of Freedom House.