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America must double down on democracy

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Democracy is under assault. China and Russia are pursuing strategic campaigns to undermine liberal values and U.S. leadership. Authoritarians from Belarus to Burma brutalize their citizens to stay in power. The debacle of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and our national soul-searching in the wake of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 led some to wonder if support for democracy should remain a component of American foreign policy. 

The hard truth is that a world that is less free is one that is less secure, stable and prosperous.  The greatest dangers to the American way of life emanate from hostile autocracies. There are no quick fixes, but the best antidotes to the challenges of great-power conflict, terrorism and mass migration of desperate refugees lie in the building of inclusive democratic institutions — and working with allied democracies to sustain the free and open order that China, in particular, wishes to replace with a world that’s safe for autocracy.  

The conventional wisdom that authoritarianism has popular momentum is wrong. No one anywhere is taking to the street to demand more corrupt governance, the adoption of one-man rule, a stronger surveillance state, or greater intervention by malign foreign powers.

Democratic freedoms are unquestionably under assault in many nations. Autocrats are aggressive precisely because of the growing demands for change in their more modern, connected societies — and the rising risk that middle classes in nations such as China and Russia will not be willing forever to forfeit political rights for prosperity.

American retrenchment and isolationism compound the danger. It would be nice to live in a world where failed states and dictatorships were a problem for someone else to worry about. But rather than producing stability, Western retreat only emboldens autocrats in ways that amplify dangers to American national security. 

We know that violent extremism flourishes under state failure and dictatorship. Broken states become breeding grounds for extremist groups because they leave vacuums that terrorists are only too happy to fill. In nations without democratic accountability, citizens become drawn to the only forms of expression available to them, which are often violent and extreme. 

The good news is that we have billions of allies around the world: citizens on every continent chafing for greater freedom and dignity. They do not want U.S. military-led nation-building.  They want peaceful support for their independent efforts to create democratic space in systems distorted by overweening government control, dangerous governance gaps and foreign malign influence.

The free world cannot be neutral in the face of autocracy’s resurgence. Rather, it should play to its strengths. The appeal of democratic opportunity is a strategic asset for the United States — despite our own shortcomings — because people around the world similarly aspire to live in societies that guarantee justice, rights and dignity.  

America’s closest allies are democracies. Democracies don’t fight each other, export violent extremism, or produce the conflicts that drive mass migration. Democracies are better partners in fighting terrorism, human trafficking and poverty, as well as establishing reliable trading relationships.  

Open societies incubate the technologies that will help solve the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change. Citizens can hold leaders accountable when they fall short, and democratic institutions are stronger than any man — as America itself witnessed after the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

Democracies’ resilience and ability to self-correct offer a singular competitive advantage.  Authoritarians know this, which is why Chinese propaganda and Kremlin disinformation so aggressively assault democratic principles. Their goal? Protect their unaccountable regimes, weaken democratic unity, and divide democracies from within. 

Combatting the authoritarian surge will require the world’s democracies to act as a community of action to uphold a free and open order. That’s the logic of the Summit for Democracy that President Biden will convene in December. It is the impetus for new democratic coalitions such as the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. (AUKUS) defense alliance and the Quadrilateral Partnership (Quad) of India, Japan, Australia and the United States.

The strategic imperative of defending democracy requires standing with those around the world struggling for democratic empowerment. Support for free and fair elections, competitive political parties, robust civil societies, independent media, and the rule of law costs far less than military intervention — and has effects that are far more enduring.  

Supporting the development of successful societies that can govern and invest in their people, grow their economies, and secure their sovereignty is the opposite of military-led nation building; it is building self-reliance so that nations can solve their own problems. 

The fact that resurgent authoritarians are on the march, and that democracy is struggling to deliver in many countries, is not an argument for walking away from the defense of freedom. It’s a reminder how much democratic dignity is worth fighting for. 

Daniel Twining, PhD, is the president of the International Republican Institute. Follow him on Twitter @DCTwining.

Tags Authoritarianism China Democracy Joe Biden US foreign policy Violent extremism

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