Why US democracy support matters

Why US democracy support matters
© Aaron Schwartz

Cynics believe America's global engagement is similar to what adversaries like China and Russia do. Such sentiment can be fueled when a presidential candidate like Andrew Yang or a U.S. senator like Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gives the perception that the United States and Russia are the same on election interference. 

While the United States has been far from perfect, such comparisons distort present-day realities. Authoritarian powers threaten the liberal democratic order that has provided seven decades of relative peace and prosperity. A new paper from the George W. Bush Institute, "Choose Freedom", makes this point, arguing that American global leadership in concert with democratic allies and the expansion of free societies is the best antidote to that danger.

This is why tyrants exploit isolationism and polarization in democratic nations like the United States, Canada and France. They want to manipulate our citizens and erode trust in democratic institutions.

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This reality reminds me of a scene from the Star Wars-spinoff series, The Mandalorian, about the bounty hunter who protects "Baby Yoda." The titular "Mando" squares off against an agent of the fallen evil empire. The agent challenges him, saying, "The Empire improves every system it touches judged by any metric —  safety, prosperity, trade opportunity, peace. Compare Imperial rule to what is happening now. Look outside. Is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death and chaos."

It's easy to imagine Chinese or Russian officials making similar claims about democracy's shortcomings. Unreliable narrators like Xi Jinping, or Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinNot a pretty picture: Money laundering and America's art market Blumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' MORE, or even that Imperial agent, would argue they offer people "peace," "safety," and, in the case of China, "prosperity."

But just ask the Uyghurs what they think of Beijing's surveillance state and internment camps; ask Russian opposition leaders about Kremlin intimidation; ask Hong Kongers why they fill the streets in protest of Chinese Communist Party encroachment and ask Venezuelans why basic commodities like toilet paper have been scarce under Nicolas Maduro.

As Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov observed, "A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors." True to form, Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Havana, and others inject their influence into countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They also undermine the most stalwart democracies through election interference; information operations; cyberattacks; and malign financing.

Moreover, they are attempting to censor American free speech. This was evident when Houston Rockets General Manager Dan Morey tweeted his support for pro-democracy Hong Kongers. Chinese authorities demanded Morey be fired and suspended NBA broadcasts in China along with sponsorships.

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The clampdown on free speech differs from U.S. efforts to strengthen democracy worldwide. On the Strategerist podcast, the Alliance for Securing Democracy's Laura Rosenberger made three distinctions between U.S. democracy support and authoritarian efforts to undermine it.

First, American assistance engages in other countries openly and transparently. Secondly, support is made available to parties across the political spectrum if they are committed to the democratic process. And third, U.S. policy strives to give people a voice in determining their country's future.

This assistance is wrongly conflated with military intervention. Instead, it is a combination of government, civil society, and faith community initiatives that strengthen liberty, combat poverty, expand educational opportunities, and fight disease.

Malevolent foreign influence perpetrated by the world's dictatorships does the opposite. A prime example is Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections that still shakes confidence in the electoral process and exacerbates partisan tensions.

Over the years, American democracy assistance has had flaws and inconsistencies; but that's an argument for improving it, especially when leaders like former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Most VA workers find racism 'moderate to serious problem' at facilities l Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war: report Trump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results MORE praise such support as essential to American security.

We also must recognize that supporting democratic societies makes the world better. That can be difficult to internalize.

After all, democracy is a difficult, interminable process perpetually tested by humanity's worst impulses. American democracy alone has endured slavery, the national disenfranchisement of women, and a continuing track record of injustices committed against marginalized communities. 

Still, democracy remains the only system of government that strives to protect civil liberties and minority rights, encourages the entrepreneurial spirit, fosters political institutions that promote good governance and the rule of law, and provides a marketplace for competing and diverse ideas. Most importantly, it enshrines nonviolent mechanisms for making the government accountable to the people and improving the system.

Ultimately, democracy is a vehicle for achieving the best possible outcomes for freedom, human rights, and happiness. It's the formula for building a more peaceful and prosperous world.

So, yes, there is a difference between what America does in the world with its allies than what authoritarian nations like Russia and China do. And that is why the world's democracies — guided by American leadership — must support democracy everywhere and oppose authoritarian ambitions. Our liberty depends upon it. 

Chris Walsh is a senior program manager for the George W. Bush Institute's Human Freedom and Women's Initiative.