Americans are beginning to feel some relief from the worst of the political pressures of the past twelve months. Nevertheless, a global pandemic, nationwide protests over social justice, a bitterly contested election, the incumbent’s refusal to accept his loss, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his angry mob—all exacerbated by the wretched excesses of social media and traditional media’s substitution of self-serving speculation for skeptical, factual reportage—have all taken a sharp toll on our individual and collective psyches. It doesn’t help that the backdrop is growing Chinese power and Russia’s ongoing efforts to create exploitable chaos.
Even the good news adds to the confusion: the stock market is seemingly in a rush to price in strong future economic growth and America’s undeniable comparative advantage in tech innovation. And, really, how many trillion dollars in federal stimulus spending is too many?
In times like these, when everything seems new and invites getting caught up in the passions of the moment, it might not be a bad idea to step out of the maelstrom and review what we think is really important.
Such, I think, was the purpose of Freedom House, the venerable monitor of the tides of freedom and democracy around the world, in convening, together with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the McCain Institute, a nonpartisan task force that I joined on democracy and its authoritarian challengers.
Our final report, Reversing the Tide: Towards a New U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism, came out today. The first thing to say about the report is that it is full of detailed recommendations that will be useful to the Biden Administration, future administrations, and Congress in their efforts to think about promoting democracy abroad and shoring it up at home.
Many of these recommendations have the potential to drive significant change in policymaking. The report calls on President Biden to issue a Presidential Decision Directive identifying “support for democracy at home and abroad as a core value and core national interest.” It calls for democracy to become the “fourth D” of our national security strategy, joining defense, diplomacy, and development. The report calls for the publication of a National Democracy Strategy alongside the traditional National Security Strategy and for establishing an interagency National Democracy Council to oversee its implementation.
The government’s interagency processes may not be the sexiest subject in town, but if Biden follows these recommendations, he will motivate serious activity within the government. He will also find many individuals who care deeply about these issues and about the people around the world, from Hong Kong to Belarus, who are fighting for their freedom.
In a broader sense, however, the significance of this report comes not primarily from its specific recommendations but from the general claim it stakes: Democracy really matters to the United States and to Americans. We are now going through a rough patch from which we have yet to fully emerge, and one reason for the roughness is our rediscovery of the profound ways in which our practice of democracy fails to live up to the ideals that animate it. But the problems lie in the practice, not the ideals themselves. Regardless of our structural problems, there aren’t many Americans who urge the replacement of practices like popular elections with governing structures modeled on those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They want a better American democracy, not Xi Jinping. The task force report unequivocally affirms this fact.
This normative conclusion about how a free people should govern its affairs has application abroad, as well. Democratization by force of arms is not part of the program, but standing with those who seek freedom and democracy for themselves definitely is. So is assisting these seekers of democracy in ways they see fit.
The top-down and externally driven approaches of the past must give way to assistance and support designed in close consultation with the people who actually have to live with the results. This is a worthy project not just for American democracy but for democracy more generally. The democracy summit that President Biden has proposed is an opportunity for like-minded countries to explore what can be done collectively along these lines. Like Americans, the people of, say, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have shown no appetite for chucking their democracies in favor of one-party rule, let alone dominance from abroad by the CCP.
As the Cold War ended and especially in the decade that followed it, democracy seemed to be traveling globally with the wind at its back. That is no longer the case. But this fact does not warrant the conclusion that we should give up on the role of democratic aspirations—including the hopes for human, civil, and political rights—in the conduct of our foreign policy.
In the largest sense, in fact, the Freedom House report arrives as a rebuke to those who conclude from democracy’s current challenges either that we should put all such considerations aside, instead approaching the world solely from the perspective of national interests narrowly construed, or stay home with our heads hung in shame at our own deficiencies.
We should do neither. It would be wrong in principle, bad for our country and our friends, and a comfort to our enemies; it’s not who we are as a people.
Tod Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose.
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