In U.S. national security policy, a dividing line frequently runs through interests and values. American interests—like physical protection, sovereignty, and free commerce—are necessities often defended with hard-power instruments. They are the stuff of high politics, presidential summits, and deterrence. The promotion of American values, including democracy and human rights, can seem softer and far less pressing—the business of humanitarians and advocates. The differences are stark.
In fact, interests and values are two sides of the very same coin. Both are indispensable aspects of an American foreign policy worthy of its people. This week’s Summit for Democracy offers the Biden administration a chance to demonstrate this truth in action.
It’s also vital that the administration do so. Democracy is on the defensive around the world, and both the number and quality of democracies have declined for fifteen consecutive years. From Burma to Sudan to Belarus, authoritarians are exerting more control, while open societies are increasingly more vulnerable to disinformation, cyber-subversion, and malign foreign authoritarian influence. The stresses on America’s own democracy over the past year have been on vivid display. China and Russia tout their own brand of illiberal autocracy.
But the answer to democracy’s problems is not dictatorship. It is, rather, better democracy—and more of it. The summit should focus on defending and enlarging the free world and ensuring that democracies are strong, working together, and promoting their values. An approach that highlights the importance of liberal order at home and abroad would complement the vital efforts to improve American defenses, enhance American military capabilities, and solidify alliances. Together they augur a balance of power that allows freedom to flourish.
Consider the fundamental distinctions between free and open societies and illiberal autocracies like China.
In democracies, citizen-centric governance yields politicians who are accountable to the people. Leaders who underperform lose office in free and fair elections. Civil society plays a central role in holding government to task and advancing human dignity and justice, including through the freedom to protest peacefully. Free media report openly on government shortcomings. Independent judiciaries dispense justice rather than the desires of ruling politicians. Political parties compete on policy-based platforms over how best to advance national welfare.
One sees various departures from these ideals, in America and abroad. But that’s precisely the point: they are flaws in democratic practice. In autocracies, they are features.
In autocracies, political power is often a vehicle for personal enrichment and aggrandizement. Government is organized around protecting a set of elite interests—in the governing and oligarchic classes—rather than around any public interest. Independent judges, free media, and civil society are repressed or bullied into a self-censorship that insulates the ruling party from criticism. Political competition is stifled, often by preventing opposition political candidates and parties from getting onto a ballot, which produces “elections” with predetermined outcomes. Citizens are surveilled by the state in ways that allow authorities to preemptively target dissent before it can organize. Peaceful protests are discouraged, and sometimes violently suppressed, by security forces.
It would be offensive enough to American values if such practices were confined inside foreign borders, but they are not: Increasingly, autocrats are undermining democratic practice beyond their borders, including in the United States. Russia has notoriously peddled disinformation across the West and worked to subvert electoral integrity. China has deployed economic coercion, corruption, covert influence operations, and elite co-optation to undermine the sovereignty of its trade and investment partners. They and other autocracies see the existence of powerful democracies as a dangerous rival to their systems at the least, and, at most, a direct threat.
As a result, the defense of America must include protection against such attacks on its democratic way of life. Having more democracies, working more closely together in pursuit of their shared values, makes that defense easier. A world in which freedom continues to contract indefinitely renders the task far harder.
Hence President Biden’s appropriate ambition to rally the democratic world. The administration knows that happy talk is not enough. The White House sees the summit as the start of a “year of action” in which democracies will deepen their cooperation to protect a system of values that has produced greater security and prosperity for more people around the world than any other. How to accomplish this is the question.
An ambitious year of action might include forging new agreements among democracies on digital trade and data protection that put the rights of individuals rather than surveillance states first. Democracies could jointly create a new international fund to support local forms of investigative journalism that expose corruption and human rights abuses. They might establish democratic supply chains that prevent hostile authoritarian nations from weaponizing commodities they control, like high-end technology or medical supplies. They could create a “political Article 5,” similar to NATO’s mutual-defense provision, for allied nations subject to authoritarian interference in their democratic practice. And the summit might launch new democratic alliances like the existing Quad, which unites the United States with India, Australia, and Japan; or like the aspirational T12, a group of advanced techno-democracies.
For the first time in our lifetimes, it is no longer obvious that liberal democracy will prevail over its ideological rivals. For that very reason, America must be urgent in its defense. The way of life we hold dear is very much in the balance, and surely Americans discern an interest in preserving it.
Nearly three decades ago, in his famous Westminster speech, President Ronald Reagan observed that “democracy is not a fragile flower; still it needs cultivating.” An ambitious summit of the world’s democracies, one that galvanizes far-reaching action, would represent the kind of cultivation so very much in need today.
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