By Mark Green

America's most effective foreign policy is one that taps into all the sources of our strength and mobilizes all our tools of leadership. Military might is irreplaceable; economic vitality makes so much possible. But our core national values—such as human liberty and democracy—and our willingness to foster and encourage them in other societies, also constitute crucial tools. With authoritarianism rising in many parts of the world and democracy in clear distress, we need to sharpen those tools once again. The next Administration must reclaim the democracy momentum lost these past several years by restoring resources to crucial democracy programs, pushing back against authoritarian attacks on civil society and emphasizing human liberty—especially freedom of conscience—as a pillar of our nation’s foreign policy.

The Left likes to caricature conservative foreign policy as dangerously hawkish and “quick-to-the-trigger.” However, an honest reading of history shows that our best known conservative leaders have also been the strongest proponents of fostering democracy as a way of strengthening our alliances and advancing our interests without resort to military force.

Winston Churchill’s historic “Iron Curtain” speech called not for military arms, but ideological ones. The answer to the growing Soviet menace, he said, was “the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries." President Reagan's 1982 address to the British Parliament boldly predicted that communism would be left "on the ash-heap of history,” but he urged the West not so much to mobilize its military, but instead to mobilize democracy: “The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy.” And in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush traveled to Mainz, West Germany, to deliver his “Europe Whole and Free” speech, he spoke “not just of our mutual defense, but of our shared values. The “momentum for freedom,” he proclaimed,” comes from a single powerful idea: democracy.”

But how does promoting democracy and human liberty advance U.S. interests? Democratic states are usually more prosperous, stable, and reliable partners. They are better economic partners because they possess the characteristics and conditions that experience shows are vital for economic vibrancy and sustainable growth. Because of the relationship between democracy and long-term, sustainable economic growth, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has wisely instituted a democracy “hard hurdle” that countries must pass in order to be “compact eligible.” Democratic states are also better strategic partners because they are citizen-centered, making them less likely to produce terrorists, proliferate weapons of mass destruction, or engage in armed aggression.

Conversely, most authoritarian regimes are, at best, unreliable partners and, at worst, pose significant risks to peace and stability. Authoritarian regimes often give rise to refugee populations, burdening and potentially destabilizing their neighbors. In order to maintain their hold on power, such regimes repress their people in part by isolating their citizens from outside ideas and influences. They often attack—directly or indirectly, physically or digitally—those outside their borders who represent the freedom they fear. Finally, because over the long run authoritarians are incapable of meeting the aspirations of their citizens, they are prone to sudden instability and are more likely to propagate extremism.

In his speech before Parliament, when President Reagan called for a “campaign to assist democracy,” he was not seeking merely another government bureaucracy or traditional development program. He sought to mobilize democracy itself. Congress responded by launching the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and, soon, the four nonprofit “core institutes" that work with the NED (the Solidarity Center, the Center for International Private Enterprise, the National Democratic Institute or NDI, and the International Republican Institute or IRI, representing “the sectors of political life fundamental to any strong democracy”).

Conservative leaders have also been the strongest proponents of fostering democracy as a way of strengthening our alliances and advancing our interests without resort to military force.

Three guiding principles shaped each institute. First, those nations that have already won their democracy should not seek to impose democracy on those who have not. However, where local leaders and activists (also known collectively as civil society) reach out for assistance in pursuing democracy, the democratic community of nations should respond with tools, ideas, and resources. Second, not every democracy will look the same, nor do they need to. Democracy must be adaptable to a nation’s circumstances and traditions. Third, democracy promotion is most effective when it is accompanied by an honest assessment of our own democratic experience, including its shortcomings.

Since the 1980s, President Reagan’s “campaign to assist democracy” has produced results in many parts of the world. Nowhere have they been more important or transformative than in Europe and Eurasia, but NED programs have also made much headway in a variety of “bad neighborhoods.” The recent experience of Mongolia and Tunisia are just two examples showing that democracy is not only a universal value and aspiration, but that it is attainable even in societies with scant institutional experience with democracy compared to Western ones.

Mongolia’s only two bordering neighbors are Russia and China, and just a few decades ago, the “Mongolian People’s Republic” was a firmly entrenched Soviet satellite. But as communism began to collapse, Mongolian leaders abandoned the one-party state system and pledged to pursue multi-party democracy. In 1992, IRI began working in-country to both strengthen the national parliament and foster the development of issue-based political parties. In 2015, Mongolia is marking the 25th anniversary of its democratic revolution. Eager to share its story and spread the blessings of democracy, the government has set up a special bureau to support other Asian countries pursuing a democratic future.

Tunisia is another emerging success story. In December 2010, throngs of angry Tunisian youth were flocking to the streets, demanding the ouster of authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Economic malaise and deeply imbedded corruption stalked nearly every aspect of society. Weeks later, Ben Ali was gone, leaving behind a power vacuum—and a tempting target for extremists. In the face of these challenges, courageous Tunisians commenced crafting a new democracy.

They faced two daunting tasks: first, replacing a constitution that had enabled Ben Ali’s repressive, corrupt rule and, second, swiftly assembling the necessary institutions for holding credible elections that could give new leaders a genuine mandate for reform. In both tasks, Tunisia’s democratic friends stepped forward. IRI, NDI, and others staged public forums around the country that enabled Tunisians to discuss important reform topics such as devolution of power, freedoms of speech and religion, transitional justice, and women's rights. This helped Tunisia eventually to enact the Arab world’s most progressive constitution. To assist in constructing the necessary institutions for credible elections, IRI, NDI, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and others staged both long- and short-term observation missions, and trained thousands of local observers.

One of the most important developments in the democracy movement occurred not in any one country or region but all across the globe: the long overdue emergence of women in political life and leadership. Obviously, no democracy is “representative” if it excludes the votes and voices of half its population. Moreover, given the wide array of complex challenges facing the modern world, how can any country hope to succeed if it does not tap into all of its citizens for the leadership it needs? Even though the reasons for making sure women are heard in the democratic process should be self-evident, in too many countries, women are relegated to minor roles. To address this, each of the NED institutes has developed initiatives specifically aimed at bolstering the participation of women in democracy and governing. IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network, for example, has 15 formal country chapters and 2,700 members in 61 countries..

At the very moment when the enemies of democracy are significantly ramping up their efforts, we appear to be ramping down.

President Reagan understood that democracy is about more than mere voting, whether it is men or women casting ballots. His remarks to Parliament referred to the broad “infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities…” that empowers people to shape their own future. He also understood that democracy is an empty promise unless joined with human liberty—limitations on government authority aimed at protecting individual freedoms and preventing democrats from morphing into despots, whether benign or otherwise. For the American democracy movement, freedom of conscience, the right to choose your beliefs and to pursue your faith, have always been of special importance. After all, it was the yearning for that very freedom—religious freedom—that first brought so many Europeans to these shores.

In more practical terms for the democracy movement, studies have shown that where religious persecution is a contributing cause in a conflict and where war is being fought along religious lines, casualties are higher and conflicts last longer. On the other hand, where religious freedom exists and communities are allowed to peacefully pursue and express their religious beliefs—and where religious institutions as such have been cut off from access to political power—societies tend to be more open, pluralistic, and stable.[86]

Throughout the Cold War, America stood with people of many faiths as they opposed Communist oppression. In the years since, Americans have advocated for persecuted Christians in North Korea, China, and Vietnam; Muslims in Burma; and various religious communities in conflict zones like Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and the Balkans. American support for persecuted faith communities has spanned the globe and the spectrum of religious groups. To strengthen this work, in 1998 Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which requires the President to take religious freedom into account in developing our foreign policy. It also established the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and a Special Advisor on International Religious Freedom at the National Security Council.

Despite these and other efforts, freedom of conscience generally and religious freedom in particular are under renewed attack. Signs of pressure range from violent attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship to broad government hostility toward religious practices falling outside of government-sanctioned religious institutions. The result has been a sharp rise in political violence and refugee crises. USCIRF’s 2015 Report points to attacks in places like Nigeria, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Syria, and concludes that “a horrified world has watched the results of what some have aptly called violence masquerading as religious devotion.”

Just as human liberty has suffered many setbacks in recent years, the democracy movement itself now faces new challenges. Over the past four decades, the ranks of the world’s democracies have grown threefold. However, over the past several years, the trend has reversed. Several factors, including instability caused by Islamic extremists, are contributing to this shift. None, however, is more dangerous than aggressive authoritarianism, particularly in Asia and Eurasia. New authoritarian regimes are not only dismantling democracy in their own lands but are working to export their ideology to neighbors.

Recent years have seen an increase in the scope and sophistication of authoritarian attacks on civil society. Civil society’s strengthening was a major influence in democracy’s rapid growth. As authoritarian leaders have recognized this, they have responded with sweeping efforts to undermine civil society activities.

Direct attacks on civil society are nothing new. In the days of the Soviet Gulag, Moscow often dealt with activists through brutal violence, torture, and imprisonment. These days, many authoritarians are adding more nuanced approaches that range from heavy-handed legal restrictions aimed at closing down civil society activities to intimidating those who participate in them and cutting off sources of support. Regimes have begun striking at such groups by attacking international organizations like IRI, NDI, and Freedom House. New restrictions prevent international groups from entering a country, publicly expressing points of view, communicating with citizens and domestic groups, or sharing financial resources. Unsurprisingly, Russia and China have created two of the most restrictive anti-civil society schemes.

In 2012, Russia enacted laws requiring international democracy groups to register as "foreign agents" (which, of course, has espionage connotations). In 2015, it went even further, giving the government nearly unlimited discretion to shut down international NGOs deemed "undesirable." In July 2015, Russia’s Federation Council officially called on the government to consider adding a dozen international NGOs—including IRI, NDI, Freedom House and the NED—to its list of “undesirable organizations.”

China’s newly proposed “Foreign NGO Management Law” would require that all international NGOs secure Chinese agency sponsorship and then register with the State Council’s Public Security Department. It authorizes the Department to investigate NGO offices or activities, freeze bank accounts, and confiscate property on a whim. It also requires NGOs to submit annual plans for approval and provides that half of an NGO’s staff must be Chinese nationals responsible to local "foreign affairs service units."

The next President should overhaul the current Broadcasting Board of Governors and reinvigorate America’s international communications efforts. 

Russian and Chinese government actions seem to be inspiring other leaders and regimes in their own efforts to weaken civil society. Since 2012, more than 90 major laws have been proposed or enacted around the world aimed at restricting civil society and international NGO activities.

Legal schemes aren’t the only tool in sophisticated new attacks on democracy. Authoritarian leaders—most notably Putin’s Russia—are resorting to new technology-enhanced propaganda campaigns that both justify their own repressive actions and seek to discredit democratic leaders and systems. In scale, these campaigns resemble 1970s-era propaganda in the former Soviet-bloc. In method, because of social media, satellite television, and other technological advances, modern propaganda has a vastly greater reach. One example is the Putin-linked Sputnik media group, which aims to have operations in nearly three dozen countries and in thirty languages. Its programming offers a steady drumbeat of ideology-driven stories portraying Ukrainian leaders, for example, as fascists bent on punishing Russian speakers at every turn. Russia is far from the only country running high-profile propaganda efforts. China, Venezuela, and Iran are also significant players. For example, Iran’s PressTV is its international effort, broadcasting 24 hours per day in English “extensively networked with bureaus located in the world's most strategic cities.”[87]

A good portion of these propaganda efforts are aimed less at discrediting outside interests and more at polishing the image of authoritarian regimes themselves. In some cases, authoritarian leaders try to defuse domestic democratic movements by claiming that their country already has democracy, albeit a version different than the “liberal democracy” practiced in America and the West. In his day, Reagan pushed back against these efforts to “redefine democracy” with his trademark humor and wit: “The other day someone told me the difference between a democracy and a people’s democracy. It’s the difference between a jacket and a straitjacket.”

While not propaganda in the strictest sense, some authoritarian regimes also funnel of resources to foreign political parties and campaigns that they believe will support their interests. Once again, Russia is the best known practitioner of this approach. Russian funding of far-right political parties across Europe is one widely reported example. The European Parliament has recognized this threat, and in June 2015 a member of that legislative body issued a formal call for the European Union to ban such funding.

Perhaps the most disappointing factor in democracy’s declining fortunes is occurring right here in the United States: a sharp decline in support for democracy programs and the nonprofits established to implement them. Since the early days of the Reagan Administration, democracy programs have always enjoyed bipartisan support. However, since 2009, USAID support has dropped nearly 40 percent. In the most recent fiscal year alone, funding for democracy programs in Africa, where corruption and poor governance remain significant barriers to the continent’s development, has dropped approximately 38 percent. In other words, at the very moment when the enemies of democracy are significantly ramping up their efforts, we appear to be ramping down.

In the area of human liberty, America’s leadership in recent years has also been uneven. At times, America has been a vocal advocate for the release of imprisoned religious leadership in a number of countries. On the other hand, for example, the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has been vacant for four of the six years of the Obama Administration.

As President Reagan told his British audience three decades ago, “democracy is not a fragile flower; still it needs cultivating.” Unfortunately, these past several years show just how much ground can be lost without determined “cultivating.” The next Administration should move swiftly to restore democracy and human liberty promotion as a foreign policy priority. Early on, this means appointing a national security team that understands how to foster liberty and why it matters. It also means using the first budget to increase the resources available for democracy, human rights, and governance programs. Because optics and symbolism matter in politics and diplomacy, the President should include democracy points in early foreign policy speeches and prioritize the nomination of a globally recognizable, politically savvy Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.

As the next term develops, the President should seize the irreplaceable opportunity of presidential travel to advance the democracy mission. When meeting with allies who share our democratic values, he or she should enlist their support for a multilateral campaign to patiently and persistently advance the cause around the world. When meeting with leaders who oppose or are indifferent to democracy, the President should still raise the subject and be willing to point out our disagreement—even as other priorities are discussed. Importantly, the President should not allow human rights or democracy to be relegated to other officials or “side meetings.” Doing so sends a signal that these subjects are merely diplomatic small talk. When traveling to countries with authoritarian leadership, the President should push to meet with civil society representatives, both as a way of demonstrating solidarity and in order to learn firsthand about conditions. The President should also be ready to hear such civil society voices when they visit us here in America.

The next President should condition part of our foreign assistance upon how a country treats civil society, including democracy and human rights organizations, as well as international NGOs. In egregious cases, the next Administration should consider targeted sanctions, visa restrictions, and other measures to signal the importance we place on how governments treat dissenting voices.

Finally, the next President must develop an in-depth strategy for dealing with the sweeping propaganda operations being conducted by several authoritarian regimes. He or she should overhaul the current Broadcasting Board of Governors and reinvigorate America’s international communications efforts. In particular, America needs to better incorporate rapidly evolving social media tools since those tools are being used to significant effect by extremist elements and authoritarian regimes.

(86) See Monica Duffy Toft Monica, Daniel Philpott and Timothy Shah, God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (W.W. Norton, 2011), and Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd Edition (University of California Press, 2003).

(87); see also,