Democracy is a cathedral in which freedom, opportunity and hope flourish. But by many measures democracy is in retreat around the world.
The last dictator in Europe, Alexander Lukashenko, has held onto power in Belarus. Vladimir Putin continues Russia’s authoritarian drift. Iranians elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies Israelis’ right to exist and pursues a nuclear program. Hamas prevailed in Palestinian elections. Lebanon’s fragile democratic government is threatened by Hezbollah.
And the difficulties in Iraq have created deep divisions in America and doubts about a “freedom agenda.”
Why has this happened and what does it mean for America going forward?
In part the current doubts about freedom’s march are the result of unrealistic expectations fed by the quick collapse of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and the exhilaration from the Rose, Orange, Velvet and Cedar revolutions. For a moment, freedom seemed easy and inevitable.
But it is not. Democracy is hard and its progress uneven. The transition from tyranny to liberty is treacherous. Traumas linger and often turmoil reigns. There is fragile confidence that reciprocity, respect and restraint will emerge. The means of compromise, conciliation and cooperation are unfamiliar. Establishing the rule of law, protection of minority rights, and the habits of harmony are difficult.
And there are no final victories. Democracy is a process, not an end point. It is a process to empower people, protect an open society and provide peaceful mechanisms to deal with divisions.
Events remind us that even while holding deep beliefs about the universal right to freedom and convictions about the virtues of democracy, it is best to project our freedom agenda with humility.
Sustainable democracies do not emerge inevitably from the cauldron of conflict. History, heritage and habits matter.
It is important to be mindful that spreading and strengthening democracy is a long-term mission, not a quick fix. Preferred candidates will not always win. But inevitably democracies empower people and protect freedom.
The burdens of dictatorship and the benefits of democracy are profound, as Mark Palmer, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and co-founder of the National Endowment for Democracy, chronicles in his book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil. Almost all refugees come from undemocratic countries. There is a link between reduced economic freedom and increased corruption. Democratically free states produce more than two-thirds of global economic output. Dictators deny human rights. Dictatorships lead to increased warfare. And almost all state sponsors of terror are undemocratic countries.
Promoting democracy is in our interest. A freer, more democratic world is a safer, more secure world.
Furthermore, spreading freedom is America’s opportunity and responsibility.
Blessed with freedom, Americans ought to give voice to the voiceless, stand in solidarity with freedom fighters everywhere, and help provide the tools for others to build open societies with accountable governments. As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is not just for the lucky few, but the right of all mankind.”
We are defined by our values. And our own fidelity to those values and our willingness to let those values animate our foreign policy not only exhibit our better selves, but provides hope for those denied freedom in the world.
The march of freedom has suffered setbacks. Doubts have emerged. Especially at this time of deep divisions, Americans must remain united in faith in our values and confidence in our future. As former Secretary of State George Shultz has said, “Cathedrals are not built by cynics.”
Richard S. Williamson is a Chicago lawyer and former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations.Top