Democracy as a Vital Interest: A Realist Approach to a New Threat Landscape

“Pursuing a realist foreign policy and promoting democracy are not mutually exclusive goals but, instead, are reinforcing and responsive to today’s threat landscape.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores what should now be a universally held truth: President Vladimir Putin views the expansion of democracy as a threat to his grip on power and key to the advancement of U.S. and allied influence in Russia’s periphery and around the world. Chinese leader Xi Jinping shares this concern, and the lengthy joint statement issued by both leaders after their meeting last month strongly reflected it.

“Pursuing a realist foreign policy and promoting democracy are not mutually exclusive goals but, instead, are reinforcing and responsive to today’s threat landscape. As we are currently observing in Ukraine, the Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the United States’ two main adversaries, act to protect themselves and expand their power by employing the traditional tools of military power. Increasingly, however, Xi and Putin advance their interests by using hybrid tactics to undermine democracy in ways that make the world less hospitable for U.S. security interests and accessible to American companies.

“The U.S. approach to this challenge should not involve military intervention to supplant regimes vulnerable to or already influenced by the Chinese and Russians. For many critics, the notion of democracy promotion calls to mind the failed American-led intervention in Iraq and attempted ‘nation-building’ to transform that country into a liberal democracy.

“Instead, we define democracy support or ‘promotion’ as assistance the United States provides to protect and strengthen democratic governance abroad. In practice, this might involve using foreign assistance to help citizens or governments strengthen their democratic ecosystems against malign influence of external authoritarians. It could also include diplomatic engagement that champions local democracy advocates or holds despotic regimes accountable for their actions. This suite of tools is critical to any successful, realist approach to securing U.S. interests abroad, given the tactics employed by our adversaries.

“China is exploiting and exacerbating governance gaps in vulnerable countries, using corruption and the lack of transparency to conclude deals that undermine political accountability. Russia is similarly using strategic corruption to prop up and co-opt its allies within countries and undermine democratic actors with ties to the United States and European Union. Both Moscow and Beijing subvert democratic political processes, interfering in elections and providing direct political and financial support to friendly autocrats.

“China and Russia are also inspiring the adoption of digital authoritarianism, sharing with aspiring autocrats the technology, normative and legislative frameworks, and training to monitor their citizens as well as muzzle independent media and civil society.

“The United States cannot address these challenges with traditional military or economic measures alone, let alone by sitting back ‘offshore’ while China and Russia expand their influence at U.S. expense and American opportunities for trade and commerce plummet.

“Securing democracy overseas is good for American security at home. The evidence to this effect is sound and expansive. Democracies are more reliable trading partners and less likely to go to war with each other. Democracies have more robust institutions and transparent regulation, which makes it easier and safer for American companies to expand into these markets.

“Democracy assistance can help create conditions that deter malign states from exerting their influence in a target country or, at minimum, make it more difficult for them to do so. Robust electoral processes defend against interference in elections and help maintain public confidence in democracy. An independent civil society and media help hold leaders accountable and mitigate against external actors corrupting and ultimately co-opting them…

“It is no coincidence that countries that already have or have reportedly considered welcoming a Chinese military base on their territory are non-democracies and usually countries indebted to or otherwise dependent on China. Supporting democratic actors and institutions can help ensure that fewer countries find themselves in situations similar to Djibouti, Cambodia, and Equatorial Guinea, among others, limiting the number of countries eager to help the People’s Liberation Army expand its global presence.

“Realists are not wrong to interrogate the efficacy of democracy promotion—every foreign policy tool, including the use of military force or sanctions, must be adjusted to maximize impact. We must learn from past mistakes and remain vigilant lest democracy support transforms into costly military missions or open-ended commitments that drain resources. But Washington should not abandon a foreign policy tool uniquely suited to counter today’s threats today in the name of overcorrecting to yesterday’s failures. “Open societies with thriving civil societies, rule of law, independent media, and protections against foreign interference in their electoral processes are unlikely to align with our adversaries or become breeding grounds for terrorism…”

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