By Kelly Ayotte
Thirty-five years ago this month, President Reagan delivered what is now considered one of his most consequential speeches. Standing in London’s Palace of Westminster, he predicted that the Soviet regime would end up on the “ash-heap of history,” provided the forces of freedom and democracy not only held firm, but supported one another.
This address is remembered chiefly as a vindication of Reagan’s muscular opposition to communism. Yet the speech was no mere jeremiad against the Marxist-Leninism — it marked the beginning of an historic foray into helping to “build the architecture of democracy” worldwide.
Today, democracy assistance represents one of the most powerful weapons in America’s foreign policy arsenal. It’s a weapon that is crucial to fighting the range of challenges we face today — from a resurgent Russia, to instability unleashed by democratic backsliding worldwide, to the imminent threat posed by terrorism.
It is poignant, yet perhaps fitting, that the anniversary of Reagan’s landmark speech should fall in close proximity to the latest terrorist attack on the city in which it was delivered, and to which the world owes so much in the development of modern democracy.
While Reagan’s address focused on the fight against communism, his central ethos is entirely relevant to the war against violent extremism. He said, “The ultimate determinant in the struggle that’s now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.”
We know we have the military strength to defeat ISIS on the battlefield. Even with limited U.S.-backing, Iraqi forces have been able to retake most areas of Iraq formerly occupied by ISIS. We know that our intelligence agencies are working hard to avert countless plots against domestic targets. And we know that, eventually, ISIS will be defeated.
The question is, how much slaughter are we willing to tolerate in the meantime — and what comes next? As we know all-too-well, terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al Nusra and Al Qaeda have found fertile recruiting ground amidst the chaos in Syria and Iraq. When not pressed into service through force, a combination of desperation, misguided devotion and sheer opportunism drives young Syrians and Iraqis to join ISIS.
Yet even in countries like Tunisia — which, as a burgeoning democracy, remains the sole success story of the Arab Spring — young people are leaving in droves to become foreign fighters. The drivers are complex, but it is clear that at least one of the motivations is a profound feeling of disenfranchisement and hopelessness — the sense of many young adults that their voice is not heard, and that they have no stake in the future of their country. In contrast, the Islamic State offers the false promise of adventure, of absolute certainty, and perhaps most importantly, of purpose and self-worth.
Democracy assistance programs supported by the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy are helping countries such as Tunisia to combat vulnerabilities to extremism by building a better future for their people. Through my involvement as a board member of the International Republican Institute, I’ve seen the incredible impact of these efforts first-hand.
By deploying our expertise to support and strengthen democratic institutions such as the rule of law, representative government and free expression, the U.S. can help to stabilize and strengthen vulnerable countries and undercut the appeal of violent extremism. This approach complements military and counterintelligence efforts, and has been widely cited by military leaders as a crucial means of preventing costly future interventions. As General James Mattis observed when asked about funding for foreign assistance programs, “If you don’t fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately… It’s a cost-benefit ratio.”
In the 35 years since President Reagan launched his “campaign for democracy,” we’ve seen numerous examples of successful transitions to democracy, ranging from the former Eastern Bloc to Indonesia. Those transitions were very often aided by the institutes which arose in the wake of the Westminster speech. And at less than 1 percent of the total U.S. government expenditure, it’s hard to argue against the wisdom of our investment.
This work is by no means easy, nor does it always yield immediate returns. It requires patience, fortitude and commitment to long-term strategic objectives. Yet as President Reagan recognized, evil cannot be vanquished by weapons alone. Ultimately, terrorism won’t be defeated just with superior weaponry, but by helping to build stronger societies capable of consigning this scourge to the “ash-heap of history.”
Kelly Ayotte served in the U.S. Senate for New Hampshire from 2011 to 2017. She is now a member of the board of directors at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing democracy around the world.Top