IRI President in Foreign Affairs: Standing Up for Democracy Advances American Interests

Standing Up for Democracy

Foreign Affairs

By Richard Fontaine and Daniel Twining

In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, released in January, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump correctly identified greatpower competitionas the United States’ central security challenge. In recent years, rival states such as China and Russia have increased their ability to project power and undermine the U.S.-led liberal international order, even as Washington has struggled to respond. Beijing and Moscow, moreover, share a vision of a global order more conducive to their own forms of authoritarian governance. As a result, today’s great-power competition is a contest not just of nations but of political systems.

Thus far, the Trump administration has largely focused on great-power rivalry in terms of economic and military might. Its strategy documents have outlined the loss of the United States’ competitive military edge as other states have made major investments in new power projection technologies. Washington has used tariffs and other penalties in order to fight China’s mercantilist economic practices, while Congress and the administration have imposed sanctions on individual Russians accused of international transgressions.

These responses, however, are not enough. To overcome its geopolitical rivals, the United States must go beyond building a stronger military or enforcing economic rules; it must double down on its support for democracy around the world. Authoritarian powers such as China and Russia are working to subvert democracy where it exists, snuff it out where it is new, and keep it away where it is lacking. They see their assault on democracy as a matter not of values but of strategic advantage, whereby they can enhance their own power by eroding the internal cohesion of democracies and the solidarity of democratic alliances. Beijing and Moscow are on the offensive; meanwhile, Washington is hardly playing defense, much less doing what it needs to: championing a robust agenda for protecting and enlarging the free world. 


Washington has not always been indifferent to the fate of democracy. The Founding Fathers understood that the fate of liberty in the United States is tied to the destiny of freedom abroad, and presidents as different as Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan have actively worked to defend and extend the ranks of free nations.

For the United States, supporting democracy is a matter of both values and interests. It helps mobilize the American public around U.S. foreign policy and provides direction to Washington’s international efforts beyond narrowly construed national interest. History shows that democracy promotion is also a powerful way to advance global stability. Democracies are unlikely to go to war with one another, the United States’ closest allies are democracies, and its most reliable trade and investment markets are those in liberal societies. A world in which the institutions of liberal democracy are strong is safer for the United States than one in which autocracy is on the prowl. 

The importance of democracy to U.S. interests helps explain recent Chinese and Russian activities. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping see a contest of systems under way between liberal democracy and centrally guided rule. Xi offers China as an alternative model for developing countries that can deliver economic modernity without political choice, while Putin argues that Western democracies are decadent, lacking the discipline and vigor of his technologically empowered dictatorship. Both project their authoritarian models in order to subvert free societies, weaken U.S. alliances, and gain geostrategic advantage.

Sensing that a divided United States poses less of a threat to Russia’s imperial ambitions, Moscow seeks to damage the democratic practice that lies at the core of American life. Through disinformation and interference, it works to sow distrust in elections and institutions, pit social groups against one another, and undermine the notion of truth on which democratic discourse depends. In dozens of Western countries, Russia has employed cyberattacks, fake news, propaganda, and social-media manipulation to undermine open societies, while providing material support to illiberal social and political groups, including radical populists on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

China takes a more subtle, long-term approach. In countries such as Australia and Greece, Beijing has used its economic weight to lean on corporations and civil society groups to limit speech China finds objectionable. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative threatens to catch countries in a web of debt dependency and increased corruption. Similarly, China’s development of a new “digital Silk Road,” a plan to promote information technology connectivity across Eurasia, may well export Beijing’s Orwellian domestic surveillance regime. Through such moves, China is deploying what the National Endowment for Democracy terms “sharp power,” designed to “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environments in the targeted countries.” In other words, Beijing is building political influence in target countries and constructing an expansive, illiberal sphere of influence that is hostile to  U.S. leadership.


China and Russia’s influence campaigns require a U.S. response—for reasons not of Wilsonian idealism but of hard-nosed realism. Democratic nations must defend themselves against a form of ideological assault they have not witnessed since the end of the Cold War. Specifically, the United States should push back against authoritarian influence in three ways: by making existing democracies more resilient, by protecting and supporting fragile democracies, and by expanding democratic choice in countries where it is today unknown.

The top priority should be to make open societies more resilient and capable of defending themselves against external threats. During the Cold War, U.S. grand strategy revolved around protecting democratic strongpoints in Asia and Europe. Today, the United States must first defend itself against autocratic penetration and subversion, while also looking to protect allies and partners such as Australia, France, Germany, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Just as Washington would view any military intrusion into these countries as an unacceptable infringement of their sovereignty, so too must it view political interference as a hostile act worthy of a collective response.

The second priority should be to protect fragile nascent democracies—countries that have recently democratized but where democracy is still under assault from internal or external forces. Ukraine is an important example: both its government and a majority of its population support democratic consolidation and integration into the West, yet Moscow is pursuing hybrid war to subvert the country’s sovereign institutions. Other important fragile democracies include Bangladesh, Georgia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Tunisia, which face threats as diverse as Russian aggression, Chinese economic coercion, and violent non-state extremism. 

The third priority should be encouraging democratic openings in autocratic environments. Washington may lack the leverage to mitigate repression in countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, but there are other places where democratic practice may find more fertile ground, including Angola, Belarus, Central Asia, Ethiopia, and Venezuela. Washington’s objective in these countries should be not to foment regime change but to support local actors working to incrementally expand democracy.


Many in Washington now believe that autocratic resurgence is simply a fact of life. Pointing to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they argue that the United States has a poor record of promoting human rights and democracy, and say it should be careful what it wishes for—during the Arab Spring, for instance, the fall of autocrats ushered in not liberal democracy but instability and violent extremism. Yet the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in the name of national security, not democracy promotion, and the Arab Spring was more a product of local dynamics than of anything the United States said or did. Moreover, these arguments ignore the reality that in an interconnected world, the health of U.S. democracy depends in part on the strength of democracy in other countries. A policy agenda of supporting democratic practice abroad does not distract from the imperatives of great-power competition; on the contrary, it is part and parcel of engaging the contest.

To that end, Washington should invest in defending democracy around the world. This will require, among other things, protecting elections, government institutions, and the media from cyberattacks and imposing material costs on those who use digital tools to foster division and distrust. It means devoting significant intelligence resources to understanding adversary activity and proactively defending against their assaults on U.S. institutions. This February, for instance, the then director of the National Security Agency, Mike Rogers, admitted that his agency lacks the presidential authority to disrupt Russian meddling in the 2018 election. This problem requires immediate remedy, as does the vast underinvestment in intelligence and other resources devoted to countering state-sponsored threats to democracy.

Washington will also need to recast threats to democracy—and their solutions—as challenges to be faced in cooperation with its allies. Russian meddling in Europe should be an issue for NATO, while Chinese interference in Australia should be dealt with as part of U.S.-Australian treaty commitments. By viewing such external assaults not just as a matter of domestic politics but also as an attack on alliances, Washington and its partners can better share information and resources and coordinate joint responses.

Supporting nascent democracies will require a panoply of diplomatic and economic measures, together with the patience to see through long-term efforts. A good start would be for Washington to stop treating institutions that focus on conditions in fragile democracies—such as the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, or USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance division—as strategic backwaters, less worthy of attention and resources than those more explicitly focused on national security. On the contrary, leaders in both the executive branch and Congress must understand that such institutions, which have been studying these questions for decades, are tip-of-the-spear instruments that better equip the United States for today’s hybrid environment of great-power competition.

When it comes to the hardest cases, it will be critical not to give authoritarian challengers a free pass on internal repression. U.S. leaders have traditionally spoken out in favor of human rights and democracy in closed societies, including those with regimes with which they must do business. Yet today U.S. officials often defer to the governments of authoritarian countries, which are treated as unitary actors despite the fact that these undemocratic regimes do not speak for their citizens. In this contested space, Washington must consistently speak up for human rights, political freedoms, and minority protections, both generally and with respect to specific countries. The people of those nations will remember it.

Efforts to support democracy should emphasize not a missionary vision of spreading “American” values around the world but, rather a hard-edged, practical strategy of empowering countries to protect their own sovereignty. No nation wants to be part of another’s sphere of influence, and nationalism remains a potent force. By mobilizing to protect against the establishment of authoritarian great-power spheres of influence, the United States can offer a vision that appeals to both the values and interests of countries around the world.

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