Why defending democracy is no vice


Despite recent setbacks, there remain compelling moral and self-interested reasons to support democracy and human rights around the world, argues Michael McFaul, director of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Democracies offer the most accountable system of government, the only tonic for illegitimacy and the best way to offer political participation to the disenfranchised, he writes for The Washington Post:

Democracies are also better at protecting basic human rights, representing the will of the people and checking egregious uses of power. Democratic governments do not commit genocide, do not barrel-bomb their own citizens, do not create refugees and do not starve their people. They also are more stable than other forms of government because they offer a peaceful, institutionalized mechanism for transferring power.

Democracies also provide more prosperity for their citizens than other systems of government. It is more than coincidence that the vast majority of the richest per capita countries in the world, excluding oil exporters, are democracies. On average, democracies have performed just as well as autocracies in generating economic growth over the last half-century in the developing world. China’s recent experience of economic expansion is one of the rare exceptions. Far more often, dictators produce economic basket cases — just see the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, or China under Mao Zedong. For these reasons and others, public opinion polls around the world consistently show that majorities of people in almost every country prefer democratic systems to dictatorships, absolute monarchies or theocracies.

McFaul’s comments coincide with reports that the State Department may be restructured to focus more heavily on counterterrorism — a move that could dramatically reduce the time and resources devoted to climate change, promoting democracy abroad and other programs seen as liberal priorities, according to POLITICO:

There may be resistance in parts of the Foreign Service to the reallocation of resources away from some of the department’s many functions. The plan also may face opposition from the Defense Department, intelligence agencies and other government units wary of ceding territory to State. But the implication is that diplomatic efforts focused on issues not directly related to terrorism, such as promoting U.S. arts and culture or standing up for workers’ rights overseas, may see less support ….

A serving State official said making the department more focused on counterterrorism may be a fruitful exercise because there are many who feel State is “stretched too thin.” But he also noted that much of what the department engages in is “soft power,” such as promoting inter-religious dialogue through the Countering Violent Extremism program. Furthermore, initiatives that at first may seem like Democratic priorities could in the long run contribute to the anti-terrorism effort. Reducing the impact of climate change could, for instance, prevent economic and social upheaval that can lead to radicalization.

Americans have selfish reasons for wanting to see democracy in the world survive and expand, adds McFaul, formerly a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:

  • First, our closest and most enduring allies have been and are today democracies. Democracies are the allies who go to war with us, vote with us in the United Nations, support international treaties and norms that serve our interests…
  • Second, our enemies are and have been dictatorships or political movements espousing anti-democratic ideas. In the 20th century, dictatorships in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union directly threatened American national security. Every war we have fought has been against autocracies — Germany, Italy, Japan, North Korea, North Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya. Never has a democracy attacked us. ….
  • Third, the consolidation of democracy after the fall of autocracy enhances American security. The construction of democracies in Germany, Japan and Italy after World War II firmly entrenched our alliances with all of these countries. During the Cold War, the United States partnered with autocrats to contain communism. Yet transitions to democracy in Portugal, Spain, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Chile and South Africa did not, as predicted, hurt American strategic interests, but instead served to nurture deeper, more lasting relationships. …
  • Fourth, the U.S. economy also benefits from successful democratization abroad. Aside from China, democracies are our most important trading and investment partners. The collapse of command economies in the former communist world added billions of dollars’ worth of trade to the world economic system, while also offering new frontiers for American investment. ….


Michael McFaul was previously special assistant to President Obama at the National Security Council from 2009-2012 and former U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012-2014. Follow @McFaul

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