Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Notes & Comments

Defending Democracy Abroad

Taking international order seriously.

John M. Owen IV

THR illustration/Shutterstock.

Americans, particularly on the political right, are increasingly skeptical of robust military aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia. A Gallup Poll in late October showed that 62 percent of Republicans agreed that the United States was supporting Ukraine “too much.” When it comes to Israel’s war against Hamas, the divisions are on the left. A recent AP-NORC poll found that 44 percent of Democrats considered President Biden too closely tied to Israel and insufficiently supportive of the Palestinians.

In making the case for US support, Biden has bundled these two wars together by playing the freedom card. The enemies of Ukraine and Israel—Russia and Hamas—“share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.” Biden is correct—and, indeed, so are many Republican leaders in the Senate and House who share that view. But that may not be good enough for many Americans. Ukraine and Israel are democracies, yes, but why should the United States send them billions in aid when the needs in our own country are so great—and when we might be at risk of spreading these wars? Are we also obligated to defend Taiwan against China? Where does this end?

Growing numbers of Americans are no longer persuaded by the post–World War II bipartisan consensus that defending democracies abroad is not only the right thing to do but also in the cold, hard interest of the United States. The recent failure of efforts to promote self-government in Afghanistan and Iraq, so costly and exhausting, has left its mark. As we enter a presidential election year, the case for defending democracy abroad needs to be made anew.

And what is that case? Quite simply, that if there are fewer democracies in the world, that ultimately makes it harder for the United States to be a country that is both secure and democratic, that is neither pressured to become more authoritarian for the sake of national security nor to compromise its security in order to remain a democracy.

America’s national interest entails not only security from attack and blackmail but also the preservation of its system of constitutional self-government. Although we are accustomed to thinking that security and democracy go together, they are truly two separate things. From the end of the Cold War until a few years ago, the international ecosystem was generally favorable to democracy, allowing us to have it both ways. Democracy seemed to be the wave of the future. Communism had been vanquished, and even China and Russia seemed to be on the road to constitutional self-government. The international rules and institutions that reinforce democracy were working.

This virtuous cycle of democracy, rules, institutions, and information operated globally because, at least since World War II, most US leaders had understood how important a democratic ecosystem is to the national interest—and that, as the world’s most powerful constitutional state, the United States has outsized influence over that ecosystem. Washington used its leverage to shape international rules to favor transparency and the rule of law. It flooded the world with information about the superiority of democracy. And in some times and places, it defended and even promoted democracy abroad—first in Europe and Japan, much later in the Global South.

US leaders did all this because they remembered the last time the international ecosystem was hostile to democracy: the 1930s and early 1940s. Market democracy was failing around the world, pulling down with it the League of Nations, various international treaties, and global trade. New fascist powers were recovering rapidly from the Depression, expanding their militaries, and building empires. What we sometimes forget today is that America felt the same attractions to autocracy that other democracies felt. Our population was polarized, democrats were demoralized, and it was not clear that the center would hold. Franklin Roosevelt, then president, told an aide that the two most dangerous men in America were Huey Long, the left-populist governor of Louisiana, who threatened to end capitalism, and General Douglas MacArthur, whose attachment to constitutionalism was dubious.

America has escaped a replay of those terrifying years partly because of its postwar efforts to engineer the ecosystem to favor democracy. The ultimate success of those efforts was seen most vividly a generation ago, when external pressure drove the Soviet Union toward liberal political and economic reforms. The reforms helped liberate Eastern Europe but ended up destroying the Soviet Union, precisely because it was an authoritarian empire.

But that was a long time ago. Analysts who track democracy agree that over the past decade or so constitutional self-government has again been in global retreat. Mistakes by the United States and other democracies are partly responsible. The surprising ability of China to become a superpower without democratizing is also an important cause. China’s ruling Communist Party is working in various ways to reverse the liberal bias in the international environment, to make it favor authoritarian regimes like its own. The rulers of Russia and Iran are working toward a similar end, sometimes separately, sometimes together.

We are not living in the 1930s, and China is not out to conquer the world. But the fall of democracy in Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan would bring us a bit closer to a world that selects for autocracy. That is why it is not only idealism that drives the United States to defend these small self-governing countries. It is a recognition that if they go down, the United States will find it that much harder to be what its people want it to be: wealthy, strong, and democratic, all at the same time