While the United States and its allies dither over whether to materially support the Syrian opposition and, if so, how, Western leaders should recognize that the bloody conflict raises a larger question:
Will the West defend freedom at a potential turning point in global history, or will it cede this and future battles to autocratic forces?
As Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter continues, leaving over 7,500 dead, cities reduced to rubble, and
Syrians dreading what may come next, Damascus is receiving arms and other support from Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran – a trio of autocratic regimes with visions of governance that differ greatly from U.S.-led freedom and democracy.
At home, the autocrats are trying to provide more prosperity for their people without giving them the political freedom to choose their leaders – and possibly replace the current ones.
Consequently, they don’t want another autocrat (particularly an ally) to fall and, worse, be replaced by a freer, more democratic government that the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian people might want to replicate.
Washington, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from al-Assad’s demise. For starters, it would deprive Tehran of its key regional ally, which would further isolate the regime, weaken its ability to carry out terrorist operations, and make it harder for it to achieve its hegemonic ambitions.
Al-Assad’s demise also would create an opportunity for an organized opposition to seed freedom and democracy in another place in a region that, through the Arab Spring, is starting to taste the first fruits. All else being equal, the more that freedom and democracy comes to the Greater Middle East, the fewer threats that the region would present to Western interests – and the more potential it would offer for Western investment from which both the region and the West would benefit.
The Syrian conflict – indeed, the Arab Spring from which it sprung – also comes at a key moment in global history. In recent years, the advance of freedom and democracy has stalled, with autocrats in Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere offering a governing model to challenge the U.S.-led system of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism that has served the world well for more than half a century.
As Freedom House reported about political rights and civil liberties earlier this year in Freedom in the World 2012, “slightly more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2011. This marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements” – the longest period of retrenchment since the non-profit began publishing its annual survey in 1972.
History suggests that, after some period of retrenchment, freedom and democracy will resume their advance. That’s what has happened for the last two centuries, with what the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called “waves of democratization” that have been interrupted by temporary “reverse waves.”
Moreover, ongoing economic and social forces will increasingly promote freedom and democracy. As living standards continue to rise across the globe, more people will seek political liberties to accompany their rising prosperity. As the global communications revolution continues, more people in authoritarian lands will learn about the political freedoms that other governments provide to their citizens, prompting more of them to demand the same freedoms from their own governments.
Nevertheless, as Robert Kagan explains in his wonderful new treatise, The World America Made, history offers no inevitable path. The advance of freedom and democracy is the product of not just rising living standards, the spread of information, and other forces. It’s also the product of a concerted effort by America and its allies to promote the system that they established after World War II.
History was up for grabs after the second world war, as the United States and the Soviet Union offered distinctly different models of governance. The West created the architecture to support free market capitalism and liberal democracy, while standing firm against Moscow’s expansionist desires.
“The strategic relationships Americans formed in Europe and Asia became the pillars of the liberal world order during the Cold War, the engines of the global economy, the heart of the expanding democratic world, and the primary guarantee against world wars and the great-power conflicts that had plagued the world for a century,” Kagan wrote.
Democracies, which numbered about a dozen in 1941, soared to over 100, Kagan noted. The global economy, which rose by less than 1 percent a year in the four centuries before 1950, averaged 4 percent annual growth thereafter, lifting billions out of poverty. The world’s great powers went to war twice in the early 20th Century, but they have not warred with one another since.
Washington was justifiably proud when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union splintered, signaling victory in the Cold War.
But, as Kagan explains, what’s past is not necessarily prologue. To protect and build upon those victories, the United States and its allies must maintain their political, economic, and, at times, military efforts of the last half-century.
So, the West should understand that as Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran empower al-Assad’s slaughter, the autocrats are mounting a fundamental challenge to Western values and the West’s governing model.
It demands a more meaningful response than Washington and its allies have been able to muster so far.