When Great Britain told the United States in February of 1947 that it could no longer protect Greece and Turkey, President Harry Truman and his top aides realized that America would have to step up to protect freedom or cede the Mediterranean and maybe Europe and other regions to the Soviets.
The result was the Truman Doctrine to help “free peoples” resist “attempted subjugation,” the Marshall Plan to revive an economically prostrate Europe, and NATO to protect Europe from a Soviet move.
But what Truman instinctively understood is what today’s Americans desperately must re-learn: that global power abhors a vacuum, that only America can protect freedom abroad, and that a U.S. retreat will prove harmful to America itself, as Freedom House’s new report on global freedom makes clear.
“Democracy is in crisis,” Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz writes in “Freedom in the World, 2018,” cataloguing the 12th straight year of democratic setbacks that out-numbered gains and that “extended a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.”
That democratic setbacks, autocratic gains and a U.S. withdrawal occurred simultaneously is no coincidence. While America’s retreat is hardly the sole reason for democracy’s global crisis, it is a key driving force behind it. And it’s a crisis that we will allow to continue festering at our own peril.
First, here’s the sobering detail from Freedom House’s report, which list countries as free, partly free or not free. Some 71 countries suffered declines in freedom (i.e., political rights and civil liberties) in 2017, while only 35 enjoyed gains. Since 2006, when freedom’s global decline began, 113 countries have suffered setbacks while only 62 enjoyed gains. Of particular note in 2017, Turkey and Hungary turned toward authoritarianism, Myanmar engaged in ethnic cleansing and Tunisia suffered setbacks after emerging from the “Arab Spring” as its lone democratic success story.
Now, consider the U.S. posture over the last 12 years on promoting freedom, which most post-war presidents considered central to their role. President George W. Bush had pledged a “freedom agenda” after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were supposed to advance freedom bogged down, he pushed that agenda far less aggressively in his last years, starting in about 2006.
President Barack Obama was less enthused about promoting freedom and democracy from the start. He downgraded democracy promotion as a strategy of U.S. foreign policy and sought warmer ties with such rights-abusing leaders as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
President Donald Trump has retreated even more, questioning the consensus among intelligence leaders that Putin’s Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and expressing his admiration for, and ties to, such rights-abusing strongmen as Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
All this matters for a host of reasons. First, a freer, more democratic world is a safer, more prosperous one. Democratic nations almost never go to war with one another, so the greater the number of democracies, the less likely that war will break out. Meanwhile, the more free market nations there are around the world, the more opportunities for U.S. business to trade and invest, creating more jobs at home.
Second, despite the military weapons at his disposal, a U.S. president’s global voice is often his most powerful weapon. By promoting freedom and, when possible, backing it up with dollars and technical assistance, presidents can inspire dissidents and put autocrats on the defensive – as Ronald Reagan did during the Cold War and Bill Clinton did after the Soviet collapse.
Third, as noted, global power abhors a vacuum. With America less interested in freedom’s fate, China and Russia are seizing opportunities not just to crack down on dissidents at home but also to undermine democracy abroad by pressuring neighboring countries to copy their autocratic systems of governance.
To be sure, a future president could restore freedom and democracy promotion to its rightful place in U.S. foreign policymaking. But he or she may be constrained by the growing legion of young voters who grew up not when America was fighting fascists or communists but, instead, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global economic collapse of 2008 raised questions about democracy’s value to begin with.
If Santayana was right that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, then what America – which gave birth to freedom and democracy more than two centuries ago – needs is a crash course in their value.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.