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Why America Must Lead the Fight for Freedom Throughout the World


Published April 18, 2023

The world is currently experiencing a democratic recession, with autocracies like China and Russia posing threats to democracies globally. Strong US leadership is crucial to support of global democracy, but that leadership must be continually emphasized for each new generation. Democracies with the rule of law reduce the threats to peace and security and increase the prospects for prosperity worldwide.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the world is experiencing a democratic recession?
  2. Why do China’s leaders feel they need to recapture Taiwan?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “All Democracy Is Global,” by Larry Diamond via Foreign Affairs. Available here.
  • Read “Deterring a Chinese Military Attack on Taiwan,” by Larry Diamond and James O. Ellis via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Available here.
  • Watch “China’s Expansion into the South China Sea, with Michael Auslin” on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

The world is mired in a deep, diffuse, and protracted democratic recession. What was true during the twentieth century is even truer today: every political system is affected by every other, and powerful, aggressive autocracies pose an existential and expansive threat to the world’s democracies.

Strong US leadership is crucial to support global democracy, but that leadership must be continually emphasized to each new generation. A world filled by democracies and the rule of law is more peaceful, secure, and prosperous, as democracies are less likely to pose a threat and more likely to ensure global peace and prosperity.

The hard truth is that the world’s two major autocracies—China and Russia—are waging sophisticated and well-resourced global campaigns to discredit and subvert democracy. And in this new century, the United States and its allies have been ill prepared to fight back.

A narrative has been taking hold that democracies are corrupt and worn out, that they lack energy, capacity, and self-confidence. And the developing world is listening with many people now look to Beijing for partnership and inspiration.

After a decade and a half of losing ground, democracy promotion needs to be reset.

The guiding principle for the right strategy is simple: power matters. This is not to endorse using force to impose democracy. That approach almost always fails, and it discredits peaceful efforts. But as the political scientist Samuel Huntington noted, military and diplomatic power create the geopolitical context in which democracy thrives or founders. Preserving U.S. military strength—and the vigor and deterrent capabilities of U.S. alliances and partnerships—is vital to keeping democracies secure against authoritarian encroachment and intimidation.

Critics question whether the United States should avoid beginning a “new cold war.” But the United States needs to defend the principles of freedom and territorial integrity, or the coming years will be more like the 1930s than the 1990s. 

To avoid this reality, there is no more important priority than ensuring that Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine’s democracy ends in Moscow’s defeat. Victory is not just imperative to protect the Ukrainians’ right to self-governance. 

If Ukraine emerges from this conflict substantially free and secure, with its prewar territory intact and with aid and investment owing in to rebuild, several powerful lessons will become clear. Bystanders will realize that democracy is not a weak system, just as it did for the United Kingdom in World War II. 

The world will also see that the United States and its allies will sacrifice to help an embattled democracy defend itself and to reaffirm the most vital principle of the international order, that territorial aggression will not stand. 

It will also demonstrate the disastrous incompetence and miscalculation of Putin’s authoritarian state and remind the world that when leaders are not constrained by checks and balances and alternative flows of information, they are prone to ruinous blunders. 

There is another reason why failure is not an option in Ukraine: Taiwan. China appears increasingly determined to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland for symbolic, political, economic, and strategic reasons. Symbolically, the Chinese Communist Party’s rulers claim that annexing Taiwan would end a long humiliation and restore China’s rightful status as the dominant power in Asia. Politically, the Chinese leadership’s absorption of Taiwan would extinguish the living proof that a Chinese society can govern itself as a liberal democracy. 

If Taiwan eventually falls or the conquest looks inevitable, other countries will opt to ride the wave of China’s hegemonic ascent rather than be drowned by it. For this reason, preserving Taiwan’s autonomy as a thriving democracy is an overriding strategic priority not just for the region but for the entire world. 

A world in which democracy and the rule of law predominate will be a much more peaceful and economically secure world. The United States needs to politically and financially support the people struggling—at great risk!—for freedom. This is a moral imperative. And it is in the United States’ national interest to encourage transitions to more democratic, lawful, and accountable governments around the world.