There was an interesting interview on Fox News recently with Adrian Hong, identified as Managing Director at Pegasus Strategies, who discussed the issue of continuing Iranian, Chinese and Russian government support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Hong explained that in his view, a view shared by many these days, short of sending in American troops to Syria, “the best we can do is pressure Russia, China and Iran”. Yet, there are better options available for American foreign policy than pressuring the three largest remaining dictatorships to go against their own allies. Democrat or Republican, the next U.S. administration should work hard, in conjunction with our democratic allies, to do all we can to take advantage of this uniquely democratic historical period and help strengthen world democratic institutions for decades to come.
In almost every region on the planet, a proactive American role in supporting democratic governance and uniting existing democracies is vital to the world’s long-term stability in the 21st century. The Arab Spring was only the latest incarnation of a global trend that has accelerated in fits since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Every single country in the Arab world has seen Arab Spring related protests calling for democratic elections. Dictatorships across the world, from Russia to Senegal, are experiencing protesters in the streets in the hundreds of thousands calling for democratic elections and there are certainly more to come. We are at a turning point toward world democratization that is likely unstoppable regardless of American policies. Yet, with effective and consistent American support, the next few decades can see more democratic transitions that are peaceful and truly successful.
There are multiple possible peaceful strategies for increased assistance to global democracy efforts and the U.S. has many levers of power to play with from technological capability to world class universities and influence in international organizing bodies. This begins with vastly more U.S. time and resources focused on international democracy building. The U.S. spends roughly five percent of its GDP on its military, by some estimates as much as a trillion dollars per year.
This is a poor balance with the current budget for non-military foreign aid including all manifestations of foreign assistance, at $38 billion, woefully insufficient for the task at hand and the seriousness of the situation. The U.S. can easily afford more than 0.21% of its GDP on foreign assistance even during a time of budget cuts if the end result is a more democratic and stable world and this increase would potentially decrease the need for future military interventions and budgets. The potential rewards of success are too big to ignore in the current international climate. What would be the economic, social and political benefit if a local democratic movement peacefully dissolved the dictatorship in North Korea?
Really Democratic Foreign Policy
In many ways the Arab Spring has exposed how powerful external foreign governments including our own buttress dictatorships around the world. While the U.S. may still find itself in uncomfortable embrace with dictatorships over the next several decades, we can still follow a policy of support for democratic institutions on a global level.
When newly democratic countries hold elections, the assistance of the U.S. and our allies can be of critical help to countries that often have no history of democratic institutions. International vote monitors and election assistance teams should be as well funded and trained as Navy Seals. We can also capitalize on American expertise to build systems to support dissent inside dictatorships such as internet based systems that help democracy advocates avoid censorship and monitoring. One thing is clear: there are a variety of options to take action.
A Realistic But Democratic Foreign Policy
Most importantly however, in order to create the unity needed to act globally, alliances should be strengthened with the dozens of democratic countries who imitated our democratic form of politics in the last century. Basing a system of American alliances on countries that have had decades of democratic elections and multiple transitions of power is an opportunity unique to this point in history, unimaginable in any other era on a world scale. The U.S. must take advantage of the situation and adopt a foreign policy of alliance building with strong democratic countries to strengthen the ability of our free peoples to work together on international issues of every nature. We need a system where when UN aid is blocked in Syria or Sudan due to the actions of dictatorships like Russia and China, there can still be unity and capability to respond that correlates to the strength of the roughly three billion people across the democratic world.
On top of this, we should multiply our alliances by recognizing the new opportunities born out of the democracy building that has taken place across the rest of the world particularly in the developing world during the last two decades. The economic emergence of the developing world is a game changer and continues to represent the best opportunity to solidify and deepen democratic gains.
We must invest the time and resources necessary to coax democratic developing countries like Brazil and India to support our democracy building efforts and to strengthen their own democracies at the same time. Neither Brazil nor India are featured anywhere on the list of top ten recipient countries of American foreign assistance despite their size and democratic progress. From Mexico and Latin America to Europe and the emerging democracies in the Middle East, the US can and should be building alliances with our fellow democratic countries.
This democratic progress, whose roots were first planted in United States, is something policy makers in Washington have taken for granted for too long. There are many places in the world that will need democracy building support in the next several decades. The United States, due to its size and position is in a unique period of historical opportunity for democracy building abroad. The graph below is an illustration of the massive progress that has taken place even before the Arab Spring. In this atmosphere it is imperative that the U.S. uses the appropriate effort to tip the balance into a world with an overwhelming majority of the world’s population living in democracies. When Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine wrote of democracy in the days of the American Revolution, they did so based on a belief that democratic countries would avoid war with each other. Let it be so.