The concept of democracy promotion has a negative connotation, particularly since the War in Iraq. The cost of the Iraq war and the public controversy over it generated an aversion towards democracy promotion. Such negativity was associated with idea that Americans soldiers are sacrificed for a cause that is not theirs. Losing lives over foreign democracies is not worthwhile and less so when instead of democracy what we see is civil war, anarchy and chaos.
The problem is not so much with the argument raised. In fact, it makes sense to think that sacrificing U.S. troops to build a foreign nation is too high of a price to pay. However, this argument has spilled into a general blindness regarding democracy promotion up to the point that there is aversion to even discussing the issue and against this background a neo-isolationist concept has developed in important sectors of the right and the left.
I will state that there is in the world today a deterioration of democracy that begins with elections, but quickly turns into a rule by executive decrees, subjugation of the branches of power, fraudulent elections, restriction of the press, and eventually violent repression of society. They begin as illiberal democracies and end up in an authoritarian regime. The cases of Russia, Venezuela and Turkey are the clearest examples. Several countries in the Western hemisphere such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have followed the Venezuelan example of establishing a powerful authority. In Europe, countries such as Poland and Hungary are following suit.
The problem is that those regimes are not friendly to the liberal world order that the U.S. and its allies have tried to build. In the past, not every authoritarian regime was anti-American or anti-West. Many of them were authoritarian capitalistic or semi-capitalistic regimes that supported the U.S. during the cold war. The famous phrase attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he is “a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch” no longer applies.
The new authoritarian regimes not only reject democracy but are also afraid of the liberal world order. The European Union has supported the liberal order for decades as democracy was a condition to enter the European Common Market. Spain and Portugal were able to join the group only after they transitioned to democracy. The U.S. also moved from its “Realpolitik” approach to supporting the spread of democracy in the world.
Thus, by definition a modern illiberal regime considers the West an adversary directly or indirectly. By the same token, it does not feel committed to the same geo-strategic goals and values that the West promotes. As an example, Turkey, a member of NATO, has made alliances with Iran and Russia. It has also allowed ISIS to use its territory to sell its oil. Most recently, Turkey’s president Recep Tayip Erdogan publicly spoke to a six-year-old girl encouraging martyrdom confirming Mr. Erdogan’s radical Islamist views.
The notion of Turkey as an ally was not revisited by Western leaders. When a sector in the military attempted a coup d’état against Erdogan in the summer of 2016, the U.S. and the West condemned the coup more than they condemned the repressive measures and massive purges carried out in response to the coup. But today, we know better. Turkey’s membership in NATO means nothing. Erdogan, will continue to perpetuate himself in power through fraudulent and manipulative elections. He will also continue to claim there is democracy in Turkey because the country holds elections while using the “democratic mandate” to give legitimacy to anti-democratic measures. He will repress the Kurds and if necessarily will make alliances with NATO enemies.
Turkey is not alone. Venezuela has been a major commercial partner of the United States. Its oil sales were mostly to the U.S. The U.S. also refined Venezuela’s oil. The country is located in the heart of the Western Hemisphere. Venezuelan authoritarian leaders openly declared hostility to the United States, made alliances with Iran, terrorist groups and drug cartels. Lately, we have applied pressure on Venezuela to democratize and even imposed sanctions on some its political and military leadership. However, this is not significant enough considering it is coming a decade too late.
The countries of Central Europe present a worrisome trend as well. Poland took a series of measures and passed laws that subordinated the courts to executive prerogatives. Poland has also curbed public gathering and restricted the freedom of the press. Most recently. it passed a law outlawing public discussion of Poles’ collaboration with the Nazis, something that affects not only freedom of speech but also freedom of research. Hungary has also cracked down on nonprofits, the press and on the judiciary, and has vindicated dubious figures of the past that collaborated with the Nazis. As a result, Poland and Hungary are currently at odds with the European Union. Their conflict with the European Union over democratic practices affects the unity of the free world. Moreover, the illiberal character of these countries and these tensions with Europe may push these countries into Russia or China’s sphere of influence. In fact, Hungary is already very close to the Kremlin. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warmed up to Moscow and received large loans from Russia. Likewise, there were reports about connections between Russian intelligence officers and far right groups in Hungary. Poland still views Russia as a threat, but nothing guarantees that this situation would not be reversed.
In terms of these countries’ relation with China, Orban enthusiastically opened his country to China. Hungary’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto has proudly pointed out that Hungary’s is China’s best ally in Central Europe. Poland is the largest trade partner of China in Central Europe and the overall trade with China in this area is 57 billion dollars.
Nobody can assure that in the future Poland and Hungary will remain loyal to NATO. Both countries may see the West as an annoyance to their authoritarian style rather than an asset. The concept of free world may mean nothing to them in the end. Thus, if Russia is not attractive enough to the Poles, China will certainly be. After all China abhors democracy, and as the most recent decision by the Communist Party shows, authoritarian rulers can rule forever until their deaths. So, Poland and Hungary could well find in China a great source of support.
In February, some of these illiberal authoritarian democracies suffered a setback. Hungary’s ruling party lost a mayoral election raising questions about its chances to win elections in April. Ecuadorians voted not to allow the illiberal president Rafael Correa to run again. In a referendum Bolivian citizens voted against the indefinite reelection of the illiberal Evo Morales, who like Correa is also an ally of the Venezuelan government.
People in those countries are reacting to the authoritarian tendencies through the ballot or through demonstrations. This does not mean that the authoritarian rulers will give up. It is certainly not the case in Venezuela and not likely to be the case in Bolivia, two declared enemies of the United States.
What the United States needs is to develop an active foreign policy that promotes and defends democratic rule. This policy needs still to be designed in order to prevent the emergence of illiberal democracies. Every time such regime surfaces it is a strategic wound to the free world. This is not a matter of just spreading our values. It is a matter of strengthening world stability and doing it in the strategic interest of the U.S. and its allies.
The time has come for U.S. policy makers to understand that at the end of the day democracy reflects the strength of the free world more than anything. Democracies might elect the wrong leader but they must have the chance to remove him/her from power in the next elections. The U.S. needs to defend this principle since its might makes it responsible to be the main guarantor of an order based on freedom. We are currently far from developing any systematic strategy to undertake such responsibility.