The new National Defense Strategy (NDS) correctly focuses on U.S. strategic competitors China and Russia. The strategy is excellent in many other ways, as well. One weakness, however, is that it downplays the importance of promoting and supporting democracy more broadly around the world. As the NDS is written, democracy is something the United States stands for but does not “impose” on anyone. This type of language signals that democracy is a cultural rather than a universal phenomenon, something that works for some peoples but not others.
For a realist, promoting democracy as an aim of statecraft and strategy is the idealist’s original sin, the progenitor to reckless military adventures and other naïve foreign policy debacles. Interest-based realism in foreign policy is not a bad thing, but it should not be the only thing. Strategy should align with ultimate political objectives, and it cannot be that merely balancing power globally is the United States’ ultimate objective. How other nations govern themselves is important to U.S. overall security, or to quote former Soviet refusenik and human rights activist Natan Sharansky, democracy matters.
Strategic competition between the United States and both China and Russia would not exist, or at least would not be so threatening from a national security standpoint, if those countries shared the United States’ commitment to freedom and democratic values. War is a political phenomenon, not one primarily driven by technology, economics, or anything else. China is a nondemocratic, one-party authoritarian state; Russia is at best a hybrid state, mostly authoritarian with some weak and marginalized democratic institutions.
China’s and Russia’s hostility to liberal democracy and the international order it underpins is fueling the strategic competition that the new NDS aims to meet and check. For the United States, the wider democracy flourishes, the more durable its alliances and partnerships will be. They will be deeper and more meaningful, based on shared values, and not simply alliances of convenience to confront a common threat.
In 2017 antidemocratic forces opposed to political and religious freedom—freedom of expression, freedom of press, judicial independence, and a rules-based international order gained ground—continued a disturbing, uninterrupted trend for more than a decade. Liberal democracy, so ascendant with the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 25 years ago, increasingly seems on the defensive, as democratic governments struggle with slow economic growth and poor debt to gross domestic product ratios, immigration, terrorism, and the return of nationalistic populism as a serious political force. Democracy has faced and overcome more serious challenges and emerged the stronger for it, so there is no need to completely despair for the future.
The nonprofit Freedom House, which analyzes the 195 countries of the world to determine if they are “free,” “partly-free,” or “non-free,” estimated that at the end of 2017 only 45 percent of the world’s countries are “free,” down slightly from 46 percent in 2005. Last year was the twelfth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. In 2017, 71 countries experienced a decline in freedom, compared with only 35 that made gains. From 2005–15, 105 countries experienced a decline in freedom, and only 61 experienced gains. Furthermore, the percentage of the global population living in non-free countries in 2017 stands at 37 percent, greater than in 2000.
After communism found itself on the “ash heap of history” at the end of the 1980s, liberal democracy ostensibly stood alone as the only political model with true legitimacy, successfully established in all parts of the world, across cultures and continents alike. Other forms of government still existed, such as Iran’s unique brand of theocracy and various forms of monarchy, but none could claim many adherents outside their borders. Nowhere were citizens of democracies, regardless of their race or religion, advocating in large numbers to toss off their democratic models in favor of a theocracy or monarchy.
So, with no serious challenge to liberal democracy remaining, what accounts for freedom’s 12-year decline?
When Francis Fukuyama published his famous “End of History” essay in Foreign Policy magazine in 1989, he was widely criticized for being a naïve optimist. Fukuyama followed up the article with a book The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992), a much more comprehensive philosophical and historical examination of the reasons liberal democracy had triumphed as the only legitimate political model. Fukuyama, of course, did not dream up this on his own. He was advancing the arguments of Russian-born philosopher Alexander Kojeve in the 1930s, and German philosophers George F. Hegel in the early 1800s and Immanuel Kant in the late 1700s. Liberal democracy’s triumph by 1989 seemed to affirm both Kant’s contention that history had meaning and Hegel’s subsequent argument that the meaning, or engine driving history forward, was man’s quest for freedom. Fukuyama was careful to warn that democracy was still nonexistent or a work in progress in many areas of the world, and that more conflict was inevitable. He even posited that more setbacks were inevitable. View democracy’s global spread a bit like markets; there are temporary setbacks or “crashes,” and cathartic events to come in non-free areas, but in the long run the trajectory is positive.
Looking back from where we are in 2018, do the events of the past 12 years undermine Fukuyama’s argument or align with his warning about setbacks?
No alternative political ideology has emerged to seriously challenge democracy’s legitimacy. Fascism and communism had their runs, and remain discredited. Islamic theocracy does not resonate with the political consciousness of the non-Islamic world, and for that matter is not very popular across most of the Islamic world. Where Sunni Islamists have taken power, in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s and in parts of Iraq and Syria more recently, they have failed to govern effectively. Radical jihad is a virulence that will be with us for a long time, but it is not the reason freedom is on the decline around the world.
What has emerged and is spreading is what can be called “sham” democracy, or a form of authoritarianism that cynically pays lip service to democratic norms. Fascists and communists had open contempt for democracy. Fascists ridiculed it as weak and decadent. Communists viewed democracy as a fraudulent political model giving top cover to corrupt and unjust capitalism, where the owners of production exploited the working class. Most of today’s authoritarians are not appropriating a discredited ideology or trying to invent a new one to starkly oppose democracy. Instead they hold highly flawed elections, allow free market enterprise as long as it doesn’t embolden political dissent, allow limited freedom of press, all with the belief their people will favor their authoritarian-heavy model over messy and chaotic “real” democracy. Sadly, this viewpoint has gained currency in recent years, even in the democratic West to some extent.
A less free world with fewer countries committed to rules-based international systems for commerce, law, and security is a more dangerous and unstable world. While the fight since 9/11 against actors such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State continues, the prospect of major state-state conflict has increased in relation to freedom’s ebb. The possibility of a major conflict below the nuclear threshold between China and the United States or Russia and NATO, is not as farfetched as it seemed 10 or 15 years ago.
This is the world our military must be focused on for the foreseeable future. It is not a world of extremely aggressive fascism, but it is a world where an alternative to democracy is real and spreading.
Captain Bray served as a naval intelligence officer for 28 years before retiring in 2016. Currently, he is a managing director in the Geopolitical Risk practice at Ankura.