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Working Group: Advancing Freedom & Democracy For All


For decades, the United States has supported democracy and human rights around the world for the following reasons:

  • The United States was founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and Americans believe that all people should enjoy these rights.
  • The United States is safer and more prosperous in a more democratic world and should take the lead in advancing this cause.
  • Free nations are more economically successful, stable, reliable partners, and democratic societies are less likely to produce terrorists, proliferate weapons of mass destruction, or engage in aggression and war. This means that the advance of democracy benefits not just the U.S., but order and peace around the globe.
  • Major problems we face in the world come from authoritarian regimes (and non-state actors) that seek to blunt the advance of democracy and see it as a threat to their own hold on/grab for power.
  • Democracy advocates and human rights defenders look to the U.S. for moral, financial, and political leadership and support, making American leadership indispensable. Remaining silent or reducing the profile of these issues abandons people who, in many cases, sacrifice their liberty and lives struggling for a more democratic society.
  • How a regime treats its own people is often indicative of how it will behave in foreign policy, thus getting a government to respect universal values and promote democratic development advances the cause of freedom.
  • Given the option, most people around the world would choose to live in free societies. According to the most recent World Values Survey, more than 82% of respondents believe having a democratic system of government is a good thing.

The environment for democracy and human rights – both as ideas and for the people and groups on the front lines struggling toward them – has become more challenging due to turmoil in the MENA region as well as economic crises that have left many democracies inward focused. Young people feel disenfranchised and lack economic opportunities. Citizens of many countries feel they suffer from a lack of dignity, justice and respect. As a result, anti-democratic forces are far more empowered and emboldened today than at any time since the Cold War. The resurgence of Russia, Iran, China, the spread of ISIS, and the aftermath of movements in the Arab world have created multiple global challenges to the efforts of democracy and human rights activists. Likewise, the current instant information age – which has provided new means of helping these activists – has also allowed the anti-democrats to flourish. This is a contested space; therefore, it is important to make clear that the United States stands firmly with those seeking to build democratic societies that allow people to live in freedom, lead to greater economic success, better protect intellectual property rights, and provide a more stable investment environment.

In the current, complex environment, there is a need for a renewed, more modern effort to support democracy. We need to elevate democracy promotion and human rights to a prominent place on the American foreign policy agenda by supporting indigenous forces and helping create space for them to work within their own country. We should seek to promote universal values – freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion – without trying to impose the American model on other countries or through the barrel of a gun. We need to partner with other democracies, both those with a history of freedom and those who have more recently transitioned, to strengthen efforts to spread these universal values. This involves supporting:

  • Rule of law and accountability,
  • Separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and checks-and-balances,
  • Free, fair, and competitive elections and political party development,
  • Respect for women’s rights,
  • A diverse and independent media, including internet freedom,
  • A vibrant civil society,
  • Democratic governance and representative, functional institutions,
  • Respect and tolerance for minority groups and for religious freedom, and
  • Protection of property rights.

Promoting these universal values involves training, building capacity, helping to establish systems of democratic governance, and fostering dialogue, both in countries that are struggling to establish democracy and those that are led by opponents of democracy. Countries that adopt and follow these basic elements of democratic development are better allies of the United States and better citizens of the world. Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, by their very nature pose a challenge to our way of life and to our security, as well as to the security of others.

Supporting democratic forces, however, is only part of the equation, albeit a large part. We also should push back against the authoritarian challenge by imposing consequences on those involved in serious human rights abuses. Unless authoritarian leaders incur costs for their antidemocratic actions, they will see no reason to change their behavior. The United States government has many tools at its disposal both to assist those who are struggling for freedom and to pressure anti-democratic forces to change their behavior. These tools exist across many areas of U.S. foreign policy, from diplomatic tools and military assistance to trade agreements and economic partnerships. As much as possible, these tools should be leveraged in a coordinated manner with like-minded democracies to support those fighting for democratic change in countries around the world.

* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

Publish Date
March 11, 2021