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Working Group: Advancing Freedom


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, defined the terms “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights.” These include rights and freedoms of association, religion, speech, and assembly – many of which are still lacking or limited in many other countries. While the United States has played the role of global champion of these rights over the last several decades, an aversion to promoting democracy and human rights is shared by some on both the left and right of the political spectrum. These “doubters” set up false choices in which policymakers would be pressured to choose promoting either our values or our interests. In fact, promoting our (or universally recognized) values advances U.S. interests, for the two really are inseparable. Further, the skeptics suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding about democracy and human rights promotion. In the short term, in a few cases, there may be a need to temporarily emphasize other interests, but in the medium and longer term, democracy and human rights concerns cannot be neglected if we want sustainable relations with other countries and are to preserve our credibility in the world. Following are some of the most widely heard arguments against promoting democracy and human rights:

The “Arrogance” Argument

Point: It is not America’s role or responsibility, “doubters” argue, to tell other countries what kind of political system is in their interest, to impose our system on others, or to criticize other governments for human rights abuses, especially when we ourselves are not perfect.

Counterpoint: It is our business – and in our interest – to promote freedom around the world; indeed, the United States has a special obligation to help those fighting to live in freedom and those with a limited voice in their society often look to us to play that role. We do not insist that others follow the American model, and recognize that we also make mistakes, but we should urge governments to respect universal human rights and democratic principles, even while developing their own character, consistent with international covenants and agreements that they have signed. Rather than attempting to dictate the directions countries take, we are instead refusing to remain silent when peaceful political activity is crushed or made illegal.

The “Domestic Priorities” Argument

Point: We should focus on problems at home before going around the world lecturing others.

Counterpoint: The world will not wait for the United States to “get our own house in order.” In fact, voids in leadership would likely be filled by governments or movements that not only do not share our interests, but fight actively against them. We have to be able to do both: address our own shortcomings while supporting democracy movements and showing solidarity with human rights activists elsewhere. That is the best way to serve U.S. national interests, and activists and freedom advocates around the world look to us for support and leadership. Isolationism will not result in a more stable, safe, or economically robust world.

The “Elections are Dangerous” Argument

Point: We have pushed elections prematurely in places, with very undesirable results; we’d be better both off with the known party in power than risk an unwelcome electoral change and the “devil” we don’t know.

Counterpoint: It is true that unfavorable election results are a risk. Every country has to experience its own path to democracy, and sometimes that involves less than ideal (from a U.S. point of view) changes in leadership. However, elections are not the be all and end all of democracy; much more is involved. The freedoms of the press and association are crucial components of having an informed electorate, for instance. In the long run, though, accountable governance is ultimately achievable only when citizens choose their own leaders through free elections. The election of anti-Western or anti-American leaders may make it harder for these countries to be embraced by the international community, but the hope is that those citizens will recognize the consequences of their votes and will then use the democratic process to make further changes that are ultimately better both for their own society and for our interests.

The “We Can’t Have Everything” Argument

Point: If we promote democracy in a country, we harm our other interests with that country.

Counterpoint: Supporting democracy and human rights need not be mutually exclusive to pursuing economic and/or security interests. Indeed, we can enhance our overall interests by ensuring that democracy and human rights feature prominently in our relations with other countries. There is no denying that we maintain “double standards” with certain authoritarian allies; other authoritarian countries come to expect similar treatment. Further, such treatment has bolstered the arguments of those who believe the United States must choose one or the other interest. It is only when the United States consistently engages countries on both fronts that governments will realize they must deal with our leadership on a broad basis that includes democracy, human rights, economics and security. They will know they have no choice.

The “Economics is the Answer” Argument

Point: We should focus on helping a country develop economically, and then with economic liberalization will come a middle class with a vested interest in democratic governance.

Counterpoint: Those who argue that the United States should focus on economic development first and then push for democratic development later risk aligning us with authoritarian regimes that delay loosening political controls as long as possible. The key is to urge progress on both the political and economic fronts and avoid either/or situations. We certainly have working relations with a number of governments that engage in gross human rights abuses and pursue an authoritarian track while realizing a rise in the standard of living, and those governments often continue to commit abuses. But our ability to have truly productive, sustainable partnerships with those regimes is inhibited by such abuses. Binary choices – either promoting democracy and human rights or advancing our economic and security interests – are best avoided if we want to influence these countries to improve their record in support for human rights and democracy. Perhaps more important, there is strong evidence that democracy actually has a positive effect on economic growth. According to a 2014 academic study of 184 countries from 1960 to 2010 (“Democracy Does Cause Growth” by Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James A. Robinson, and Pascual Restrepo), a country that converts from a nondemocracy to a democracy experiences a 20% higher per capita GDP over the long term (30 years). Overall, the world has experienced 6% higher GDP with the increased number of democracies over the last 50 years. Moreover, on balance, companies looking to invest or do business overseas prefer operating in environments where there is rule of law.

The “Idealism vs. Realism” Argument

Point: It is idealistic to think that we can change the way despots run their countries. The only way to engage dictators is in terms of self-interest – appealing to their economic or security needs to get what we want.

Counterpoint: That is a short-term view that over time has proved to be flawed, as free nations are more stable, prosperous and reliable partners. Repressive regimes are inherently unstable and rely on suppressing democratic movements and civil society to stay in power. As we witnessed in the Middle East in 2011, no one can predict when such regimes might collapse, but if we consistently encourage and support peaceful, democratic change, we will likely help reduce sudden upheavals and the risk of having the United States aligned with the “wrong” side when regime change eventually comes. While change rarely happens overnight, in the long-term the effort it takes to consistently impress upon autocrats the importance of democratic values and protecting human rights will eventually produce results. When change inevitably occurs, those who sought genuine democratic change will know the United States was on their side.

The “Democracy Promotion is Really Regime Change” Argument

Point: What democracy promotion really means is regime change through the use of force. The American people do not want to devote any more resources to toppling dictators – these countries need to deal with their own problems.

Counterpoint: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were begun for reasons of national security, not to impose democracy. Once the regimes fell, the U.S. implemented its decades-old policy of supporting democratic activists internally to help them rebuild their governments; indeed, we had a responsibility to do so for the alternative was chaos (as we’ve seen in Libya). Regime change must be separated from the U.S. policy – implemented for the past 30 years through the National Endowment for Democracy and associated NGOs – of helping democratic activists establish the building blocks of democracy such as the rule of law, free elections, an effective civil society, and freedom of the press. We recognize that support for democracy can result in regime change by virtue of helping citizens find their political voice, even if that is not the primary purpose of such assistance.

The “We Can’t Make a Difference” Argument

Point: The United States has never been good at promoting democracy. Look at the state of the world today – chaos in the Middle East, Russian imperialism resurging, even some Latin American democracies struggling. Name one good example of U.S. democracy promotion efforts actually succeeding.

Counterpoint: In 1972, according to Freedom House, there were 44 countries rated as “free.” Today, there are 89 countries in that category. Clearly, the state of democracy in the world has improved. The establishment of democracy is not ashort-term proposition. It takes time and commitment by those fighting for it, and the process is not necessarily a linear one. The United States has had democracy for nearly 250 years and we are still perfecting it, so we cannot expect other countries, especially those without democratic traditions or history, to get it right the first time. But ask the citizens of Mongolia, Tunisia, Poland, or Serbia whether the United States has helped them in their path toward democracy, and the answer is likely to be a resounding yes.

The “Nations Can Succeed without Democracy or Human Rights” Argument

Point: Democracy is not necessary for a country to be successful. Look at China or Singapore. They are huge (in the case of China), growing economies and have succeeded without democracy or human rights protections.

Counterpoint: China and Singapore are the rare examples of countries that are doing well economically without allowing political freedom. In the majority of cases, however, such as in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, it has only been after the establishment of democracy, or alongside it, that countries have flourished economically. Even low-income democracies and transitioning democracies perform better than their authoritarian counterparts, according to “The Democracy Advantage,” by Mort Halperin, Joseph Siegel, and Michael Weinstein. Their research concludes that when it comes to most measures of development – infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, agricultural productivity, etc., democracies of all income levels have performed 20-40%better than autocracies over the past 40 years. China (which is experiencing both significant challenges to the Party’s monopoly on power and a disconcerting crackdown under President Xi) and Singapore are not the right models to look to – rather it is the vast majority of countries that have pursued both democracy and economic development and have succeeded.

The “Focusing on Sectoral Issues is Enough” Argument

Point: The best way to advance human rights is by empowering women by improving health, education, and employment opportunities. Once they have these opportunities, everything else will fall into place.

Counterpoint: Clearly, these are important issues and the development community should continue to work to strengthen these areas. However, there is a critical gap if political empowerment is left out. While having schools, clinics, and jobs is key for economic development, the ability to hold one’s government officials accountable for maintaining such development and continuing to devote resources to them is key to increasing the prospects that any of those advances will last. For a country to become self-sufficient economically, it must also be politically democratic, so that citizens are able to speak freely about their needs, organize themselves to advocate for those needs, and demand accountable, transparent and responsive government.

The “Democratic Transitions Lead to Chaos” Argument

Point: The attempted democratic transitions in the Arab World have only led to chaos and violence, strengthening ISIS and other terrorist groups. Some countries are simply not ready – and may never be ready — for democracy and need authoritarian leaders to maintain stability.

Counterpoint: The chaos and violence are not due to democracy promotion efforts but rather to the legacy of decades of dictatorship, oppression, and lack of opportunity. Without democratic traditions to fall back on, it is more challenging and takes more time for certain nations to establish themselves as stable democracies. Rather than shying away from supporting these efforts, we should be more engaged, providing much-needed training and examples from not only the United States, but preferably from countries that have been through democratic transitions far more recently like Poland or the Czech Republic and, one hopes, Tunisia.

There are always going to be skeptics when it comes to promoting democracy and fundamental human rights around the world. However, in addition to it being morally right to support those who are fighting for their freedom, this stance is also in the United States’ best interest – both economically and with regard to our national security. Favorable results will take long term commitment, effort, and persistence. While we won’t get it right 100% of the time, we must always pursue this path.

*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