We are living through a new era of authoritarian aggression. From Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine to China’s threats against Taiwan, an alliance of autocracies represents a generational threat to America’s interests and the future of the free world.
Beyond the hard power required to prevail in this contest lies a deeper competition of ideas that the U.S. and our democratic partners cannot afford to lose. U.S. support for global democracy will be crucial to countering authoritarian expansionism and securing a free and prosperous future consonsant with American interests.
History has demonstrated the indispensability of this approach. Forty years ago, the U.S. embarked upon an experiment that would prove to be one of the most successful bipartisan endeavors in recent history. Building on foundations laid by Harry Truman’s “Four Points” speech and John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, President Ronald Reagan, in his famous 1982 Westminster speech before the British Parliament, called for a global campaign to “foster the infrastructure of democracy.”
Taking up this challenge, in 1983, Republicans and Democrats joined forces to establish the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a congressionally-funded nonprofit that initiated a transformation in the exercise of American leadership.
Today, we take for granted many of the democratic victories that followed the end of the Cold War. But in 1983, more than 80 percent of the world lived under autocracy. The chances that Soviet communism would not only collapse but give way to democratic change seemed quite remote. Over the last four decades, the NED and the four core institutes it funds — including the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), where the authors serve as board chairs — have been crucial partners in that democratic progress.
These institutes have parlayed the skills and experiences of veterans of the American political scene, as well as a vast network of international and regional experts, to help partners in more than 100 countries build their democracies from the ground up. This includes training political parties to compete in a healthy multiparty system; sharing best practices in governance with elected officials at all levels; nurturing the next generations of political leaders; supporting the political empowerment of women and other traditionally marginalized populations; and promoting electoral integrity through programs designed to ensure that election results are trusted and reflect the will of the people.
Our work in Ukraine has been perhaps the most striking example of the value of investing in democracy assistance. In the thirty years that IRI and NDI have worked in Ukraine, we have helped our partners at every level — from civic activists to local governments to members of parliament and even presidents — to help build a freer society from the ashes of Soviet tyranny.
Ukraine’s experience is instructive: Democratic institutions took years to build, and persistent problems such as corruption left the country vulnerable to backsliding and the predations of Moscow. Yet thanks to the resilience and bravery of the Ukrainian people — first in the Orange Revolution of 2004, then the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and today in their fight against Russian aggression — Ukraine’s democratic institutions have not only endured but are arguably stronger than ever.
This fortitude contrasts sharply with the fragility of autocratic systems. While authoritarian regimes strive to project an image of solidity and stability, their fundamental lack of legitimacy drives policies that are destabilizing and destructive, creating transnational problems such as terrorism, kleptocracy, drug and human trafficking, and uncontrolled migration. In contrast, democratization correlates with economic growth, better health and environmental outcomes, and far lower risks of conflict.
History is full of examples of how authoritarian impunity and lawlessness at home results in predatory assaults on democratic neighbors abroad; indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s escalating assaults against Taiwan both stem from this autocratic pathology.
In this new age of authoritarian aggression, defending the front lines of freedom in Ukraine and Taiwan is essential. America’s support for free people and democratic alliances is crucial if we are to prevail in this fight against dictators who seek to reshape the world in their image.
Beijing has deployed a sophisticated campaign of economic, political and diplomatic offensives to hollow out democratic norms and institutions in other countries, and bring nations from all corners of the world under its sway. Shoring up democratic resilience to the threat from authoritarian subversion should be as much a part of America’s toolkit in the 21st century as is bolstering our naval supremacy.
Investing in free media, healthy multiparty systems, civil society activists, an independent judiciary, inclusive political participation and electoral integrity can help those systems in other countries to withstand authoritarian subversion and fulfill their democratic potential. The impact of such support can be game-changing: A recent study suggests that international democracy support was one of the key factors in enabling democracies to “bounce back” after a period of autocratization.
The late Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state and NDI chair, once said that “Democracy is fragile, but it is also resilient.” From Hong Kong to Sudan, Iran to Nicaragua, Burma to Ukraine, we are reminded every day of the extraordinary sacrifices people everywhere are willing to make to defend their freedom and democratic rights. Thanks to the vision of President Reagan and a bipartisan array of lawmakers 40 years ago, we know that American support can help fledgling democracies not only survive, but thrive.
As authoritarian powers seek to shatter an international order that has led to greater and more widespread global development than the world has ever seen, robust democratic institutions, backed up by American hard power, will prove one of our most decisive weapons.
Tom Daschle is a former Senate Democratic Leader and the current board chair of the National Democratic Institute. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, is the junior U.S. senator from Alaska and board chairman of the International Republican Institute.
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