America’s Embrace of Democracy Abroad Matters at Home

An Essay by Lindsay Lloyd, Deputy Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute

Standing alongside countries that transition into democracy is more than just supporting human rights.  It's a smart action with long-term repercussions for America's safety and economy.

Hundreds of Czechoslovakian students kneel as they face riot police on November 19, 1989 in downtown Prague during a protest rally asking for more democracy and free multi-powers, and demanding the end of Communist rule. (Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1995, I left a secure position working on Capitol Hill and moved to Bratislava, the capital of the newborn Republic of Slovakia. Slovakia peacefully split with the Czech Republic in 1993, following the Velvet Revolution that ended communist control of Czechoslovakia in 1989. 

As a new nation with no real history of self-government, Slovakia faced a rocky road in building a democracy. The government that was freely elected in 1994 was rapidly taking on the form of an autocracy, lashing out at the political opposition, the media, ethnic minorities, and the church.

I spent the next seven years working for an American non-governmental organization on a variety of projects to help the Slovaks develop their democracy. And the American taxpayers paid for it.

My case was not unique. American organizations, both public and private, have worked for decades to support democratic development, free markets, and human rights overseas. While these conditions undoubtedly benefit the citizens of other nations, they also benefit Americans at home.

Democratic governments generally treat their people better. Content citizens are far less likely to emigrate, become refugees, look to terrorism, or start revolutions. They are more likely to prosper economically, to travel for business and pleasure, and to consume exports from American sources. 

The gradual transformation of Slovakia from being part of a Soviet-dominated dictatorship in Czechoslovakia to a free and increasingly prosperous nation today is a textbook case of how America can help countries find their democratic footing.  Slovakia is a NATO ally, sharing the burden with other democracies in fighting terror and promoting a more stable world.  Its growing economy buys our exports, creating and sustaining American jobs.

The gradual transformation of Slovakia from being part of a Soviet-dominated dictatorship in Czechoslovakia to a free and increasingly prosperous nation today is a textbook case of how America can help countries find their democratic footing.

When polled, though, Americans express a certain wariness about international affairs. They vastly overestimate how much money Washington spends on foreign assistance (actually less than one percent of the federal budget). Americans are ranked as the fifth most generous nation on earth and want to do what they can to eliminate human suffering. But they don’t like the notion of being the “world’s policeman.” We saw in 2016 the ongoing appeal of a revival of “America First,” a phrase that first came to prominence among opponents of fighting the Nazis in the 1940s. 

A sign at the Republican National Convention, July 20, 2016. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

But as world events have shown time and again, America can’t truly withdraw from world affairs. Nor should we. American engagement – though flawed and misguided at times – has generally been a force for good. And after a brief lull in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, we once again see rival nations like China and Russia working actively and aggressively to thwart America’s longstanding foreign policy goals like democracy, human rights, free markets, and free passage on the seas.

But as world events have shown time and again, America can’t truly withdraw from world affairs. Nor should we.

Our history in promoting democracy

These efforts provide fresh reasons for us to stand for fundamental concepts about freedom, ideals that go back to our earliest days. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed a new political status for the thirteen colonies, but the revolutionary document also made a far bolder and more universal claim: that all men – not just Americans - are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,  that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Along with equality, the Founders set out new understandings of sovereignty, the rule of law, and that legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed.

Of course, for more than a century after its founding, the United States generally sought to stay aloof from the affairs of other nations. George Washington’s Farewell Address urged that the United States take advantage of its then isolation from the powers of Europe and avoid alliances and foreign conflicts. That advice carried great weight for most of the 19th Century. 

By the turn of the 20th Century, the world had grown much smaller. Through expansion, annexation, and conquest, America became an imperial power, with territories and possessions across the Pacific and in the Caribbean. To secure the peace after World War II, and to defend America and other democracies, the United States wove a web of alliances spanning the globe – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the ANZUS pact with Australia and New Zealand, and bilateral alliances with countries like Japan and South Korea. 

President Harry Truman recognized that economic security overseas was also vital to America’s security and prosperity. The Marshall Plan, launched in 1948, was the first sustained U.S. foreign aid program.  With more than $12 billion in funding, the Marshall Plan was designed to restart the war-torn economies of Western Europe.  

A Marshall Plan sign hangs as workers use European Recovery Plan funds to help rebuild Berlin. (Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)

Benefits flow back to America

Much of that assistance flowed back into the U.S. economy, with recipients buying American products that were shipped on American vessels. The Marshall Plan stabilized Western Europe at a time when the eastern half of the continent fell under Soviet influence and control.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan galvanized a bipartisan coalition to support efforts to spread democracy, human rights, and economic freedom around the world. Today, programs like the National Endowment for Democracy and the Millennium Challenge Corporation help promote the vision of a free and prosperous world. 

During the 1990s, U.S.-funded efforts in Slovakia included programs to develop and strengthen key institutions like political parties, labor unions, civil society organizations, businesses, and the media.  Americans helped support voter turnout efforts and groups that monitored elections to ensure fairness.  Programs like these helped defeat an autocratic government in the 1998 elections and changed the course of Slovak history for the better. 

Make no mistake, it was the citizens of Slovakia who put their country on the right path. It was their choice and their efforts made it happen.  But American know-how made a difference in changing a small, central European nation’s course for the better.  And in a world with so many problems, a free and democratic Slovakia is one less source of potential concern.

By standing with those working to improve and democratize their countries, Americans gain from a more stable and safer world. Alliances with likeminded democracies, agreements to promote trade, and foreign assistance programs are not a zero-sum game, either. They make geopolitical sense and are not only the right thing to do, they also are a good thing to do. In the end, they pay benefits back to Americans at home.

By standing with those working to improve and democratize their countries, Americans gain from a more stable and safer world.
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