The fight to keep the world free

By David J. Kramer

The struggle for human rights remains as important as ever – and the United States must show the way.

Lighting lanterns in solidarity with Iran’s Woman, Life, Freedom protest movement, Washington, D.C., October 28, 2023. (Photo by Photo by Ali Khaligh/Getty Images)

American leadership supporting human rights and freedom around the world has been indispensable for decades. Whether promoting free and fair elections, assisting activists, pressing for accountability for human rights abuses, or isolating authoritarian regimes, U.S. rhetoric and actions have made a difference, time and again. 

In recent years, however, many Americans and people in other countries have begun to doubt the ability and commitment of the United States to lead the free world. Given the growing geopolitical turbulence we now face – stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the fighting in the Middle East, ongoing Chinese threats to Taiwan, the backsliding of democratic societies, and the increasing repressiveness of many autocracies – the world needs the United States to keep fighting for freedom.   

A mixed record

The United States has risen to the occasion in the past. In the 1980s, it imposed sanctions on South Africa that helped end apartheid and secure the release of Nelson Mandela. During that same decade, it levied economic sanctions against the communist government of Poland and vetoed its application to join the International Monetary Fund, boosting Poland’s opposition Solidarity movement.  

In the mid-1990s, the United States, along with NATO, intervened to stop the slaughter in Bosnia and Herzegovina and then brokered the Dayton Peace Agreement, which formally ended the war. A few years later, following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States led a coalition of countries that brought unprecedented freedom and hope to the people of Afghanistan, especially to women and girls who had suffered terribly under the Taliban regime.  

Along with these accomplishments, however, there have been times when the United States has fallen short.  

It did nothing to stop the killing of nearly a million people in Rwanda in 1994. When Arabs took to the streets in 2011 to protest their corrupt and despotic leaders, the United States remained largely on the sidelines, with the exception of Libya. And even there, after helping stop a looming bloodbath in Benghazi, Washington left the country to its own devices, leading to great chaos and misery. When the Syrian civil war started, the United States did little to stop the murderous campaign of repression unleashed by that country’s president, Bashar Assad, which led to an estimated death toll of more than half a million. And more recently, the United States abandoned Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to return to government, and it has failed to help Ukraine actually win its war against Russia (as opposed to simply helping it defend itself). 

Such inconsistency in the defense of human rights is something of an American tradition. During the Cold War, Washington gave a pass to many anticommunist governments when they violated their citizens’ human rights. In a similar vein, the United States has looked the other way when countries it deems important for its energy or security interests have abused their own people.  

More often than not, however, America has acted as a powerful force and source for good in the world. It has pushed for democracy and the respect for human rights, and those efforts have borne fruit. According to Freedom House, the number of countries it labels “free” has more than doubled over the past five decades. Much of the credit for this trend, of course, goes to the citizens of those countries who fought and, in too many cases, died for a more free future. But one shouldn’t ignore the role successive U.S. administrations have played supporting freedom and rights around the globe. 

As the example of Bosnia shows, the United States doesn’t just deploy rhetorical weapons in this pursuit; sometimes it uses actual ones as well. It also has nonmilitary tools it can wield to go after bad guys. In December 2012, at the urging of the U.S. investor and activist Bill Browder, whose lawyer had been killed in a Russian prison, Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed (after initially opposing), the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Initially designed to hold accountable Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses, the law was expanded in 2016 to cover individuals in other countries engaged in similar crimes, as well as corruption.  

I was the head of Freedom House at the time the initial Magnitsky Act was passed, and I supported Browder’s efforts to advocate for it on Capitol Hill. Washington’s leadership helped build an international coalition. After the United States passed the legislation, other countries followed suit, including Canada, Estonia, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, as did the semiautonomous jurisdictions of Gibraltar and Jersey. The European Parliament has also supported passage of the act.  

President George W. Bush and President Nelson Mandela meet in the Oval Office on May 17, 2005. (Photo by Eric Draper / White House)

Two steps back

Despite these efforts, there is no denying that the human rights situation in many countries has deteriorated in recent years. Since 2006, according to Freedom House, the world has been experiencing a democratic decline. Much of the problem can be traced to the growing influence of Russia, China, and Iran. But the backsliding also reveals a crisis of confidence and declining support for democracy within democratic nations. The increasing polarization, dysfunction, and isolationism of the United States, in particular, is making America’s allies and democracy activists – especially those who see the United States as the indispensable nation – very nervous.  

Leaving a void would also squander tremendous goodwill toward the United States accumulated over decades. In a recent interview with my colleague Hannah Johnson, Dmytro Sherembei, of a Ukrainian organization called 100% Life, stressed the importance of U.S. investment in his country through programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Americans, Sherembei said, “share with us the same values, the same principles, and the same approaches that we have had during the war. I express my gratitude for every cent spent, for every word of encouragement, for every political support that the American people have given and continue to give to Ukrainians.” 

Meanwhile, Arturo Sarukhan, a longtime Mexican diplomat and former ambassador to the United States, warns that if a more isolationist America retrenches from global affairs, it will leave a void that “will not be filled necessarily by China. It’ll be filled by chaos and volatility.” He adds: “You either sit at the table, [or] you’re on the menu. And I think the last thing that the United States would want to see is itself on the menu.”  

Already, the growing inwardness of the democratic world has provided an opening that authoritarian governments are exploiting with zeal, cracking down on critics, journalists, and average citizens at home and increasing their support for like-minded governments abroad. As they grow more confident and the West grows more uncertain and polarized, authoritarian countries are also flexing their muscles abroad, picking fights or seeking to intimidate their neighbors. 

It should surprise no one when governments that abuse their own citizens threaten or attack other states, for the phenomena are almost always linked. As Russia has grown more repressive internally, it has invaded Georgia (in 2008) and Ukraine (in 2014 and in 2022), launched cyberattacks against Estonia, and interfered in U.S. and other countries’ elections. As China has targeted Tibetans, Uyghurs, and residents of Hong Kong, it has increased its threats toward Taiwan. As mullahs in Iran crack down on peaceful protesters there, they have also increased their sponsorship of terrorism abroad. And as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has sought to crush his country’s civil society, he has also started to threaten neighboring Guyana.  

Mourners gather for the funeral of Alexei Navalny in Moscow on March 1, 2024. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images)

The world is watching

Few issues are as morally stark as Ukraine’s struggle for its freedom, independence, and survival against President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. While the Biden Administration deserves credit for all the assistance it has provided to Kyiv, it has taken too long to deliver critical military systems and has failed to lay out a strategy that could help Ukraine win the war. More recently, Congress delayed for months voting on an additional aid package Kyiv desperately needed.  

The Ukrainians are already suffering on the battlefield from the resulting shortages in arms and equipment. A Ukrainian victory would be a huge boost to the cause of freedom, while a Russian victory would be a huge setback – and possibly endanger other democracies as well. None of the foreign policy challenges currently facing the West are more important to the cause of human rights. The Ukrainians have shown tremendous courage and determination, but they need more Western assistance, especially in the form of U.S.-made weapons and ammunition. China’s leaders are already watching the conflict closely as they decide what to do about Taiwan, and other repressive regimes are also taking note. So are democracies and human rights activists, many of whom were already alarmed by the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. 

The Feb. 16 murder of opposition leader Alexei Navalny – the latest in a long list of victims of President Putin’s bloody repression – reinforced the need for strong pushback against that and other brutal authoritarian regimes. We ignore Navalny’s death, and the greater threat posed by President Putin, at our peril. 

None of this is to say that the United States should be the world’s police. But Washington does have both a moral and a national security interest in the way other governments treat their own people.  

“Since World War II,” President George W. Bush said in 2017, “America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies. . . . The 20th century featured some of the worst horrors of history because dictators committed them. Free nations are less likely to threaten and fight each other.” Democracies make better allies and also better economic partners.  

Should the United States abdicate its role as leader of the free world, it will face more threats, greater instability, and emboldened enemies. We therefore need to get our own house in order and support others around the world fighting for democracy, freedom, and human rights. Ukraine is the immediate test. And neither we nor the rest of the world can afford to see America shrink from its responsibilities. 

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