Joe Biden’s recent trip to Central Europe underscores that the United States still supports democracy promotion, is not afraid to state that publicly, and encourages its allies to do the same. In Romania, the vice president said, “you delivered on the promise of your revolution. You are in a position to help others do the same.”
The vice president’s call to action is good both for Europe and US foreign policy, which was marred by conflating democracy promotion and invasion during the Bush administration. Because the war was called Operation Iraqi Freedom it was too easy to see the invasion as an effort to promote democracy in the Middle East. Instead, the invasion was about removing a dangerous government from power and a perceived nuclear threat. Since the United States and its allies who invaded Iraq are democracies, installing a new authoritarian leader, leaving a power vacuum in Iraq, or ruling by imperial decree were all equally unacceptable policy options. Consequently, the United States and its partners accepted responsibility for Iraq’s future by waging a counterinsurgency, building a new Iraqi military, and assisting Iraqis develop political and economic institutions. But, as I argued at the time, democratization takes not only elections, legal reform and institutions, but also democratic political culture that evolves over generations. As NATO debates the future of its operations in Afghanistan it is important to remember this, but also not forget the latest12 member states’ experiences with democratization.
With celebrations of the Berlin Wall collapse upon us, we are reminded that people power, not government intervention, brings democracy. This is probably most true in Europe where some states fell victim to democratic backsliding or never experienced the democratic transformations we will celebrate beginning on November 9th. As Damon Wilson recently argued in this space, Romania and other central European states are important in consolidating post-Cold War democratic gains. He said,
Romania has become a strategic actor with Washington, as Basescu has provided the “vision thing” by pressing the importance of Europe’s East, the Black Sea region and the “Strategic South.” His voice has pushed Washington to remember that there is much unfinished business in Europe, including integrating Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Georgia into Europe. Romania is also providing thought leadership as the Alliance drafts a new Strategic Concept.
Since Europe is essentially a region of democratic, peace-loving countries dedicated to prosperity, democracy promotion is essential to finishing “the business.” To promote democracy, governments should remember this and should be driven to aid transforming societies, support opposition groups, and pressure allies. Of these, the first is the most effective, while the latter can be resisted requiring patience and continued engagement to prevent authoritarians from using isolation as an excuse for their failed policies.
Setbacks in Iraq or Afghanistan, criticisms from authoritarian regimes, or the global economic recession should not cause Americans and Europeans to second-guess the importance of democracy promotion. As the vice president’s speech implied, democracy should be celebrated. Today, more than 120 countries in the world practice some form of electoral democracy. Yet as Freedom House notes, “The United States and other established democracies will face serious challenges in developing strategies to counter the gathering authoritarian pushback against opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, and the press.” While it is difficult, it is important to remember that democrats in Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia overcame “Asian values” to change their societies. Democrats in Central and Eastern Europe fought communist parties that ushered in European and NATO integration. And democrats in Latin America resisted military rule to create a democratic western hemisphere (minus Cuba). These lessons should inspire those in democratic capitals to celebrate democratic change and reinforce those that are attempting to change their societies from within.
Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. These views are his own.