A real democratic alliance would begin by committing its members to first do no harm. Stop encouraging or even acquiescing in coups or lesser anti-democratic actions by governments it supports financially, diplomatically, or militarily. Stop trying to bend politics in other countries to install governments that serve the interests of foreign corporations rather than their own people. Stop trying to interfere in elections in other countries with financial support for parties, propaganda, or advisors, Valdai Club expert Richard Lachmann writes.
The Biden administration is presenting the United States once again as a champion of democracy, and eager to lead an alliance of other democratic nations. This is a reversal of President Trump’s stated lack of concern with other nations’ political systems and his open embrace of dictators and would-be strongmen. Biden is drawing on a long tradition of mixing genuine democratic idealism with propagandistic efforts to distinguish the US from its geopolitical rivals. In both World Wars, the US (and the British) presented themselves as fighting for democracy against Germany and Japan. Of course, the Cold War was presented as a struggle for democracy (and also capitalism) against communist dictatorship. The never ending ‘war on terror’ usually is framed in terms of what it is against (terror) rather than as an effort to instill or protect democracy. America’s junior partners in the EU described that entity’s expansion, with some justice, as a way to create democracies. Portugal, Spain and Greece transition to democracy faster than they would have otherwise to gain admission to the European Community, the EU’s predecessor.
The current effort to create an ‘alliance of democracies’ is the latest attempt to paint America as a force for good in the world and, even more importantly, to present the other major powers not as mere rivals but as evil forces. If we want to evaluate the US’s claim to be an advocate for democracy we need to examine its government’s actions as well as its words.
Those coups occurred under republican presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, but it would be a mistake to absolve Democratic presidents of America’s support for dictatorships. Unfortunately, the broadest waves of military takeovers in Latin America occurred under liberal Democratic presidents John Kennedy and Barack Obama. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enthusiastically backed the 2019 Honduran military coup against elected president Manuel Zelaya.
Often the US is able to influence or fix the outcomes of elections, ensuring that its favored candidate or party wins the election. In other cases, the US heralds as ‘free’ elections that exclude some candidates from running or where the government stuffs ballot boxes to remain in power. During the Vietnam War, the US staged what Noam Chomsky called ‘demonstration elections.’ They looked like real elections and were designed to convince the American public that the war was leading to the birth of democracy in South Vietnam. In reality, any candidate who so much as hinted at a willingness to negotiate with the communist National Liberation Front was banned from appearing on the ballot, and when it looked like an opposition candidate might win the election, the US supported plans to stuff ballot boxes to guarantee that the American puppet would win election.
Certainly, there are instances when the US did work to foster enduring democracies, most notably in Germany and Japan after the end of World War II. However, we need to look at the whole record if we want to judge whether the US is in fact leading an alliance of democracies. Similarly, if we look at the Western European nations that are supposed to be America’s junior partners in this democratic alliance, we need to examine their interventions in other nations’ politics. France, ever since the end of its empire, has backed a series of dictators in Africa. Britain has a somewhat better record. Its former colonies are far more likely to have regular and fair democratic elections than the colonies of any other European empire. However, Britain as we noted earlier was the co-instigator of the coup in Iran and it only allowed elections in its colony of Hong Kong right before it surrendered control to China. It is hypocritical for Britain now to bemoan China’s suppression of civil liberties and elections in Hong Kong when Britain was itself an authoritarian ruler of that territory for over a century.
An alliance of democracies needs to do more than condemn authoritarianism in other countries beyond its control. It needs to foster democracy where it actually has influence. No American or European is a hero when they point out that China doesn’t have democratic elections or that it limits free speech or that it imprisons Uighurs in concentration camps. Similarly, no Russian or Chinese is taking a risk when they describe police murders or other acts of racism against Blacks in the US. Such proclamations might be true, but they are no more valuable than the similarly truthful condemnations made during the Cold War by Americans against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or by Soviets of US war crimes in Vietnam.
Democratic countries need to ensure that they are expanding democracy in their own countries. No one should ever accept US Republicans’ claims that they support democracy when they work to limit voting rights within their own country or when they falsely assert that the 2020 US election was stolen from Donald Trump.
If and when the day comes that a set of nations, including the US, are expanding democracy within their own borders and not trying to subvert or destroy democracy in other countries where they have genuine influence, then they can constitute a true alliance for democracy. Then they will have the moral stature to speak about the lack of democracy elsewhere in the world. Until that day comes, the US’s proposed alliance of democracies will be mainly a propaganda effort.
Those of us outside of government have the right, and indeed the obligation, to advocate for democracy. Our efforts will be most effective and meaningful if they are directed first at our own governments, and then at our governments’ actions in countries where they exert power and influence. Finally, while we all, as citizens of the world, have the right to speak about democracy and civil liberties anywhere in the world, our voices will have more impact, and be listened to with real respect only if we demonstrate our willingness to speak about our own governments’ misdeeds.