Diplomacy in Defense of Democracy

from The American Ambassadors Review I Spring 2018

I would like to share some reflections on the challenges facing democracy and democratization.

But I would like to begin on a personal note.

I received my master’s degree some 50 years ago this spring. Like today, it was an era of great turbulence.

Our best and brightest civilian leaders had involved America in a distant war.

Our soldiers were in an impossible position, bogged down inside an alien culture, unable to distinguish friend from foe.

Here at home, America was divided along geographic, racial and cultural lines. Overseas, critics called our policies arrogant, imperialistic and doomed to fail.

I was a close observer of all this, but not really a participant.

My main goal in life was to make sure I had all my papers turned in on time.

My excuse is that Vietnam was far away, while my professor—Zbigniew Brzezinski—was close at hand. And neither I nor any of my fellow students were brave enough to show up in Dr. Brzezinski’s class with flowers in their hair. I was a mother and a student, not a peacenik or a rebel.

But Zbig and my other professors did teach me to think deeply about the nature and purpose of American leadership—and to ask questions:

  • About how we could protect our vital interests while still being true to our basic values;

  • About how we could use our power wisely, not only for the right purposes but also with the right results;

  • About how we could win the battle of ideas against the enemies of freedom;

  • And about how we could lead in a way that would encourage others to follow. Those questions were relevant during the Vietnam War.

They remain relevant today, as we fight an even lengthier conflict, and as divisions resurface at home about whether, how and why America should engage in the world.

Those questions are also very broad—too broad for me to cover here in anything resembling a comprehensive way.

Let me talk about American interests and values in the context of democracy. And let me talk about democracy in the context of U.S. foreign policy.

This democratic debate is very much on people’s minds today because of troubling trends that are in evidence in many countries, including our own.

But I want to first take a step back and remind the reader that our wisest leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have always understood that American foreign policy must be shaped not solely on the basis of what we are against, but also what we are for. And our interests still dictate that we should be for a world in which democracy is defended and universal values upheld.

Of course, the question of whether democracy is worth supporting has never been an academic one for me.

That’s because I was born in Czechoslovakia, where freedom was never assured.

Those of you who are familiar with Czech history may be aware that everything of importance seems to happen in a year that ends in eight, which means we have a number of anniversaries coming up.

In October, we will mark 100 years since the Czechoslovak Republic was founded.

In September, we will mark 80 years since the Munich Agreement, which sacrificed our sovereignty in the name of appeasing Hitler.

And in February, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the 1948 communist coup, which overthrew the democratic government formed in the aftermath of World War II.

The coup ushered in four decades of one-party rule, although that would be challenged 20 years later by the events of Prague Spring, which sure enough occurred in a year that ended in eight.

But it was the Czech coup that would have the most direct impact on me. It forced us into exile, and a few months later we made our way to the United States, where we were welcomed as refugees and given the priceless opportunity to begin our lives again in freedom.

The impact of the coup also reverberated globally—hastening the passage of the Marshall Plan, the birth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and reorienting U.S. policy around the defense of democracy and containment of communism.

The decades that followed provided ample proof of the wisdom of that policy.

In the 1950s and 1960s, democracy helped Germany and Japan become integrated into the world economy and evolve into key allies of the United States.

In the 1980s, the promise of freedom inspired Solidarity, the Velvet Revolution and other movements that lifted the Iron Curtain and ended Cold War security threats.

The democratic gains that followed in the 1990s inspired the enlargement of NATO and opened the door to expansion of the European Union.

In this hemisphere, the spread of democracy allowed the United States to work with our neighbors more closely than ever to broaden prosperity, address social ills and expand the rule of law.

The growth and consolidation of democracy also enabled countries in the Asia-Pacific region—including Indonesia, India and South Korea—to become economic and strategic partners for the United States. And democracy helped bring about improvements in development, health and security across the African continent.

When the Cold War ended, many felt democracy had passed its biggest test and was marching on the right side of history. But in the years since, that sense of euphoria has dissipated.

The financial crisis, and growing gaps between rich and poor, have fueled anger and deepened doubts about the capacity of democracy to deliver on its promises.

The war in Iraq, which brought neither stability nor liberty to the Middle East, gave the promotion of freedom a bad name.

Technology, which was once thought of as a democratizing force, has also proven to be a double-edged sword.

Social media has disaggregated voices and made governing more difficult. And in recent years it has been co-opted by freedom’s foes, who are now adept at polluting social media platforms with rumors, disinformation and authoritarian propaganda.

All this has led many to declare that democracy is in crisis, as Freedom House did in its annual global survey issued in January.

Like other studies put out by the Economist and the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Freedom House report finds that political rights and civil liberties around the world have deteriorated to the lowest point in more than a decade.