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Diplomacy in Defense of Democracy

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.

Progress in a few key countries and regions, these organizations conclude, has been more than overshadowed by renewed authoritarianism in Turkey, the rise of illiberal parties in Europe, state collapse in an authoritarian Venezuela and the onset of an Arab winter across much of the Middle East.

These reports also document how the world’s autocracies are working to undermine democracy, while positioning themselves as an alternative model.

Russia’s interference in democratic processes around the world has now been documented by the intelligence community, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other authoritative sources—including, in a recent speech, President George W. Bush.

It is undeniable and it is deeply disturbing.

Yet perhaps what is most alarming has been the response from the United States government—or rather, the lack of one.

Because instead of rebutting and challenging anti-democratic forces across the globe, we now have a president who has become a source of comfort to them.

His administration has also simultaneously expressed a disdain for diplomacy and seems content for the United States to take a back seat in international affairs—to the worry of our allies and the delight of our competitors.

Just in the past year, we have seen this administration step away from America’s historic commitment to human rights, withdraw from key international agreements such as the Paris Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and transform the United States from a partner to a pariah at the United Nations.

They have also tried—unsuccessfully so far—to slash the State Department budget.

All this would be troubling enough on its own, but what we are seeing has disturbing echoes. It recalls the narrow-visioned naysayers that flourished in America in the 1920s and 1930s, the people who rejected the League of Nations, embraced protectionism, downplayed the rise of fascism, opposed help to the victims of aggression and ultimately endangered our own security—claiming all the while that all they were doing was “putting America First.”

The isolationists were wrong in the 1930s; they are wrong now.

Their view of our national interest is too narrow, their view of history too short and their sense of public opinion—I believe—will ultimately be proven wrong.

That’s because most Americans understand that what happens in the world affects almost every aspect of our lives.They also understand that diplomacy is an indispensable foreign policy tool for one very basic reason: there is hardly a major challenge in the world today that does not require countries to work together—from fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation to curbing the spread of illegal narcotics and epidemic disease. The role of diplomats is to foster that cooperation—and America’s responsibility is to lead.

We are a peace-loving nation that is democratic, economically dynamic and respectful of the law.

We will do better and feel safer in an environment where our values are widely shared, markets are open, military clashes are constrained and those who run roughshod over the rights of others are brought to heel.

Embracing isolationism or supporting authoritarians will do nothing to create such an environment; helping other democracies will.

The question is how to go about doing that.

More than 35 years ago, in a speech to the British Parliament, President Reagan outlined what would prove to be one of his best and most far-sighted ideas—the National Endowment for Democracy.

President Reagan said at Westminster that “our military strength is a prerequisite to peace…but the ultimate determinant in the struggle that’s now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.”

Those words remain true today, as the cement appears to be hardening on a new global split between democratic and undemocratic forces.

As chairman of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which also grew out of President Reagan’s speech, I am proud to be part of what has become a global network that is working to help democracies succeed.

I know from my own experience that this can be exhilarating, but humbling work.

Because in any society, building democracy is never easy and never fully accom­plished; it is something to be worked toward, step by step, country by country, day by day.

NDI’s efforts in support of democracy are reinforced by those of other NGOs, human rights monitors, religious groups, foreign governments and regional organizations. Together, they represent the international architecture of democracy support—which is stronger than it has ever been.

But America belongs at the head of this movement. For freedom is perhaps the clearest expression of national purpose and policy ever adopted—and it must be the star by which American diplomacy navigates in the years to come.

Our current leadership in the executive branch may not fully appreciate this reality, but the genius of our system is that, here, the government is not one man or woman. The government is us.

So I have been pleased to see Republicans and Democrats in Congress step in to protect funding for diplomacy and democracy assistance.

I also took note that the President’s own National Security Strategy recognizes that supporting democracy in other countries is fully consistent with what, by necessity, is our top priority—protecting the safety and security of the American people.

That is why the United States continues to use pro-democracy tools—including diplomatic, military and economic pressure—in places as diverse as Cambodia, Cuba, Egypt, Ukraine and Venezuela.

All my adult life, I have heard people say that this region or that culture or those countries were not ready for democracy.

I have replied by stating my conviction that no country has ever been truly ready for anything else.

I have also often heard from so-called foreign policy experts who argue that there is little connection between fostering democratic practices and the hard-headed pursuit of American interests.

To them I simply point to a country such as Syria, where U.S. security interests were directly affected by the collapse of an authoritarian regime and the outbreak of civil war. And while it is hard to find bright spots in a massive humanitarian tragedy, there is a story of democratic resilience unfolding there right now.

In liberated territories across northern Syria, citizen groups are coming together to identify community needs, and local administrative councils—some democratically elected—are responding by providing critical services.

All this prompted one regional news outlet to report: “You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant choice between Bashar Al Assad and the jihadists. But the real choice being fought out by Syrians is between violent authoritarianism on the one hand and grassroots democracy on the other.”

Of course, even as groups such as NDI try to help support these local councils, there are those who see democracy anywhere as a threat to their power.

At the top of that list is Vladimir Putin, whose immediate aims are to extend his influence into the Middle East and Eastern Europe, weaken NATO and the European Union and create a wedge between the United States and its allies. But his long-term objective is to tear down democratic institutions in the West and around the world.

His strategy is clear, and it demands a forceful and unified response.

Last year, Congress overwhelmingly passed new sanctions authorities on Russia. And while the administration has so far declined to impose new sanctions, they are coming under more and more pressure to do so from Democrats and Republicans alike.

This unity is important because the only way Putin can succeed is if democracy’s guardians are too complacent, too timid or too divided to stop him.

That means we cannot turn Russian interference into a partisan issue. It is a threat to our institutions, to both of our political parties and to our allies abroad. We cannot forget that.

But even as we turn up the pressure on Russia, we also need to recognize that the tools and techniques they’ve used to undermine democracy have spread beyond the exclusive control of any regime.

Authoritarian governments around the world are using what’s known as computa­tional propaganda to assert control over their own populations.

They are weaponizing information, as their totalitarian forebears once did.

What is interesting to me is to compare what we are seeing now to what I studied during the Cold War, when I researched the role of information in political change— including during the Prague Spring.

In the days of the Soviet Union, people largely knew that official sources of information could not be trusted, so they built unofficial channels that were more reliable, for example, talking to friends and family.

In the Internet age, it is these unofficial channels that are becoming less reliable. At the same time, people do not seem to have yet developed a healthy skepticism about what others are sharing online.

This may be changing, as awareness about this problem grows and as companies and governments take action. But we cannot wait for this to happen organically. We need a global, long-term response to these new threats to democracy.

That is why, at NDI, we have launched a major new project to protect the integrity of democracy in the digital age.

This initiative has several components.

We are conducting new opinion research to help us better understand which popula­tions are most vulnerable to digital propaganda, and how to build resilience.

We are working to strengthen international election observation methodologies to include efforts to detect, expose and counter disinformation, leveraging a network of more than three million citizen election monitors worldwide.

We are also working with political parties to agree on ground rules regarding online campaign conduct, while developing and sharing techniques to detect and disrupt disinfor­mation efforts.

But perhaps the most important component of our effort is to try to help foster constructive engagement between government, civil society and technology firms on these issues.

I hope that together, we can devise innovative ideas and not fall victim to a discon­nect best summed up by a line I plagiarized from Silicon Valley: “Citizens are speaking to their governments using 21st century technologies, governments are listening on 20th century technology and providing 19th century solutions.”

We need a 21st century response to the challenges facing democracy today, and that will depend on having leaders who understand the difficulty of governing in a wired world, and on institutions such as the School of Foreign Service (SFS) and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) who are training such leaders and helping inspire them to serve.

I am often asked whether I am an optimist or a pessimist; I reply that I am an optimist who worries a lot.

I worry for all the obvious reasons—but I am an optimist because I truly believe in the universal validity of democratic ideals and the resilience of free societies.

Our American democracy has endured despite the periodic eruption of deep divisions, gridlock and partisanship. We have faced many, many setbacks as a country, but we have always found solutions—not by bowing to the false gods of nationalism, but by building better, more flexible and responsive institutions.

As President Kennedy once said, “Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to untiring effort.”

I mentioned earlier that this is year of anniversaries for me, and I want to conclude by sharing the lesson behind those memories, lessons which have informed my worldview and my approach to diplomacy.

Aggressors must be resisted.

Intolerance can never again be allowed to hide behind the mask of nationalist pride. And the siren song of isolationism must not again distract us from the responsibilities of leadership.

I hope we will bear these lessons in mind, and I hope we will remember that— although we live in a world of change—what matters most must not change, and that is our basic commitment to democratic values, our respect for one another and our commitment to justice and the dignity of every human being.

Without those principles in front of us, we will lose our way; but with them beside us, we will not go wrong.

Editor’s Note: This piece is excerpted from the speech presented by Secretary Madeleine K. Albright on February 12, 2018. Secretary Albright is the 2018 recipient of the J. Raymond “Jit” Trainor Award for Excellence in the Conduct of Diplomacy, presented annually by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Her edited remarks here are reprinted with permission.


Secretary Madeleine Albright

Secretary Albright served as the 64th Secretary of State of the United States. From 1993 to 1997, she served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She currently serves as chair of Albright Stonebridge Group and chairman at the National Democratic Institute.

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