Ronald Reagan was tough on totalitarians. On March 8, 1983, and to the chagrin of many of his advisers, he disparaged the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” On June 12, 1987, standing by the barrier designed to prevent East Germans from escaping into West Berlin, and again ignoring top deputies, he called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”
But President Reagan also envisioned what should replace dictators. He articulated that vision to the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, in what became known as the Westminster Address.
“We must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them,” he said. “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”
He added: “The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”
Do we — not least those of us who like to think of ourselves as Reaganites — still support this agenda? Do we have, as Mr. Reagan said we should, “a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy”?
Last week, The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano convened a group of thoughtful people to discuss such questions. Among them: Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracies (founded as a result of the Westminster Address); Roger Zakheim, Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute; Jane Harman, president of the Wilson Center; and Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Mr. Gershman reminded us that, back in 1982, to be bullish on freedom and democracy was contrarian. The Soviets were launching offensives in Afghanistan. The Sandinista National Liberation Front had taken power in Nicaragua. The U.S. economy was in recession.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as America’s ambassador to the U.N. in the 1970s, had opined that “democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going.”
Over the years that followed, however, particularly the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Mr. Reagan predicted in the Westminster Address and enacted policies to accelerate, there came what Samuel P. Huntington called “Democracy’s Third Wave,” a period when “at least 30 countries made transitions to democracy, just about doubling the number of democratic governments in the world.”
With this in mind, Mr. Gershman and others see cause for optimism today. He mentioned Tunisia, Malaysia, Armenia, Gambia and South Africa as nations that are democratizing.
The role of party pooper fell to me. I pointed out that Turkey, once the model of a Muslim majority country evolving into a Western liberal democracy, is increasingly authoritarian, as well as Islamist. Vladimir Putin has become Russia’s de facto president-for-life. China is a one-party state that in March removed term limits so that President Xi Jinping can rule indefinitely. Ali Khamenei has been the Islamic Republic of Iran’s supreme leader for almost 30 years. Venezuela, Burma, Cuba — nothing to write home about.
Such evidence suggests that authoritarianism is on the rise, that freedom is not spreading, that democratization is less the rule than the exception.
What we can do about this trend is unclear. Exporting democracy requires skills we’ve not mastered. I’d argue that it’s both morally imperative and strategically wise to support freedom fighters struggling against common enemies anywhere and everywhere.
I need to add that I’m also discouraged by what appears to be an eroding commitment to freedom and democracy here at home. Too many of those disappointed by the last election call themselves not the “loyal opposition” but the “resistance.” On campuses, freedom of speech has all but yielded to leftist dicta sometimes enforced through violence.
We now have black academics teaching their children not to befriend whites, and women academics saying it’s OK to hate men. Identity politics is balkanizing us.
As if all that were not disheartening enough, Jane Harman raised an additional concern. She urged us to read an article in The Atlantic by Henry Kissinger on artificial intelligence.
Cutting to the chase, imagine a world in which police states become high-tech surveillance states, a world where despots use artificial intelligence to strengthen and expand their brands of totalitarianism, to attack the infrastructure of liberal democracies while also delving deep into the minds of those they rule and those they seek to rule, utilizing what they find to manipulate and even mobilize them.
We know that President Xi is making huge investments in artificial intelligence, in particular an “algorithmic surveillance system” that “will rely on the security organs of the communist party-state to filter, collect, and analyze staggering volumes of data flowing across the internet,” as Stanford scholars Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond wrote in a separate Atlantic article.
Last September, President Vladimir Putin predicted that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Meanwhile, Pyongyang and Tehran have been wielding increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons against those they see as their enemies.
Thirty-six years ago, Ronald Reagan hoped and expected that freedom and democracy were on an upward trajectory. Instead, the path has been zig-zag, and the future looks murky. Thoughtful people should be thinking hard about that and, sooner rather than later, developing innovative solutions.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.