Reversing democracy's decline must be U.S. priority

In addressing the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., last Thursday, Connecticut’s junior U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy presented an ideal so grounded in fundamental logic that it is a wonder that it even needs an advocate or could be viewed as remotely controversial.

“The emerging threats to global security cannot be checked with military power alone. These new global power players — emerging economies, energy rich bullies, developing world youth poverty … and shadowy terrorist groups — are increasingly immune to the blunt force of American military hegemony,” Murphy told his audience.

“Our commitment to democracy abroad is critical for … attacking (these) emerging threats,” said the Democratic senator.

Democracies, as the senator noted, tend to be good trading partners, they enhance global stability because they seldom attack each other, and because they provide an outlet for the people to present and address grievances, they tend not to breed the extremists and terrorists that are the product of tyrannical rule and failed states.

It is in America’s interest and that of the world to promote democracy and human rights.

But this seemingly obvious foreign policy strategy does need an advocate because democracy is under siege in many parts of the world, and the U.S. administration seems to have no diplomatic strategy to reverse this trend. Democracies from Hungary to Turkey to Poland to Philippines are backsliding; the hopes of the Arab Spring have largely disintegrated.

“The words of President Trump … are extinguishing democratic movements all over the world, because those movements now labor under the perception that there is little, if any, support coming from America,” Murphy said. “When Trump lavishes praise upon dictators, and insults democratically elected leaders, citizens of the world take notice, and democratic movements die.”

This is arguably an overstatement, but one with a purpose. The perils when democracy declines are great. Twice in the 20th century the world witnessed that global conflict can result.

Russia and China offer different models. Russia has sought to disrupt the American democracy, with documented success, and exploit our foreign policy detachment. China is using its strong financial position to win friends and make nations beholden to it.

Speaking at the same event, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said this reality makes U.S. advocacy for democratic ideals all the more critical.

“If the United States does not return as a partner with other democracies, then we really are in very serious trouble because there is no other specific leader,” she said.

The Connecticut senator spoke of some harsh realities that get little attention in the U.S. press. Continued U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s attacks in Yemen, aimed at quelling Iran-backed rebels, is radicalizing the young people who will become our future terrorist enemies, he warned.

He began his talk with the story of a school bus of boys, ages 6 to 11, headed to a field trip on Aug. 19.

“The bus they were on was hit by a 500-pound American-made bomb, dropped … by a warplane operating under the auspices of a joint military campaign run by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States,” Murphy said. Forty-four children died. The nuances of U.S. strategy toward Iran were likely lost on the community that mourns them.

Horrors like Yemen cry out for political solutions, but a strategy is lacking. In his 2017 policy paper, “Rethinking the Battlefield,” Murphy called for a large-scale investment in diplomatic resources. We backed that approach then and reiterate that support now.

Our American military, strongest in the world by several magnitudes, provides protection against conventional security threats. But if we fail in the contest for hearts and minds it increases the chance we will have to use it, to the detriment of many.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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