Democracy is at a crossroads at home and abroad. The collapse of faith in democratic institutions, the global decline of democracy and the rising appeal of authoritarian models like China’s should give all Americans pause. Unfortunately, President Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire—bashing allied democratic leaders like Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, while expressing admiration for authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin, attacking democratic institutions and values at home, and putting his own interests above those of the nation.
America has faced moments like this before. In 1941, President Roosevelt famously issued a call to democratic arms in his “Four Freedoms” speech before Congress—a speech that connected the security of American democracy to the state of democracy abroad. And just as President Roosevelt made clear in 1941, today American national security will also depend on the strength of our own democracy. If we cannot make our democracy work better for every American—one that inspires admiration for and trust in our values—we face a world where another, more autocratic model might prevail.
For the United States to compete effectively in the global battle of ideas, we need to perfect our own union and leverage the comparative strengths that Trump now threatens—rule of law, transparent institutions, and the openness, fairness, and common humanity of the American people. Our next president’s first take must be to strengthen the democratic compact between the governed and the governing. That means mounting an effective response to entrenched economic inequality, ensuring a free and fair democratic process for all Americans, addressing the drivers of declining public trust and embracing democratic norms.
Time is running out for America to change its approach at home as well as abroad. But it must do so. How we position ourselves now will determine whether the United States can compete in this century. As China invests a trillion dollars for influence overseas and Russia finds ways to attack our democracy and divide us, America’s current drift will effectively serve as as a form of retreat. The future of U.S. national security and a more secure world depends on America embracing its democratic values, locking arms with its democratic allies to stem the rising tide of authoritarianism and bolstering the community of democratic nations.
This will require a new approach to American foreign policy—one that views democratic values as a comparative advantage for America, not a hindrance or liability, in the fight ahead. It requires taking seriously threats to democracy abroad as a top national security priority and putting democratic values at the heart of our global engagement. This new democratic values-based foreign policy will require both defensive and offensive strategies and is outlined in a new report by the Center for American Progress.
First, America needs to remember how to tell friends apart from adversaries—and work aggressively in concert with our democratic allies to counter our adversaries’ authoritarian playbook, which seeks to use the very openness of our societies to undermine our governments and divide our people. From disinformation on social media to election security, we are only on the front end of a long-term fight to defend our democratic process that will require a far more work at home and a coordinated global response with our allies.
Second, we should privilege relationships with other democracies by extending exclusive economic and security relationships. In a world where the battle of ideas is becoming more intense and the value of the democratic model more contested, the United States must rethink and upgrade its tools of statecraft to incentivize democracies to stay the course and resist the authoritarian slide. This should include a “Global Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative,” consisting of new forms of foreign and security assistance designed to strengthen our partnerships with established and emerging democracies.
Third, we must demonstrate the world’s democracies can solve this century’s most pressing challenges. That means better networking our alliances and forging new coalitions to tackle issues where democracies bring qualitative value, including rampant global corruption and deepening inequality, while also confronting strategic challenges like Russia’s assertiveness in Europe.
Fourth, we must boost support for peaceful democratic movements across the world. People peacefully advocating for greater political and civil rights in their own countries deserve U.S. and international support. This is not about advocating regime change or picking political winners; it is about supporting the rights of all people to engage in peaceful political expression.
After more than 17 years of war and in the face of major global shifts, debate over America’s role in the world is both healthy and crucial. But debate cannot be held captive to the ghosts of our foreign policy failures or paralyzed by what stands in front of us. This is neither a call to return to the days of democracy promotion by military force, nor to a zero-sum Cold War mindset. It is neither neo-liberalism nor neo-conservatism. It is not about setting aside our other national security interests. Instead, it is a recommitment to fundamental American values. It is a recognition that America’s democratic values—not just its economy or military—are essential to winning in a world of great power competition. And it is a realization that the more thriving democracies there are in the world, including here at home, the more secure and the more prosperous the United States will be in the long-run.
This will not be a short-term endeavor. It is the calling of a new generation of Americans who recognize the unique benefits of living in a liberal democracy, armed with a newfound appreciation that they cannot take it for granted. At home and abroad, supporting democracy will require eternal vigilance. Our adversaries understand the strength of democracy and the geostrategic power of American ideals. That is why they want to undermine our democracy and divide us. We can’t let them: the fate of democracy at home and around the world is the challenge of our times. America must meet that challenge, and must begin to do so now, before it’s too late.
Kelly Magsamen is the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress