This post originally appeared in The Miami Herald.BY LINDSAY LLOYD
As Florida holds its March 17 primary, the odds are good that most voters aren’t thinking about the health of global democracy. Most Americans don’t focus on international affairs unless there’s a crisis like war, terrorism or a pandemic.
But a new report from Freedom House, an independent human-rights organization, documents that 2019 marked the 14th straight year that the global state of democracy and human rights declined.
Perhaps 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China, have been detained in “re-education camps.” In Myanmar, the army drove more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya minority out of the country. Closer to home, Nicaragua and Venezuela are plagued by appalling conditions. Journalists face increasing danger in places such as Turkey and Mexico. Last month, Oscar Biscet, a noted Cuban dissident and former political prisoner was detained and harassed by authorities for daring to bear witness to the regime’s corrupt and brutal practices.
And it’s not just happening in countries not considered “free.” Twenty-five of 41 established democracies, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, saw declines last year.
While we struggle with polarization and weaker institutions at home, we’re also doing less to spread and support democracy and human rights abroad. For decades, a strong bipartisan consensus prevailed that the United States had an obligation to support freedom abroad. From rebuilding vanquished enemies after World War II, to opposing Soviet expansionism during the Cold War, to helping countries such as the Czech Republic, South Africa and South Korea find their own democratic paths, American leaders of both parties stood with those striving to escape tyranny and build democracy and prosperity in their countries. American rhetorical support has been immensely powerful to those living under dictators and autocratic regimes.
But the consensus is that our support for democracy and human rights has weakened in recent years.
Some equate support for democracy to military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the wars began because of threats to our security, not to spread democracy.
Some believe we have been selective in our caring, excusing abuses in allies while criticizing them in foes. True, but that’s an argument for doing more, not less.
Others question whether we have the know-how and tools to do the job. We do.
Still others believe it’s in our national interest to retreat from global leadership. But other powers that don’t share our values are glad to fill that gap.
And a few believe that because America’s democracy isn’t perfect, we have no business talking about these problems overseas. We are imperfect, but that imperfection makes our testimony all the more powerful.
The George W. Bush Institute recently introduced a new report arguing that U.S. leadership on democracy and human rights should be a central theme of our foreign policy. It draws directly from what is best about America, encapsulating our most cherished values. But it also pays dividends in making the world and America more secure and by providing stability and the conditions for economic growth, helping to create markets for American goods.
I believe the 2020 campaign should spare some attention for the state of democracy and human rights around the world. Should our foreign policy be merely transactional and nonjudgmental or should our beliefs about who we are as a people play a role?
In the remaining primary and fall general-election debates, moderators ought to explore what role values play in developing candidates’ positions and policies. The candidates and their parties should declare their thoughts on the role of democratic values in foreign policy. Civic groups and the media have a role to play in informing the public about why these issues matter.
I recently spoke with students at Florida International University’s Green School and civic leaders about these topics. It came as no surprise that Florida voters were thinking about these issues; for many, there’s nothing theoretical or distant about human-rights abuses. For Cuban Americans, Nicaraguan Americans, Venezuelan Americans and others, these issues are deeply personal.
No doubt most voters are thinking about healthcare, the economy or even the frightening spread of a new and deadly disease. But as we head toward the general election in November, I encourage all to take a moment to think about what candidates say and might do about democracy and human rights.
Lindsay Lloyd is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.