War Is Stalking America

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Staff Editor

Politicians, the media, and opinion polls all agree that Americans are tired of war, and the public can be forgiven, given recent experience, for thinking of war as a matter of choice. But the constant struggle between freedom and tyranny goes on with or without U.S. involvement. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia, antidemocratic forces have been on the rampage, threatening to pull the United States into new conflicts against its will.

In each of these cases, the crisis has origins in authoritarian rule, and only a policy built on the promotion of democratic governance has any hope of ensuring a lasting peace.

Middle East

The latest surge of violence in the Middle East began in Syria in 2011, when the vicious dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with volleys of gunfire. The demonstrations—which called for new leadership, political reforms, and justice—had taken off after the regime arrested and tortured a group of boys in the town of Daraa for writing antigovernment graffiti. The state’s ruthless crackdown eventually crushed the protest movement and drove citizens and army defectors into armed rebellion.

The rebels made some progress, but received minimal support from the international community, while the regime was bolstered by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. The resulting stalemate created a major opening for radical jihadist factions, the most virulent of which was the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group had maintained a campaign of bombings in Iraq for years, but only in Syria was it able to seize territory, collect revenue, draw large numbers of foreign recruits, and gain extensive battlefield experience.

ISIS’s recent invasion of Iraq was assisted by remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime and by the increasingly authoritarian misrule of Iraq’s own government. Combined with the ongoing fighting in Syria and the massive refugee crisis it has generated, the conflict in Iraq is now threatening U.S. allies and strategic partners from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

U.S. involvement in a solution to this crisis is essential, because only the United States can or will insist that democratic norms remain a priority. While the Iranian regime and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki may be able to blunt or roll back the ISIS assault by rallying sectarian Shiite militias, this will do nothing to bring peace to the region. Nor do America’s allies in the area, left to their own devices, have much interest in promoting democratic rule. If the United States fails to champion the framework of multiethnic statehood based on the rule of law and electoral legitimacy, it is clear that no other powerful actor will do so, raising the prospect of protracted war and oppression.

Eastern Europe

The bloody standoff in Ukraine is the unambiguous result of aggression by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime in Moscow. Putin views the democratic norms associated with the European Union as a direct threat to his rule, and he has used a variety of methods to keep this threat away from Russian borders. In 2013 he bribed and bullied Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych into rejecting an EU association pact, and when Yanukovych fled to Russia to escape protesters whom he had attempted to cow with violence, Putin created a security crisis by annexing Crimea and stoking armed separatism elsewhere in Ukraine. In effect, after the Kremlin’s grip on Ukraine through Yanukovych was endangered, it established new handholds by military means. 

The danger posed by these actions is hard to exaggerate. Putin’s invocation of Russian ultranationalist ideology as a justification for his actions has rattled the entire region, casting the security of many countries into doubt. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, it shares a border with four, and Russia itself borders five NATO allies, some of which have large Russian-speaking minorities. Any Russian meddling in these countries could ultimately involve the United States in a conflict with a nuclear-armed authoritarian regime.

While the situation is still volatile, the cause of peace and stability will depend in large part on democratic actors and methods. The election of a new president in Ukraine has strengthened Kyiv’s legitimacy and negotiating position. Limited sanctions and sometimes reluctant diplomatic pressure by democratic powers seem to have forced Putin into tactical retreat on some issues, and more determined efforts of this kind could lead to clearer progress. In the absence of such institutional and international steps, it is difficult to see how Ukrainian military action alone could succeed in resolving the crisis.

East Asia

Since Xi Jinping took the helm of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, Beijing has not only intensified domestic political repression, it has also ramped up its policy of territorial expansion. It has claimed military control over a large swath of airspace in the East China Sea as part of its island dispute with Japan. It has dispatched countless vessels and personnel to essentially colonize islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by several other nations. It has even deployed infantry units to probe at the contested land border with India.

While carefully calibrated, this behavior is obviously hazardous. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have all been affected by China’s moves, and all are democratic nations that the United States is bound by treaty to protect from attack. India is a democracy that has regularly defended its borders with force, raising the possibility of a conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

A renewed emphasis on democratic norms would help to counter China’s actions. Japan could strengthen its case and its ties with other U.S. allies in the region by decisively acknowledging and rejecting the abuses of its pre-1945 authoritarian regime. Vietnam could give fellow victims of Chinese pressure and democratic states around the world more reason to come to its aid by enacting political and human rights reforms, dispelling any qualms about helping one communist state in a dispute with another. And the United States, along with its allies, could stipulate such reforms as a condition for any substantial assistance, reinforcing—among ordinary Chinese citizens especially—the idea that America is supporting freedom for all people, not siding cynically with any partner that will help contain China. Indeed, an opening in Vietnam might give heart to China’s own beleaguered democratic activists.

Peace and Democracy

Since its founding in 1941, Freedom House has argued that undemocratic political systems, whether of the far left or the far right, represent an inherent danger to the free world. They can endure for decades with little change or peacefully give way to democracy, but they can also collapse into infectious chaos after years of rigid misrule, or launch sudden attacks on their neighbors. A peaceful transition to democracy is the only desirable outcome, and it is most likely to come about with outside support.

These arguments have often fallen on deaf ears. Many policymakers prefer to make do with incumbent dictators rather than bet on the possibility of democratization or face the uncertainties of any political change. However, recent events have made it abundantly clear that authoritarian regimes carry their own considerable risks.

To promote peace in the long term, the United States must be willing to place democratic standards at the center of all of its relationships, to support human rights defenders and dissidents regardless of government objections, to cajole and annoy even friendly autocrats into enacting reforms that serve their people’s interests, and to maintain this pressure and engagement throughout rocky transitional periods, when election results appear less than ideal and a return to the simplicity of repression seems tempting.

Such policies may appear demanding and problematic, but the exertions they entail are miniscule when compared with those required by armed conflict and failed states.

Photo Caption: Pro-Russian militants seize buildings in Eastern Ukraine.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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