It’s easy enough to be cynical about the “International Day of Democracy,” recognized by the United Nations each year on Sept. 15. This year marks the holiday’s 10th anniversary. Many of the UN’s members are not democracies and the hypocrisy is blatant.
But all over the globe, people continue to struggle—often at great risk—against regimes that deny them basic human rights and refuse them any say in how their own societies are governed. For Americans, the question is whether, and how, to support them in that struggle, or to be largely indifferent.
President Donald Trump has said in many speeches that the era of “nation-building” is over. The U.S. will work with governments that join us in fighting terrorism, he has added, without lecturing them on their internal situation. Never again will America invade other countries to install democracies there.
But we never have. We did not invade Germany and Japan to install democracies, any more than we invaded Iraq or Afghanistan to do so. But after World War II, American leaders understood that a democratic Japan and Germany would be allies, as indeed they have been for 70 years. Similarly, American military and political leaders concluded that the internal situation in Iraq and Afghanistan would determine whether they again became dangerous opponents of the U.S. Trump acknowledged this in his speech to the nation on Afghanistan, in which he called on the Afghan government to institute reforms that would someday make it possible for the U.S. to end its involvement there.
Concern over the internal situation in other countries isn’t moralizing or lecturing. It is in fact more realistic and pragmatic than a policy that ignores democracy and human rights. Governments that rule by brute force, without any legitimacy in the eyes of their own population, are ultimately unstable, and are unreliable allies for the U.S. Moreover, American support for such regimes will leave the people of those countries with a grudge against America that can last for many decades.
President Ronald Reagan demonstrated that we can have a foreign policy that is guided by American ideals and is also realistic. In his relations with the Soviet Union, he combined negotiations and pragmatic cooperation with a clear moral stance against the terrible brutality and repression of the regime. With American allies that were not democracies, he combined support for their security with pressure for democratic reforms.
During the Cold War, the argument against concern for human rights was that we needed all the anti-Communist allies we could get—and could not concern ourselves over their internal practices. But Reagan realized that extreme repression was weakening moderates and democrats and strengthening communists. Today we hear that we need allies against the terrorists and should ignore how regimes treat their own people. But repressive regimes are not good allies against Islamist extremism. Such regimes destroy the center—the moderate and democratic forces—while Islamist extremists thrive in dark corners and some mosques.
American support for human rights and democracy does not just advance our own ideals—it is a realistic policy. Our interests and our ideals do not always coincide, but they very often overlap. And the identification of the U.S. with freedom in the world remains one of the greatest assets for our country as we face the challenges of the 21st century.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring, was published earlier this month.