North Korea continues its provocative missile tests, threatening its neighbors and the world. Thousands flee crime and repression in Venezuela. Sectarian strife, exploited by ISIS and al Qaeda, engulfs the Middle East. What do these situations have in common? A fundamental lack of respect for democratic values and human rights.
If we want to live in a world with more peace for more citizens, we need to return to a basic truth: societies that govern themselves democratically are safer, stronger and more secure. It is in every democratic country’s national security interests, therefore, to strengthen their own democratic institutions and practices and to support others striving to make government more inclusive, transparent and responsive to public demands for a better life.
This is not just an article of faith for believers in human dignity or liberal internationalism. As a new report out today shows, it is also the hard-headed conclusion of national security analysts and practitioners with experience fighting terrorism, crime, gender violence, and civil war.
Years of empirical research demonstrate that strong democracies not only avoid war with one another, but also have much lower levels of civil conflict, deadly terrorism, attacks against women, violent crime, and poverty. Authoritarian and failed states, on the other hand, are more likely to experience intra- and interstate conflict, generate refugees, hinder women’s equality, and harbor violent extremists.
Within this context, the research shows that states at intermediate stages of democratization are particularly at risk. That is because, in these fragile states, elites often take control of state institutions without proper protections for the social contract or the rule of law. When aggrieved or marginalized groups see no way to fix these problems through nonviolent means, they are more easily recruited by violent extremist groups.
The implications of this evidence are clear: democracies share a common interest in defending their free and open societies through more, rather than less, respect for fundamental rights and human dignity, at home and abroad. This is precisely the point of the Community of Democracies, a group of governments committed to strengthening democracy, whose representatives are gathering on Sept. 15 in Washington, and under whose auspices this new report was produced. The Community’s task – to build greater collaboration among democracies to improve security outcomes and create a better environment for democratic change around the world – is now more critical than ever.
Nevertheless, as the Community gathers this week, the democratic euphoria so evident at the turn of the 21st Century has dissipated. Both established and emerging democracies confront myriad social, political, economic and security challenges – including from violent extremism and populist nationalism. Old narratives about democracies being too weak and chaotic to manage these threats are regaining ground and feeding doubts about the role democracy plays in underpinning national security and international stability.
We believe it is time to confront this narrative head on. Instead of closing our societies and limiting civil liberties, political leaders are better off addressing the root causes of insecurity by repairing the social contract and living up to core democratic principles. Similarly, on the international front, our leaders should not embrace authoritarians or turn away from the hard diplomatic work of settling conflicts. Instead, we need to help fragile states advance democratic governance, inclusive politics and human rights.
With this evidence in mind, the Community of Democracies, as well as the wider international community gathering in New York for the next UN General Assembly, should mainstream the democracy and human rights imperative across the security and development domains of cooperation. Weak states with mixed features of democracy and autocracy, fragile institutions and/or elite-driven patronage systems deserve special attention and resources to help them strengthen their democratic systems.
Strategic priorities for advancing our common security should include widening channels of political participation at all levels, especially for women and youth, and adopting tailored, community-based approaches to containing violent extremism. To address violent crime, we should target high-risk places, strengthen criminal justice systems and align them with human rights norms. To improve human security and livelihoods, we must invest early and heavily in meritocratic institutions for delivering social services. To reduce violence against women, we ought to close the gender gap and integrate gender equality in security and politics. As the internet exponentially expands, we must urgently adopt common rules to safeguard the global public good it has become, protect electoral processes from cyberattacks, and help citizens defend themselves against attacks on their rights to privacy and free expression.
These recommendations, which cut across the most pressing security challenges we face, are common sense when one considers the strong evidence that capable democracies are our best security partners. We just need more of them. And that means persevering in the long journey we all must travel to secure a livable, peaceful planet.