“Are we letting our democracies wither or are we making them better? former President Barack Obama told the Stanford Foundation on April 21. Eighty years ago, Winston Churchill shared his own observation that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others”.
Unfortunately, today, democracies are faltering as nationalist vulgarism and authoritarian rule are on the rise. Not only does this harm individual nations, but it has a catastrophic effect on multilateral cooperation to address global security, economic and climate issues.
Our founding fathers wisely crafted a Constitution that guaranteed the operation of a true democracy: three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial), checks and balances, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, equal justice for all. He served as a model for other countries struggling to establish their own democracies.
What is at stake is on full display today in Ukraine. It is Putin’s horrific attack on the former Soviet Republic to reimpose authoritarian rule and a crackdown on a viable democracy guaranteeing freedom to all its inhabitants. America is united in opposing Russian takeover attempts and providing the Ukrainian government with military assistance and humanitarian aid.
Yet America has a checkered past in favor of democracy over autocracy. In the 1970s and 1980s, South America’s three largest countries (Brazil, Argentina, and Chile) were rocked by coups, replacing properly elected presidencies with military dictatorships.
The US government has also had a disturbing role.
The Nixon administration, led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fully supported the military takeover in all three countries, beginning with Chile, backing General Augusto Pinochet, who replaced the socialist government of Salvador Allende. In Brazil, a coup succeeded with a military dictatorship that replaced President João Goulart. He had the support of the US State Department through its embassy in Brasilia. In 1976, Argentina succumbed to a right-wing coup that overthrew Isabel Perón as president. The military junta took over the reins of power, with Kissinger’s blessing, then proceeded to ban congress and embarked on what has been described as a “genocidal process.” At the time, it was widely reported that some 30,000 people mysteriously “disappeared” or were otherwise executed.
The obvious question is why on earth would the United States support military juntas overthrowing popularly elected leaders?
The American geopolitical strategy at the time was to contain the spread of communism in the southern hemisphere, which had started in Cuba. The fragile socialist governments of these countries alarmed President Richard Nixon’s top security officials, who were concerned about the growing influence of communism in any of these countries as a potential security threat to the United States.
This rogue foreign policy came to an abrupt end when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, declaring in his inaugural address that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute”. His intention was to make human rights, not dictators, an integral part of the country’s foreign policy in the future. His successor, President Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address said, “America is a shining city on a hill whose beacon guides freedom-loving people everywhere.
During these two presidencies, as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on International Organizations and Human Rights, I conducted a series of hearings on human rights, highlighting light what was happening in South America.
My final report emphasized the three fundamental pillars of any democracy: (a) free and fair elections, (b) independent reporting, and (c) a sovereign judiciary.
Since today’s global conversation is about autocracy versus democracy, how do the two most notable nations compare?
First, Russia. There are national elections, but Vladimir Putin is notorious for poisoning or imprisoning his opponents. Its public media is more propaganda than independent reporting. It is not the rule of law but the government’s control over prosecutors and the judiciary that jeopardizes anyone who dares to confront the tyrant of the Kremlin.
For America, its unwavering commitment to true democracy is now in question. Today we have a former president and one of the two major parties saying the 2020 election was more about fraud than being free and fair. Our media remain independent and non-state, but they are compromised like never before. As former President Obama recently stated, it is the power of social media giants to retain the information people consume that has “turbocharged” political polarization and threatened the pillars of democracy. The most important is the judiciary which is committed to respecting the American Constitution. Traditionally, Supreme Court and federal justice nominees have been highly qualified and received nearly unanimous confirmation votes in the US Senate. Today it is far more politicized with votes split along party lines, acknowledging that sitting judges have the final say.
If America is no longer the “beacon” that guides freedom-loving people everywhere, does such a shining city on a hill exist in today’s tumultuous world? Maybe it’s Ukraine. A year ago, it would have been unthinkable for a country from the former Soviet Union to be globally recognized for its commitment and courage to fight and die to preserve the pillars of true democracy.