How Reagan’s Campaign to Assist Democracy Looks 30 Years Later

IRI president Mark Green’s remarks at Ripon College.


L amont, thanks for your kind introduction — more importantly, thanks to you and the entire Ripon College community for your gracious hospitality.

I am a great admirer of this college, its history and traditions, and its many contributions. Ripon is where tomorrow’s leaders are forged and inspired. We need what this college produces now more than ever before.

The chairman of my organization, IRI, is Senator John McCain. He has the habit of opening our board meetings by saying, “My friends, I have never seen the world in greater disarray than it is today.” For a man who spent more than five years in prisoner of war camp, that’s saying quite a bit. But scanning the world around us, I’m hard pressed to disagree.

Just two weeks ago, for example, I visited the small Serbian town of Adasevci, one of the country’s refugee processing centers, and watched — with Senator McCain — as approximately 1,000 refugees from the Syrian war — men, women and children — waited patiently to board buses and trains for the next leg in their journey to Germany and asylum.

A few months ago, more than 10,00 refugees per day were making that same journey. One million refugees reached Germany last year.

With China and Russia flexing their muscles, Iran liberated from sanctions and ISIS striking at the heart of western culture in places like Paris, it’s easy to slip into a funk about the future. But that would be pointless — and just plain wrong.

As a little girl, my mum lived in the bomb shelters of London. When she hears gloomy talk about dark forces on the world stage, she likes to say, “You know, we’ve seen worse.” And we have.

And we’ve also seen great leaders who understood how to fight back — not just with bombs and bullets — though sometimes that’s what’s needed, but also with the power of ideas. How quickly we seem to forget!

We forget that in Winston Churchill’s historic “Iron Curtain” speech, he issued a call not for military arms, but ideological ones. He argued that the answer to the growing Soviet menace was “the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries.”

Many remember President Reagan’s 1982 address to the British Parliament for his bold prediction that communism would be left “on the ash-heap of history.”

But we often forget that he wasn’t urging the West to mobilize its military, but instead to mobilize democracy itself.

He said, “The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy….” He called it a “campaign to assist democracy.”

And that’s really what I want to leave you with today. I’m calling on you — as our rising generation of leaders — to study our system of democracy and human liberty and to commit it to your heart. Make it part of your DNA, and mobilize it wherever you can.

You see, I believe that, like Reagan and Churchill and Thatcher and others, we need to put democracy and human liberty at the heart of our foreign policy.

How does promoting democracy and human liberty advance our interests?

Democratic nations — those that respect the voices and rights of their people — are usually more prosperous, stable and reliable partners.

They’re better economic partners because they possess the characteristics and conditions that experience shows are vital for economic vibrancy and sustainable growth.

They’re better strategic partners because they’re citizen-centered, making them less likely to produce terrorists, proliferate weapons of mass destruction, or engage in armed aggression.

On the other hand, authoritarian regimes are, at best, unreliable partners and at worst, significant pose risks to peace and stability.

Authoritarian regimes often give rise to refugee populations, burdening and potentially destabilizing their neighborhood.

In order to maintain their hold on power, such regimes repress their people in ways that violate human rights.

As part of this repression, these regimes aim to isolate citizens from outside ideas and influences.

They often attack — directly or indirectly, physically or digitally — those outside their borders who represent the freedom which authoritarians fear.

President Reagan understood this, as did George HW Bush. (Bush 41 as many of us call him these days.)

One of the great things about the organization I help lead, IRI, is that we’re entirely mission-driven.

Our marching orders essentially came with that Reagan speech before Parliament . . . the video of which is on our website.

Like our sister organizations, including NDI, we try to follow three basic principles.

First, those nations which have already won their democracy shouldn’t seek to impose democracy on those who have not. However, where local leaders and activists (also known as civil society) reach out for assistance in pursuing democracy, we in the West should be ready to help with tools, ideas and resources.

Second, not every democracy will look the same — or needs to. Democracy must be adaptable to a country’s circumstances and traditions.

Third, democracy promotion is most effective when it is accompanied by an honest assessment of our own democratic experience — and shortcomings.

Since the 1980s, Reagan’s “campaign to assist democracy” has produced results in many parts of the world. However, nowhere have the results more important or transformative than in Europe and Eurasia.

When the wall came down, we were called in to help democracy stand up. Years of communist rule had destroyed institutions like independent media and citizen-focused legislative bodies.

We helped pro-reform, pro-democratic political parties build platforms which could assist those countries in meeting the demands of integrating into NATO & the EU.

The work of IRI and others helped lay the groundwork for the strong Transatlantic relationship that is the modern world’s most important alliance.

As I said earlier, my goal today is to urge you to enlist in the “campaign to assist democracy.” And a big part of that is helping to realize that — contrary to what cynics suggest (whether they’re uninformed sources here in the West or anti-democratic propagandists in the East) — democracy doesn’t merely belong to or in the Western world.

Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyday citizens in lands ranging from Mongolia to Morocco, Burma to Burundi, Ghana to Guatemala don’t want a voice in shaping their future. Or worse yet, that they “can’t handle democracy.”

Three decades ago, President Reagan referred to this notion as “cultural condescension, or worse.”

In my favorite passage from Westminster, he said, “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.

I’ll give you just one quick example here — that of Mongolia, the land of Ginghis Khan.

Mongolia’s only two bordering neighbors are Russia and China, and just a few decades ago, the “Mongolian People’s Republic” was a firmly entrenched Soviet satellite.

But as communism began to collapse, Mongolia spontaneously abandoned its one-party state system, and pledged itself to pursuing multi-party democracy. In 1992, IRI began working in-country to both strengthen the national parliament and foster the development of issue-based political parties.

IRI went on to help boost the participation of women and youth in the political process, and assist leaders with plans to tackle longstanding corruption.

In 2015, Mongolia is marking the 25th anniversary of its democratic revolution. Eager to share its story, and its blessings, the government has set up a special bureau to support other Asian countries that are pursuing a democratic future.

Now, make no mistake, none of this is easy, and in recent years there have been setbacks.

Over the last four decades, the ranks of the world’s democracies have grown threefold. However, as Freedom House has reported in their Freedom in the World Report, over the last several years, the number has begun to slip backwards.

Several factors, including instability caused by Islamic extremists, are contributing to this trend. None, however, is more dangerous than aggressive authoritarianism, particularly in Asia and Eurasia.

New authoritarian regimes are both dismantling democracy in their own lands, and not so subtly working to export their ideology to neighbors.

Regimes have begun striking at such groups by attacking international organizations like IRI and Freedom House.

Unsurprisingly, Russia and China have created two of the most restrictive anti-civil society schemes. In 2012, Russia enacted laws requiring international democracy groups to register as “foreign agents” (which, of course, has espionage connotations).

In 2015, it went even further, giving the government nearly unlimited discretion to shut down international NGOs deemed “undesirable.” The staff of such organizations could face heavy fines and extended imprisonment.

Unfortunately, Russia’s and China’s actions seem to be inspiring other leaders and regimes in their own efforts to weaken civil society. Since 2012, over 90 major laws have been proposed or enacted around the world aimed at restricting civil society and international NGO activities.

Beyond these legal crackdowns, authoritarian leaders are resorting to new technology-enhanced propaganda campaigns that both justify their own repressive actions and seek to discredit democratic leaders and systems.

In scale, these campaigns resemble 1970s-era propaganda in the former Soviet-bloc. In method, because of social media, satellite television and other technological advances, modern propaganda has a greater reach.

One example of this is the Putin-linked Sputnik media group, which aims to have operations in nearly three dozen countries and in 30 languages.

Its programming offers a steady drumbeat of ideology-driven stories portraying Ukrainian leaders, for example, as fascists bent on punishing Russian speakers at every turn.

But, ultimately, they will not win, these anti-democratic forces.

In the two years, I’ve been at IRI, I’ve had the privilege, and I do mean privilege, of observing elections in places like Tunisia, Burma and Ukraine. I’ve watched citizens, young and old, rich and poor, walk for miles, stand in line for hours, brave authoritarian threats — all for a chance to cast their vote.

In the elections of 2014 in Ukraine, I went with Sen. Kelly Ayotte to watch the first votes cast at a polling place in the capital of Kyiv. Things didn’t get going right away because they had to check every nook and cranny and corner for bombs.

The first guy in line was an elderly man with a cane. He waited patiently through all this, and then when it was time, he walked up to the ballot box with cameras rolling and flashbulbs flashing.

He filled out his ballot, dropped it in the box, and turned to us, fists in the air, and said, “Democracy!” My guess is that it was about the only English word he knew — but it worked for me!

Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill and others of our great leaders understood that democracy is a powerful notion — a cornerstone tool for building a better world, and an antidote to rising extremism and authoritarianism.

It was then, and can be now. And it’s up to us to make it so!

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