American democracy is under threat. Election denialism, crippling polarization, and an environment that breeds self-censorship have exposed gaping cracks in the edifice of our republic. With faith in American democracy plummeting, the Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI) has united over 50 dissidents from 30 oppressive countries to celebrate America’s founding values but also warn of the dangers that arise when those values are compromised.
RDI’s Freedom Fellows are writers, journalists, artists, activists, and political figures who have fought against a brutal dictatorship in Belarus, defended transgender rights in Ethiopia, been jailed for condemning extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and survived assassination attempts and solitary confinement in an attempt to bring democracy back to Venezuela.
As outsiders, they have a unique perspective on the challenges facing American democracy. But they also understand that the US has been and must remain an inspiration for and defender of global freedom. Dissidents around the world in their greatest moments of need often turn to the US – whether for actual aid or moral support. It’s no coincidence that protesters in Hong Kong waved American flags as they sought to defend their fledgling democracy or that Cuban protesters carried the flag as they marched against their dictatorial regime.
Partisans from either side of the political spectrum have argued that the US (and the rest of the free world, for that matter) should not intervene abroad. But whether these arguments take the form of putting America first or opposing Western imperialism, the results are the same: chaos and instability.
The United States may have a checkered record with international interventions, but dissidents understand that we cannot address past failures by retreating from the world stage. When we allow dictators to go unchallenged, these dissidents and their families are the ones who experience human rights abuses, arrests, and unmitigated aggression as a result.
It’s impossible for America and other free, industrialized nations to truly retreat into themselves. The claim that Western democracies should just leave a particular nation alone doesn’t hold water when they are already deeply intertwined in their affairs. Claiming that countries can choose to “stay out of it” is a red herring; our real choice is how we wish to engage.
The Belarusian people live with the consequences of such engagement gone wrong. Hundreds of thousands have risked their lives to defy Alexander Lukashenko, and far from receiving sufficient international assistance, their struggle is undermined by financial support and international recognition of the Belarusian dictator
Lukashenko has received $1 billion in funding from the International Monetary Fund, even after having hijacked an international flight between two EU countries in order to kidnap a journalist. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsihanovskaya tweeted that “Belarus’ regime will use allocated by #IMF $1bn on repressions and not support of people.” Meanwhile, 2010 Belarusian Presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov has pointed out that while strong coordinated sanctions were likely responsible for his own release from prison, the fact that Western governments lifted them shortly thereafter allowed Lukashenko to remain in power.
So how should the United States and those invested in preserving freedom engage internationally in a way that will support the global struggle for freedom and democracy rather than undermine it?
This is the choice dissidents can help us make. In a recent conversation with former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad argued that the US should have listened to Iranian opposition figures and supported the 2009 Green Movement. Ultimately, Rhodes agreed, admitting that not having done so was a mistake.
Supporting these dissident movements against authoritarian regimes is not merely an altruistic effort. It’s in our interest to maintain the liberal world order, an order that has promoted international collaboration, lifted billions out of poverty and enabled America to become the most prosperous nation in history. With this abundance comes the responsibility to lead by example, leveraging our power to constrain authoritarians who threaten global stability and trample on human rights.
This necessitates abandoning short-term, utilitarian thinking: placating dictators and wannabe authoritarians increases the devastation they can cause and the inevitable cost of confronting them. In many cases, these dictators lead campaigns to undermine successful democracies around the world. Not only does refusing to challenge them consign millions to life under tyranny, it also threatens our own freedom. Far from exporting democracy, we risk importing authoritarianism.
In order to lead successfully, the United States must live up to our own ideals. Whether we like it or not, other nations take their cues from the US. It may be a role that some no longer want, but it’s not a role that we can eschew.
Dissidents themselves look to America for both inspiration and assistance in their own struggles for democracy. And when we tear ourselves apart, we give ammunition to dictators who point to America and say, “Is this what you want for us?”
When would-be insurrectionists breached the Capitol building on January 6th, dictators around the world celebrated. When President Trump refused to recognize the results of a free and fair election, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán took notes. And when some Americans, despite being born into a free nation, claim that oppression is woven into the very fabric of our society, foreign refugees cringe.
We are facing a crisis of commitment to the very ideals that have made the United States a symbol of hope for generations of brave individuals rising up against tyranny. Short-term policy victories are easy to envision, but the long-term damage undemocratic tactics wreak is more difficult to make sense of. This is where dissidents can come in.
They’ve lived the devastating consequences of overturned elections, self-censorship and rampant disinformation. RDI’s Freedom Fellows will offer Americans much-needed context, a global perspective, and a willingness to fight for the liberal principles that make democracy possible. With our republic teetering, who better to learn from than those who have devoted their lives to resisting the very trends that are now developing in our country?
Ultimately, these dissidents recognize that in order to win the global fight against authoritarianism, America must once again believe in and live up to its own values. American principles have always inspired them. Now, it is their stories that must inspire us.