The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ronald Reagan offers hope that we can reverse the decline of democracy

Providing political, economic, informational and moral support to activists worldwide can fuel a wave of democracy

Former president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev enjoy a moment at Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo north of Santa Barbara, Calif., in May 1992. (Bob Galbraith/AP)
7 min

Global democracy is under siege. Ever since reaching the high mark for the number of electoral democracies in 2005, self-government has been on a steady slide. According to Freedom House’s authoritative “Freedom in the World” report, 8 of 10 people in the world now live in countries rated either “Not Free” or only “Partly Free.”

A similar situation confronted Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The previous decade had been bad for freedom. Communist regimes had taken power by force on multiple continents, including in South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Ethiopia and Nicaragua, while the Soviet bloc appeared resilient. Meanwhile, right-wing military governments controlled countries such as South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador and Guatemala.

It appeared that, outside of Western Europe and North America, the world’s main model of government was authoritarianism, with either a right-wing or left-wing flavor. Democracy’s prospects didn’t look auspicious.

Yet, in just over a decade, the number of democracies in the world would almost double, as both communist regimes and military dictatorships on every continent gave way to representative governments. In nearly every case, these transitions were peaceful.

This was no accident. Structural forces and citizen activism primarily drove what political scientist Samuel Huntington would later dub the “Third Wave” of democratization. But Reagan’s policies also played a key role in encouraging and buttressing that wave, providing a playbook for helping reverse the anti-democratic trend today.

When Reagan entered office in January 1981, he intended to focus his human rights advocacy on the victims of communist persecution, while distancing himself from the pressure Jimmy Carter had applied on American-backed right-wing authoritarians to ease their abuses. The 1979 Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions had scarred Reagan and his team. Seeing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Anastasio Somoza — anti-communist autocrats who had generally supported American interests in return for U.S. support — toppled by anti-American revolutionary movements seemed to caution against destabilizing or jettisoning such regimes in favor of the unknown.

During his first year in office, therefore, Reagan hosted military dictators such as South Korea’s Chun Doo-hwan and Argentina’s Roberto Viola at the White House. He praised their anti-communism and pointedly refused to press them on human rights, even in private. Such indifference extended to the selection of key officials, such as Reagan’s nomination of Ernest Lefever to be the assistant secretary of state for human rights — despite the fact that Lefever had called for the bureau’s abolition the previous year.

Then, over a nine-month period from October 1981 to June 1982, new ideas, changed personnel and world events prompted Reagan to shift toward much more consistent and enthusiastic support for human rights and democracy with friend and foe alike.

First, in October, several senior State Department officials wrote memos urging the administration to elevate freedom as a policy priority. Paul Wolfowitz and Lawrence Eagleburger called human rights “the best opportunity to convey what is ultimately at issue in our contest with the Soviet bloc.” They cautioned, however, that “a human rights policy cannot be credible if it has impact only on pro-Soviet countries.” They urged the United States to be “a positive force for freedom and decency” with both allies and adversaries.

Three weeks later, Elliott Abrams, Richard Kennedy and Bill Clark made a similar argument. They contended that “the defense and promotion of liberty in the world” was the “very purpose” of American foreign policy. But they warned that, “If we act as if offenses against freedom don’t matter in countries friendly to us, no one will take seriously our words about Communist violations.”

Reagan found these arguments compelling enough to select Abrams to lead the human rights bureau — a notable upgrade over Lefever, whose nomination had been rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a bipartisan 13-4 vote.

Then, in December 1981, Poland’s communist regime, urged on by the Kremlin, imposed martial law in an effort to crush the burgeoning Solidarity labor movement. Solidarity’s courage showed Reagan the need — and opportunity — for the United States to provide broad-based economic and diplomatic support for democracy movements.

More positively, in March 1982, amid its civil war, El Salvador held free and fair elections, which demonstrated overwhelming popular support for democracy and a rejection of the communist FMLN movement (which had boycotted the elections, preferring instead to continue its armed insurgency). Reagan wrote in his diary of “the most inspiring stories about the people standing in line 10 to 12 hours in order to vote.”

A month later, the Argentine junta invaded the disputed Falklands/Malvinas islands and started a war with the United Kingdom. This reckless invasion showed Reagan that military dictatorships could be unstable and folly-prone partners.

These events and ideas culminated in the president’s Westminster address to the British Parliament on June 8, 1982. The speech is best remembered for his consignment of Marxism-Leninism to the “ash-heap of history,” but its real focus was laying out a positive vision of expanding democracy. “Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root,” Reagan noted. And despite signs of hope, democracy wouldn’t just grow by itself. Instead, “if the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.”

A few weeks later, Reagan reinforced this policy shift by replacing Secretary of State Al Haig, who was famously indifferent to human rights, with George Shultz, who would become a consistent champion of democracy.

Reagan and Shultz saw the Cold War primarily as a battle of ideas between Soviet communism and the democratic capitalism of the free world. They realized that exposing the oppression and penury of the Soviet system was necessary but not sufficient in this contest; they also had to show that free societies offered a better way of life.

Reagan put resources behind his rhetoric. His Westminster speech birthed the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and several affiliate organizations. These groups funded dissidents and democracy activists in nations such as South Korea, Taiwan and Chile. This support seeded the soil so that when popular discontent with dictatorships swelled, civil society organizations were sufficiently funded and organized to lead democratic transitions. The State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and, in some cases, the CIA provided additional types of support to activists, parties and movements working for democracy.

The Reagan administration also boosted broadcasters such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as they offered lifelines into closed societies, breaking the information monopolies that dictatorships depend on, and providing activists and ordinary citizens alike with news and inspiration.

Reagan, Shultz and other senior administration officials reinforced these resources with personal diplomacy. Sometimes in private, other times in public, they made clear that the United States stood with dissidents and activists working for freedom. At key moments, the Reagan administration informed dictators such as Chun, Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet and Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier that they needed to step aside or they would lose American support.

By the time Reagan left office, democratic transitions had taken place in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and several other once-authoritarian nations. Within a year, the Iron Curtain too would crumble, in part from Reagan’s policies, and the countries of Eastern Europe would also embrace democracy.

Today, democracy may be in decline, but there is still an upswell of activism in countries across the globe. Most prominently, citizens in Iran and China are engaged in massive protests against their oppressive governments, while many Russians voice growing outrage at Vladimir Putin’s brutal Ukraine invasion and accompanying repression.

That offers an opportunity for the U.S. to follow Reagan’s lead by providing encouragement and political, economic, informational and moral support to democracy activists around the world, as they try to steer the tides of history. It’s impossible to know if a fourth wave of democratization is waiting to form, but such efforts made a difference in the past, and they just might do so again.