The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Washington foreign policy legend issues a dire warning

Morton Halperin, right, and Herbert Scoville Jr. discuss a statement by the Federation of American Scientists at a news conference in Washington on Dec. 22, 1971. (Harvey Georges/AP)

America’s role as a promoter of freedom, democracy and universal rights is under unprecedented pressure both at home and abroad. All over the world, autocracy is on the march. The United States’ own democratic credibility is at a historic low. Yet legendary Washington foreign policy practitioner Morton Halperin is still optimistic that democracy can eventually prevail — if we fight for it.

Halperin, who served in senior national security posts under presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to Barack Obama, retired last month, ending a six-decade career in diplomacy and public service. Now 84, he worked in the Nixon administration under then-national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger, who secretly wiretapped him for 21 months. Halperin once held the No. 8 spot on President Richard M. Nixon’s enemies list. A note next to his name read: “A scandal would be helpful here.”

He oversaw the production of the Pentagon Papers, which documented the coverup of U.S. military failures in the Vietnam War. He literally wrote the book on bureaucratic politics and foreign policy. In between stints in government, Halperin worked for several civil society organizations advocating causes ranging from arms control to civil rights to government accountability. He founded an intergovernmental coalition called the Community of Democracies. His last posting was as a senior adviser to the Open Society Foundations.

Halperin is a proud liberal internationalist who dedicated his life to advancing the cause of democracy and human rights while seeking to prove that the United States could be a force for good in the world. Looking back on that career now, he said what has changed the most is that in the 21st century, the greatest threats to democracies come from within.

Follow Josh Rogin's opinionsFollow

“We thought the much greater danger was military coups,” he told me in an interview. “The real danger was the elected autocrat.”

In countries such as Hungary, Turkey and Egypt, he said, we see voters choosing strongmen who dismantle the democratic process and minority rights. Here at home, Donald Trump and his many supporters’ efforts to undermine and overturn free and fair elections, combined with their attacks on minorities, are a worrying escalation of the same trend. Trump and his GOP allies are betting that Americans view the defeat of their political enemies as more important than the preservation of democratic norms.

“I think we underestimated the degree to which people prefer to live in a country where the government represents their view of who the society is,” said Halperin. “The tyranny of the majority … that was a much more serious threat than I contemplated.”

As democracies are being tested internally, the world’s aggressive dictatorships are taking advantage, he warned. Since the end of the Cold War, autocrats have learned that they are more likely to survive internal dissent if they turn to violence against their own people. This has resulted in more repression and political persecution in countries like Myanmar, Syria and Iran.

“In a way, we’ve taught the autocrats that murder is the best option for them,” Halperin said. “Passive resistance works unless you have a leader who is willing to shoot people marching in the street.”

These days, Halperin’s neoliberal worldview is often derided as imperialist or overly aggressive. Americans are rightly wary of foreign intervention after failures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Halperin, who had a front-row seat to the Vietnam War, said that the critics have learned the wrong lessons. The problem with U.S. foreign policy since World War II has not been the extent to which it has promoted values such as freedom, democracy and human rights, he argued. The issue is rather that various U.S. governments have sided with leaders who had no real legitimacy.

“The fundamental lesson is, [we must] help people who are willing to risk their own lives to help themselves and who have the genuine nationalist support of their own people,” he said. “And the tragedy of Vietnam is, we chose the wrong side. Almost the most important thing in the Pentagon Papers is that Truman was told that Ho Chi Minh was the legitimate leader of Vietnam.”

Today, we in the United States face a world in which our international influence is lessened, people in other countries are less willing to work with us, and our internal will to fight for freedom and democracy has diminished. Nevertheless, Halperin said, Americans still have a duty to help those people abroad who are fighting for dignity and self-determination — wherever they emerge.

“There still continue to be democratic insurgencies, and I think we have to be there for them,” he said. “It’s hard to be optimistic, but you have to be. This is where we have to go. It’s going to take longer than we thought.”