The most recent attack on London—like Paris and Brussels before it—once again struck too close to home. The symbolism is clear. As British Prime Minister Theresa May remarked, “These streets of Westminster—home to the world’s oldest Parliament—are engrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe.”
Thirty-five years ago, it was in this same historic location that President Reagan issued a challenge to the world’s democracies to launch an active campaign to support the growth of democracy around the world. Reagan’s vision wasn’t merely idealistic. He recognized that America and the West’s chief geopolitical foe—the Soviet Union—could only be defeated by nurturing not just US military and economic preeminence, but also the superiority of our system of government and core values.
This wasn’t mere rhetoric. Reagan initiated a strategy that included support for free press, unions, political parties and educational institutions around the world to act as a firewall against communist subversion and interference. Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy and its subsidiary institutes (including the International Republican Institute, of which we are board members) to train activists seeking democratic reform in the basics of democratic governance. Radio Free Europe reached millions behind the Iron Curtain thanks to American funding, and even the distribution of underground dissident literature known as samizdat received support from the United States.
In the end, the dysfunctional and unsustainable communist system could not withstand the combination of hard power and a resolute commitment to advancing the values of democracy and freedom.
The world is different in many ways from what it was in 1982, yet we also face a global enemy committed to the destruction of democracy and its replacement with a totalitarian vision. The inhumanity of communism and its totalist vision of domination is present today in radical Islamic terrorism, which seeks to sow chaos and destroy the values of pluralism and individual freedom. As with the Soviet era, this new threat is the implacable enemy of American security and national interest.
As with the Cold War, this enemy cannot be vanquished by military might alone—though that is of course a crucial tool. We must also offer a powerful and positive alternative to the bleak way of life offered by extremists like the Islamic State; and must shore up global stability to resist their onslaught. One of the most effective ways to do this is by actively promoting democracy.
Foreign aid is often mistakenly characterized as charity. Yet the reality is that it is a powerful strategic instrument to advance US interests. By fostering the growth of democracy abroad, we limit costly and damaging conflicts that drive refugee flows and disrupt global commerce, straining our borders and our economy. Stable, democratic partners abroad protect our citizens and our trade at home.
It has also been argued that the money spent on foreign aid could be better utilized to address problems at home. This argument has a long vintage, and was also employed to undermine President Reagan’s multi-pronged campaign against communism. Then as now, it rests on a false premise.
We live in a globally interconnected world where what happens in the Middle East or any other part of the world can directly affect our communities at home, as we have unfortunately seen time and time again. To turn away from international engagement would not free us up to focus on problems at home. From World War II to today, history is full of examples of what happens when American leadership is absent: threats to global security, and to America itself, proliferate. Enemies are emboldened. And in the end, the US almost always absorbs the brunt of the problem.
Of course, we must acknowledge that democracy has suffered serious setbacks around the world in recent years. Much of what makes democracy so stable—such as freedom of expression, the separation of powers, and a diversity of opinions—can make progress slow and compromise arduous. In young or transitioning democracies without longstanding institutions, early attempts at political progress can be easily thwarted, leading some to conclude it would be easier to simply deal with a strongman.
This is shortsighted. Whatever difficulties may arise as a result from the growing pains of countries attempting the transition into democracy, two incontrovertible facts remain: democratic nations do not go to war with one another, and a sustainable, prosperous international trade regime is best delivered by democratic nations. Europe has witnessed this firsthand in the post-war period, when the devastated continent rapidly recovered as a result of democratic reform and free trade. And after the collapse of communism, the former Eastern bloc—once synonymous with economic despair—rapidly transitioned into vibrant democracies and capitalist economies.
Our challenge is as clear today as when President Reagan threw down the gauntlet in Westminster in 1982. We must respond to terrorism—whether at home or in the cities of our allies— with the same resolve that defeated Nazism and Communism. Working hand-in-hand with our European partners, including organizations like the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and on through diplomatic and military cooperation, we will defeat our common enemy. But our victory will only be complete and lasting with democratic values in our arsenal.
Kelly Ayotte and Frank J. Fahrenkopf are members of the board of directors at the International Republican Institute. Ayotte served as a Senator from New Hampshire from 2011-2017. Fahrenkopf was the Republican National Committee Chairman at the time of the formation of the International Republican Institute.