The notion that democratic governments, including the United States, should promote democracy abroad has come under intense criticism. Critics write of the "folly of exporting democracy" or of the "failure" of democracy promotion. Others deride support for human rights advocates and press freedom in closed societies as incursions on sovereignty.
Some argue that America, especially, is naive to expect that its efforts can expand freedom's reach in authoritarian settings. Naive, because Americans do not recognize that for many people, security and jobs have much more value than electoral procedures or a free press.
These arguments have a familiar ring. Apologists for the Soviet system and proponents of Asian values have claimed that democracy was unsuitable for certain societies, by which they meant central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, as well as societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Today, central Europe is solidly democratic, as is most of Latin America, much of Asia, and parts of Africa, too. As the late US Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan cogently observed: "There is no nation so poor that it cannot afford free speech...."
Listening to today's demoskeptics, one could easily get the impression that the people of Iran, Belarus, or Zimbabwe are hostile to political freedom and opposed to assistance from the international community. In fact, the inability to move the democratic revolution forward in these and other societies can be traced to a familiar source: ruling elites who fear that change will jeopardize their power. In the debate over democracy promotion, this point trumps all other arguments.
Today's autocrats are less concerned with political dissidents than with civil society – the media, women's-rights organizations, minority-rights groups, and think tanks that have blossomed in recent years. The rise of such groups has triggered a furious backlash. But the techniques used to muzzle them are more sophisticated than the brutality employed by the Soviets or South American juntas.
Regimes often act in ways that are superficially legalistic. State authorities will discover irregularities in an organization's registration documents; the tax police will find that an organization owes millions in back taxes; the authorities will accuse an organization of pursuing a mission hostile to the national interest. Some regimes have passed laws outlawing foreign funding of local nongovernmental organizations. This is a critical issue, because in many societies there are either no viable domestic sources of support, or the regimes themselves have prevented domestic funding of organizations that have inconvenient messages.
By focusing obsessively on foreign funding and "sovereignty," authoritarians such as Russian President Vladimir Putin are trying to deflect attention from the real issue – the state's attempts to crush virtually all independent voices, no matter what the source of their funding.
If democracy advocates have been naive, it is in not having foreseen the ruthlessness with which the resistance to democracy has been waged. One after another, centers of independent thought and civic engagement have been extinguished with scarcely a murmur of protest from the outside world.
The autocrats have even established mechanisms of international collaboration to stifle civil society. Consider the statement issued at last year's summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which consists of Russia, China, and several central Asian countries. It attacked democracy assistance by asserting that "the right of every people to its own path of development must be fully guaranteed."
Democracy advocates have also not anticipated the intellectual support for the push-back from commentators in the democratic world. Driven by their hatred of the Bush administration or by admiration for Russia and China, they are voicing doubts about the appropriateness of outside efforts to promote freedom.
Both freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those rights, and the role of the international community in supporting them, are now questioned.
In recent years, repressive regimes have outmaneuvered the democracies to prevent criticism of their practices at the United Nations. That's why democratic governments must collaborate to launch an investigation into the global campaign against civic independence, and to reassert the universally accepted freedoms that are the foundations for the UN's existence.
More important, democracy's supporters need to emerge from their current state of self-doubt. We have an obligation to speak up for those who are being silenced, jailed, and murdered by their authorities. This is not the first time that freedom's adversaries have taken the initiative. Current conditions may demand new strategies. But on the universality of freedom, there should be no second thoughts – and no apologies.
• Jennifer Windsor is executive director of Freedom House.