Open Letter to U.S. Presidential Candidates

Publication Date: 
16 Mar 2016

News Type:

 Dear Presidential Candidates:

The United States is a country founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and for decades, support for democracy and human rights around the world has been a central tenet of American foreign policy. While the United States must maintain relations with many autocratic governments abroad, there are excellent reasons why most of our closest allies are democracies.

Free nations are more economically successful, more stable, and more reliable partners for the United States. Democratic societies are less likely to launch aggression and war against their neighbors or their own people. They are also less likely to experience state failure and become breeding grounds for instability and terrorism, as we have seen, for example, in Syria. This means that the advance of democracy serves U.S. interests and contributes to order and peace around the globe.

Over the past four decades, the number of countries that are free and democratic has more than doubled.  From Latin America and Central Europe to East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, people have opted for accountable government. This remarkable progress is rooted in the universal longing for liberty and dignity – but it is also due to America’s strong support for human rights and democracy, under administrations of both parties. This support has been not only a means of expressing the values upon which our nation was founded, but also a pragmatic choice to promote the governing system that advances security, provides stable markets, and protects human rights.  We write to urge you to embrace this cause and to make it a central part of your foreign policy platform.

In recent years, authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China have become more repressive; they see the advance of democracy not only within their borders but in neighboring states as a threat to their monopoly on political power. A regime’s treatment of its own people is often indicative of how it will behave toward its neighbors and beyond. Thus, we should not be surprised that so many of the political, economic and security challenges we face emanate from places like Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and Damascus.

Repressive regimes are inherently unstable and must rely on suppressing democratic movements and civil society to stay in power. They also are the source and exporter of massive corruption, a pervasive transnational danger to stable democratic governance throughout the world.

The result is that democracy is under attack. According to Freedom House, freedom around the world has declined every year for the past decade. That heightens the imperative for the United States to work with fellow democracies to reinvigorate support for democratic reformers everywhere.

Supporting freedom around the world does not mean imposing American values or staging military interventions. In non-democratic countries, it means peacefully and creatively aiding local activists who seek democratic reform and look to the United States for moral, political, diplomatic, and sometimes material support. These activists often risk prison, torture, and death struggling for a more democratic society, and their resilience and courage amid such threats demand our support. Helping them upholds the principles upon which our country was founded.

Supporting democracy involves partnerships between the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations that are struggling to bring freedom to their countries. Often, it means partnering as well with emerging democracies to strengthen their representative and judicial institutions. This requires resources that Congress must continue to provide, and foreign assistance must be linked to positive performance with regard to human rights and the advancement of fundamental freedoms.

It also requires diplomatic backing at the highest levels of the Executive Branch, throughout the different agencies of government, and from the Congress as well.  It means meeting with democratic activists from various parts of the world and speaking out on their behalf.  Demonstrating solidarity with and support for these brave individuals’ efforts to build a better future for their country is the right thing to do. In aiding their struggles for freedom and justice, we also build a more secure world for the United States.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to supporting democracy and human rights, but there are fundamental, universal features we should emphasize: representative institutions, rule of law, accountability, free elections, anti-corruption, free media (including the Internet), vibrant civil society, independent trade unions, property rights, open markets, women’s and minority rights, and freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion.

Many Americans question why the United States should have to shoulder the burdens of supporting freedom and democracy throughout the world. But a growing number of democracies in Europe and Asia, as well as international organizations, are expending significant resources to lend this kind of assistance. We should continue to build on our partnerships with like-minded organizations and countries, including relatively new democracies that are eager to help others striving for freedom. 

Some argue that we can pursue either our democratic ideals or our national security, but not both. This is a false choice. We recognize that we have other interests in the economic, energy, and security realms with other countries and that democracy and human rights cannot be the only items on the foreign policy agenda. But all too often, these issues get shortchanged or dropped entirely in order to smooth bilateral relationships in the short run. The instability that has characterized the Middle East for decades is a direct result of generations of authoritarian repression, the lack of accountable government, and the repression of civil society, not the demands that we witnessed during the Arab Spring of 2011 and since for dignity and respect for basic human rights.  In the longer run, we pay the price in instability and conflict when corrupt, autocratic regimes collapse.

Our request is that you elevate democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda. These are challenging times for freedom in many respects, as countries struggle to make democracy work and powerful autocracies brutalize their own citizens while undermining their neighbors. But these autocracies are also vulnerable. Around the world, ordinary people continue to show their preference for participatory democracy and accountable government. Thus, there is real potential to renew global democratic progress.

For that to happen, the United States must exercise leadership, in league with our democratic allies, to support homegrown efforts to make societies freer and governments more democratic. We ask you to commit to providing that leadership and to embracing the cause of democracy and human rights if elected president of the United States.

Thank you,

Elliott  Abrams, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs

David Adesnik           

Anne Applebaum       

Brian Atwood, Former Administrator, USAID

Hattie Babbitt, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States

Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center

Elizabeth Bagley, Former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal

Rodney Bent  

Howard Berman, Former Member of Congress

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca          

Dennis Blair, Sasakawa Peace Foundation, USA

James  Blanchard, Former U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Former Member of Congress, Former Governor of Michigan

Cole Bockenfeld, Project on Middle East Democracy

Paul Bonicelli

Ellen Bork, Foreign Policy Initiative

Jeanne Bourgault, Internews

Charles J.Brown, Strategy for Humanity

Nicholas Burns, Harvard University

Daniel Calingaert , Freedom House

Thomas Carothers, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Scott Carpenter          

Johnnie Carson, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

Richard Celeste, Former U.S. Ambassador to India, Former Governor of Ohio

Eliot A. Cohen

Jared Cohen   

Lorne Craner, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Seth Cropsey, Hudson Institute

John Danilovich, Former Chief Executive Officer, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica and Brazil

Robert Danin 

Aleksander Dardeli, IREX

Charles Davidson, Hudson Institute

Kim Davis, Charlesbank Capital Partners

Howard Dean, Former Governor of Vermont

Larry Diamond, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Paula Dobriansky, Former Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs

Thomas Donnelly, American Enterprise Institute

Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Charles Dunne, Middle East Institute 

Nicholas Eberstadt    

Eric Edelman, Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey

Lee Feinstein, Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland

Richard Fontaine       

Benjamin Freakley, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army (Ret), McCain Institute for International Leadership

Martin Frost, Former Member of Congress

Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University

Laurie Fulton, Former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark

Thomas Garrett, International Republican Institute

Jeffrey Gedmin

Sam Gejdenson, Former Member of Congress

Carl Gershman,National Endowment for Democracy

Mark Gitenstein, Former U.S. Ambassador to Romania

John K. Glenn

David Gordon

Mark Green, International Republican Institute

Shannon Green

Christopher Griffin

Barbara Haig, National Endowment for Democracy

Joseph Hall, Halifax International Security Forum

Amy Hawthorne, Project on Middle East Democracy

Bobby Herman,Freedom House

Donald L. Horowitz, Duke University

William Inboden, University of Texas-Austin

Karl F. Inderfurth, Former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs

Bruce Pitcairn Jackson

Robert Kagan 

Ted Kaufman, Former U.S. Senator

Richard Kauzlarich, Former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bosnia and Herzegovina, George Mason University

Zalmay Khalilzad, Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations

Monica V. Kladakis, McCain Institute for International Leadership

Jim Kolbe, Former Member of Congress

Richard Kraemer, National Endowment for Democracy

David J. Kramer, McCain Institute for International Leadership

Mark Lagon, Freedom House

Sam LaHood, International Republican Institute

Greg Lebedev

Delano Lewis, Former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa

Tod Lindberg, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Kristin Lord, IREX

Princeton Lyman

Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First

Michael McFaul, Stanford University

Gerald S. McGowan, Former U.S.  Ambassador to Portugal

Stephen McInerney, Project on Middle East Democracy

Michael Miklaucic, National Defense University

Joshua Muravchik

Moises Naim, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrew Nathan, Columbia University, National Endowment for Democracy

Andrew Natsios, Former Administrator, USAID

Diana Villiers Negroponte, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Constance Newman, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Carmen Group

Suzanne Nossel

Michael O'Hanlon, Brookings Institution

Gardner Peckham, Prime Policy Group

William Perry, 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense, Stanford University

J. Peter Pham , Atlantic Council

Ted Piccone, Brookings Institution

Marc F. Plattner, Journal of Democracy

Michael C. Polt, Former U.S. Ambassador to Serbia and Estonia, McCain Institute for International Leadership

Carlos Ponce, Freedom House

Keith Porter, The Stanley Foundation

Arch Puddington, Freedom House

Stephen Rickard, Open Society Policy Center

Nancy  Rubin, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

Dan Runde

Douglas Rutzen

Nadia Schadlow

Kori Schake, Hoover Institution

Randy Scheuneman   

Gary Schmitt 

Amanda Schnetzer, George W. Bush Institute

Nina Shea, Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom

George Shultz, 60th U.S. Secretary of State, Hoover Institution

Sichan Siv

David Skaggs, Former Member of Congress, National Endowment for Democracy

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State

Alan Solomont, Former U.S. Ambassador to Spain

John Sullivan

Louis Susman, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Bill Sweeney , International Foundation for Electoral Systems

Dorothy Douglas Taft, The Tantallon Group

Tomicah Tillemann

Harold Trinkunas, Brookings Institution

Robert H. Tuttle, National Endowment for Democracy

Daniel Vajdich, Atlantic Council

Peter Van Praagh, Halifax International Security Forum

Melanne Verveer, Former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

Christopher Walker, National Endowment for Democracy

Erin Walsh

Vin Weber, Mercury

George Weigel, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Jeremy Weinstein

Ken Weinstein, Hudson Institute

Maureen White, Johns Hopkins SAIS

Leon Wieseltier

Clint Williamson,Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, McCain Institute for International Affairs

Andrew Wilson, Center for International Private Enterprise

Tamara Wittes, Brookings Institution

Kenneth Wollack, National Democratic Institute

Diane Zeleny 

*Total signatories: 139.  Institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only.