In 2004, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky publishedThe Case for Democracy, a small but significant volume on the power of freedom. Given the seemingly endless stories of tyranny and violence in the Middle East and skepticism in some corners over the possibility of democracy ever taking hold in Iraq, perhaps it’s time for a reminder of what this remarkable man had to say—and why: “I was inspired to write this book by those who are skeptical of the power of freedom to change the world. I felt that the arguments of these skeptics had to be answered. The three main sources of skepticism are first, that not every people desires freedom; second, that democracy in certain parts of the world would be dangerous; and third, that there is little the world’s democracies can do to advance freedom outside their countries. This skepticism is the same skepticism I heard a generation ago in the USSR when few thought that a democratic transformation behind the Iron Curtain was possible.”
If the skeptics had been right, millions of people across the former communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe would not live in freedom today. Brave dissidents like Mr. Sharansky and the late Vaclav Havel helped lead the cries for freedom and went on to become global democratic leaders. And they did so with the support of the United States and other free societies. More than two decades later, countries like Poland, Estonia, and the Czech Republic are now vibrant democracies and belong to NATO and the European Union.
That said, it’s hard to avoid the fact that in the years since Mr. Sharansky’s book came out the world has witnessed an overall decline in freedom, according to the human rights watchdog Freedom House. Around the world, the organization notes, authoritarian regimes are using more forceful tactics to oppress their people. A “return to the iron fist” is how Arch Puddington of Freedom House put in in a recent essay.
Today, most of the former Soviet republics are under the thumb of autocratic governments, foremost among them Russia. China, despite advances that have lifted millions of people out of poverty, still accounts for more than half of the 2.6 billion people around the globe who are not free. In Venezuela, democracy and the free market are in free fall. And in the Middle East, the human suffering caused by ISIS, the persistence of the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and the deepening of oppression in Egypt are enough to make the Arab Spring seem like a distant memory.
So are the skeptics right this time? Does most of the world truly not desire freedom? Is it not in the strategic and moral interests of the United States and other democracies to help advance freedom?
Here at the Bush Institute, we’re taking the long view and placing our bets on brave women and men from places like Burma, North Korea, Syria, and Tunisia who, like Natan Sharansky a generation ago, have a vision for their societies that is rooted in freedom.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a participant in the Liberty and Leadership Forum, sees education reform as an essential component of building democracy in Burma. She helps lead one of the most important student organizations in her country. Even though authorities recently arrested Phyoe Phyoe and other student leaders for their nonviolent protests, she remains steadfast in her belief in the transformative power of freedom.
Joseph Kim witnessed his father’s death from starvation in North Korea and escaped to freedom as a teenager. Now a student in the United States, he tells his story to help expose the suffering of the North Korean people. His TED Talk on YouTube has more than 1.4 million views. Joseph met with President Bush last fall in Dallas and recently published his memoir,Under the Same Sky.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian democracy activist who exchanged radical Islamism for the Federalist Papers after studying in the United States, is featured in the Freedom Collection and recently shared his story with educators from across North Texas. “I don´t know how many people can say the Federalist Papers actually inspired them to quit their fanatical sort of outlook on life,” he says, “but to me …that was really empowering.”
Dalal Ep Krichen, a Women’s Initiative Fellow from Tunisia, is dedicating herself to ensuring greater representation of women in politics. In preparation for the Tunisian parliamentary elections in October 2014, she registered more than 3,500 women to vote. She helped field over 120 female political candidates for the Tunisian national elections and worked with them to develop skills for governing. Her motto: “Don’t let anyone take away your dream.”
Like Natan Sharansky a generation ago, the stories of men and women like Phyoe Phyoe, Joseph, Ammar, and Dalel keep the skeptics’ view in doubt today. Even in the Middle East, where the democracy deficit is the starkest in the world and the immediate outlook is bleak, there’s no doubt that the universal tug of freedom is present there as well. The United States needs to stand by the ones who feel it and help them achieve their vision. As President Bush once put it, “America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on.”
Amanda Schnetzer is the Director of the Human Freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.