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How Biden Can Help International Democracy Protesters

Beyond lip service and symbolic sanctions.
July 29, 2021
How Biden Can Help International Democracy Protesters
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Mass protests in Cuba this summer. An uprising across several cities in Iran, including Tehran. Months of protests last year in Belarus. It appears that, even though some of the world’s democracies are flirting with authoritarianism, freedom hasn’t run out of gas: There is still a great desire for democracy around the world.

But it requires our support. The Communist regime in Cuba has cracked down on the protesters, leaving them desperate and fearful. At least ten people have been killed in Iran over two weeks of protests. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko managed to suppress the protests in Belarus and made future protests there illegal. In those countries and beyond, millions of people are risking their everything for freedom.

President Joe Biden has spoken movingly about the challenges to democracy. “Autocrats will not win the future,” he has pledged. But there is no rule of nature that suggests this. If we want the future not to belong to tyranny, the United States must do more to help democracy movements around the world.

The president can start by ordering the development of a National Democracy Strategy to protect existing democracies and support dissidents in undemocratic countries.

There is immense value in having such a strategy in place. The Obama administration was caught off guard by both the 2009 Green Movement in Iran and the 2010-12 Arab Spring. Unprepared for the protests, the United States missed golden opportunities on both occasions. The Trump administration fared worse since the president had no interest in democracy promotion. This is unlike Joe Biden, who campaigned on reviving democracy, and who has a long history as a senator of supporting human rights.

Promoting democracy takes more than lip service and economic sanctions. Here are a few of the other tools that ought to be included in a National Democracy Strategy.

Support for civil society organizations and resistance. Street protests are often evanescent; civil society groups can provide a permanence and substance to democratic longings. The United States should identify promising pro-democracy groups in repressed countries and offer support. That includes funding them (and even arming them), when necessary through clandestine operations. In the case of labor unions—think of the anti-Soviet trade union Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s—U.S. support should allow them to go and remain on strike.

Campaigns of diplomatic pressure. The United States should encourage other democracies, too often hesitant because of commercial interests to support human rights, to come out in support of the democracy movements in Cuba, Iran, and Belarus. Foreign business in these corrupt economies is only possible if you are part of the ruling elite, and it hardly helps the average citizen, yet it strengthens the state. Relatedly, Congress should pass a law that imposes secondary sanctions on entities that engage in commercial business in those states.

Speak up for protesters. Senior U.S. officials must rapidly and frequently express their support for these freedom fighters. (Curiously and egregiously, no public statement from a high-level Biden administration official seems to have been made concerning the protests in Iran after two weeks.) Further, U.S. officials ought to meet with dissidents abroad and even domestic resistance leaders when appropriate. And while we’re on this point, let’s dispel a fallacy: It’s sometimes suggested that authoritarian regimes would use U.S. support for protesters as a justification to crack down on them. Regardless of U.S. support, however, these regimes will crack down on protests anyway. So if protesters are willing to risk their lives to meet with the U.S. secretary of state or other officials, we must concede that it is their prerogative, not ours, to make calculations about the risk to their lives for a greater cause.

Ensure access to information. Iran’s parliament has already begun measures to cut access to the internet and replace it with a sort of national intranet. If Iran succeeds, other autocrats will follow the lead. The Biden administration, in coordination with the European Union and other democracies, must make it clear that such a measure will mean a permanent alienation of Iran and a total ban on Iranian imports. Further, the administration should invest in technologies to expand access to unregulated internet within oppressive states.

The success of one freedom movement, with visible and meaningful U.S. support, may have a chain effect that will encourage hopeful liberals in other countries to rise against their oppressors. There is no better way to ensure that “autocrats will not win the future.”

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.