Ronald Reagan’s Westminster Address after Four Decades: A Strategy for Recovering Democratic Momentum

Remarks delivered by NED President Carl Gershman

The 27th Estoril Political Forum       June 25, 2019

Joao has asked me to speak about the enduring relevance of Ronald Reagan’s Westminster Address, delivered in the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, and whether it offers a guide to recovering democratic confidence and momentum at a very different moment in world history.  As we know, the basic purpose of the address was to challenge the Soviet Union ideologically by calling for a campaign to promote democracy in the world.  It led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, the organization that I lead, and it remains the foundational document for efforts to aid democracy internationally, which is now an established and well-funded field of international activity.

The address is also remembered for its prophetic power.  Speaking not long after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when Moscow seemed to have the upper hand in the Cold War, Reagan boldly declared that the Soviet Union faced “a great revolutionary crisis.”  Its protracted economic decline, he said, was rooted in the nature of the communist system that denied people the freedom necessary for economic progress in the modern world.  Calling the dimensions of the communist failure “astounding,” he famously predicted that Marxism-Leninism would end up “on the ash heap of history.”

Reagan was indeed correct in his prediction.  Before the decade was over, communism had collapsed in Central Europe, and the Soviet Union then imploded two years later.  But the Westminster Address was much more than presidential oratory with prophetic power.  It was also a democracy manifesto that proclaimed the coming global triumph of liberty and human dignity.

Reagan laid out in the speech what he called “a plan and a hope for the long run.”  He said that as “the end of a bloody century” approached, the world had reached “a turning point,” and it had become possible to think of a new era of expanded freedom.  To help bring about such a transformation, he proposed launching “a global campaign for freedom” that would strengthen the prospects for democracy and world peace.

Reagan’s optimism about democracy’s future seems entirely unsuited to the contemporary period of democratic pessimism.  Yet he, too, was speaking at a moment of widespread pessimism about the prospects for democracy.  The U.S. was still reeling from the defeat in Vietnam, the Solidarity movement had just been suppressed in Poland, and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and seemed bent on continuing expansion.  Not long before Reagan spoke at Westminster, President Jimmy Carter had said that a “crisis of confidence” in America threatened the country’s “social and political fabric,” and Daniel Patrick Moynihan had declared on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 that democracy ”is where the world was, not where it is going.”

Nonetheless, Reagan countered the voices of pessimism with an unusually hopeful vision of the future.  He said that while “optimism comes less easily today” when “democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression,” it was nonetheless in order “because day by day democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all-fragile flower.” He went so far as to proclaim that “around the world today the democratic revolution is gathering new strength.”  Reagan was speaking at the very early stages of what Samuel H. Huntington was later to call “the third wave of democratization.” But this was a time when almost no one foresaw the dramatic changes that lay ahead.  According to Freedom House, the number of free countries in the world increased from 52 to 88 in the 15 years following Reagan’s address, and the number of electoral democracies climbed to 125 by 2005, almost two-thirds of the world’s countries.  This really was “the democratic revolution” that Reagan had foreseen – the greatest and most rapid expansion of democracy in human history.

Such an expansion today seems very unlikely since, as Huntington wrote in The Third Wave, the political, cultural, and economic obstacles to democracy in the world’s remaining authoritarian countries in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia are very formidable.  Nonetheless, it’s significant that despite these obstacles, and the political backsliding that has occurred in a number of countries, democracy has made significant and unexpected gains.

In 2018, for example, surprising breakthroughs were achieved in Ethiopia, Armenia, and Malaysia, all countries with considerable influence in their respective regions.  In each case, popular uprisings occurred against authoritarian governments that were corrupt and unaccountable.  Significantly, the changes in these three countries appear to be part of a larger trend, since according to one study, corruption-driven leadership changes have occurred in more than ten percent of the world’s governments over the past five years.

Corruption was also the reason for the resounding defeat of Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine, even though he had governed democratically, achieved important reforms, and graciously conceded defeat, showing the world a needed model of democratic civility and restraint.  The inauguration last month of President Volodymyr Zelensky, a newcomer from outside the political establishment who campaigned on a program of bold reform, is a sign of how far Ukraine has come in consolidating democracy since the Euromaidan revolution in 2014.  Ukraine is a pivotal country since a successful transition there would have a powerful democratizing influence in neighboring Russia.  A democratic Ukraine is Putin’s worst nightmare.

These changes are taking place at a time when even the most formidable authoritarian systems in the world are showing great and possibly even fatal vulnerabilities.  “Any system is inherently unstable,” Reagan said at Westminster, “that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders.  In such cases, the very repressiveness of the state ultimately drives people to resist it….”  While the Westminster Address was focused on the Soviet Union, Reagan was very explicit in emphasizing that his words had universal relevance.  When he predicted that the march of freedom would leave Marxism-Leninism on “the ash-heap of history,” he was careful to add that this is where “it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”  Anticipating the “Asian values” argument that was promoted by Lee Kwan Yew and others in the 1990s, he said that “It would be cultural condescension, or worse to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”

The authoritarian resurgence of recent years and the resilience of the dictatorships in Cuba, China, and other countries do not contradict Reagan’s belief in democratic universalism and the inherent instability of dictatorial systems.  Even in this relatively gloomy period, none of today’s authoritarian strongmen sits securely on his throne.  Putin and other autocrats repeatedly warn about the danger of allegedly foreign-instigated “color revolutions,” which is an implicit admission that they fear the test of a real election that they might lose, knowing that the trigger for a color revolution would be an attempt to reverse an unacceptable result, as happened with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004.  The many repressive measures taken by authoritarian regimes – among them the crackdown on civil society, the passage of harsh NGO laws, the repression of independent media, and the attempt to bring cyberspace under government control – also show that they lack popular support and know that their rule would not survive a process of free and fair political competition.  The recent public outcry in Russia that forced the release of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was a humiliation for Putin and exposed his vulnerability.

Many other authoritarian regimes today are experiencing grave and, in some cases, systemic crises.  The most obvious example is Venezuela, where the economy has imploded and millions of desperate people have fled to neighboring countries.  Cuba, which is facing its worst economic crisis since the the fall of the Soviet Union, fears that its own survival could be endangered by the fall of Maduro, which is why it is doing whatever it can to keep him in power.  Similarly endangered is the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, which has used massive force in an effort to suppress a popular uprising that erupted in April 2018.

The Islamist regime in Iran is yet another dictatorship whose survival is being threatened by economic failure and popular uprisings in cities like Qom and Mashad that traditionally have been strongholds of the Revolutionary Guards.  A recent article published by the Revolutionary Guard’s news agency Tasnim was entitled “Is the Islamic Republic on the brink of collapse?”  And in Turkey, which has been downgraded to Not Free in the latest Freedom House survey, Erdogan’s losses in the recent local elections and the combination of rising inflation and a falling lira show a regime that is in deep crisis.  The victory of the opposition in Sunday’s rerun of the Istanbul mayoral vote that Erdogan insisted on is another stunning defeat that deepens the crisis of his regime.

There has also been a revival of political unrest in the Middle East, where massive street protests have ousted Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as well as Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, though regional dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates – and Russia as well – have intervened in Sudan to try to prevent a democratic transition.  Almost a decade after the abortive Arab Spring, the potential for rebellion against repressive and unaccountable rulers in the Middle East is as great as ever, as is the resistance to democratic change.

The big test is China where President Xi Jinping claimed in his 2017 speech to the Communist Party’s 19th Congress that China is “blazing a new trail” of authoritarian development that is “a new option” for countries seeking modernization.  Xi hopes that the “surveillance state” that he is constructing, using the most advanced digital tools, among them facial-recognition technology, to monitor and control the population, will enable China to avoid the kind of political opening that has occurred in almost every other middle-income autocracy that is not a petrostate.

Minxin Pei has written in the Journal of Democracy that Xi is likely to fail because the four principal symptoms of decay in an autocratic regime are already far advanced in China: 1) The official communist ideology has completely atrophied; 2) the economy is growing at the slowest rate in 30 years, eroding the regime’s performance-based legitimacy and increasing its fears of social unrest; 3) official corruption is pervasive, by the regime’s own admission, and 4) party unity has weakened as Xi has increasingly centralized power in this own hands.  This explains why Xi told party officials earlier this years that the regime “faces major risks on all fronts and must batten down the hatches.”  The sight of almost two million people marching for democracy in the streets of Hong Kong could not have been reassuring.

Because of the human aspiration for freedom and the inherent instability of authoritarianism– both points central to Reagan’s vision – we could be approaching the end of the democracy recession.  For that to happen, and for democracy to regain significant forward momentum, we will have to recover another Reagan attribute, which is a commitment to waging the battle of ideas.  “Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace,” Reagan said at Westminster, “but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used, for the ultimate determinant in the struggle that’s now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.”  Like William Faulkner, who once said that “man will not merely endure: he will prevail” because of his indomitable spirit, Reagan understood the importance of democratic ideas and values in the contest between free societies and their opponents.

Many people believe that this competition had ended with the anti-communist revolutions of 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought an end to the Cold War.  But the ideological struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism did not begin with the Cold War, nor did it end with the collapse of communism.  The United States was a champion of liberal values and an opponent of authoritarianism from the moment it rebelled against Great Britain in 1776.  It was a beacon of hope for 19th Century European liberals like Louis Kossuth and Giuseppe Mazzini, and it has continued to represent liberal values even after the fall of communism, when people fighting for democracy against the world’s many remaining authoritarian regimes have looked to the United States for political support and moral solidarity.

One of the people who immediately saw the new shape of global ideological competition after the Cold War was our late friend Marty Lipset, who wrote in 1995 that “almost everywhere outside the older democracies, there is a democratic and an anti-democratic party, or to put it less elegantly, an American and an anti-American party.  The global struggle is no longer linked to nuclear weapons or submarines, but it goes on….America, having succeeded in the Cold War, must not abandon the field of battle in the continuing and far less costly struggle to build free societies for the twenty-first century and beyond.”  The recent global backlash against liberal democracy and the emergence of a new authoritarian international composed of Russia, China, and Iran as well as authoritarian states in the Middle East and other regions underlines the continuing relevance of Reagan’s emphasis on the importance of affirming democratic values and ideas in the global struggle for freedom.

Finally, the Westminster Address also provides a model of civic nationalism, without which liberal democracy will be unable to defend itself against resurgent authoritarianism.  In the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, Reagan demonstrated in the Westminster Address that there is no contradiction whatsoever between a proud affirmation of fundamental American values and a commitment to democratic universalism.  It was precisely because he believed that “democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences” that he wanted the United States, Great Britain, and other Western democracies to promote democratic values and institutions throughout the world.  He did so with immense patriotism and confidence.  “Let us be shy no longer,” he proclaimed.  “Let us go to our strength.  Let us offer hope.  Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable.”

No democratic leader today speaks with such confidence and conviction about the importance of democracy and human freedom.  On the contrary, the United States and other Western democracies are suffering from a profound crisis of confidence that has three fundamental causes.  The first is that democratic leaders and liberal intellectuals have been demoralized and disoriented by the rise of populist and nationalist movements in reaction to the erosion of traditional religious, communal, and cultural norms and institutions.  Bob Kagan has noted that this reaction has taken the form of an anti-liberal backlash because the assault on traditional customs and beliefs has been launched in the name of liberalism by what he calls “progressive liberalism.”  I think there is much truth to that.

A second cause is the bias against the nation-state by global elites whose thinking dominates global institutions and intellectual debate.  According to economist Dani Rodrik, their globalist mindset alienates ordinary citizens and is also analytically mistaken, since the critical economic decisions that affect their well-being are taken at the domestic and not the international level.  He calls the nation-state “the foundation of the capitalist order” and worries that the globalist mindset that weakens it will open “political paths for Right-wing populists to hijack patriotism for destructive ends.”

The third cause of this crisis is the way the rise of social media has affected politics in democratic societies.  According to a cluster of articles published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, social media erodes democratic politics in three ways: It encourages polarization by isolating people into separate “social-media echo chambers; it degrades the culture of democracy by fostering incivility and intolerance; and it undermines truth by providing platforms for the spread of rumors and lies, a tendency that has been encouraged by Russia and other malign foreign actors.

We will need to develop a regulatory framework and other measures that will make the new technologies work for democracy and not just for shareholders of Internet companies.  But that needs to be part of a much larger effort to revive the democratic political center at a time of extreme polarization.  The need for a new and unifying civic patriotism is a central idea of The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, which asserts that civic nationalism is not just compatible with liberal democracy but a necessary component of it.  According to the Appeal, “While democracy embodies universal values, it exists in a particular national context, what Vaclav Havel called the ‘intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning.’  Democratic citizenship, rooted in such traditions, needs to be strengthened, not allowed to atrophy in an era of globalization.  National identity is too important to be left to the manipulation of despots and demagogic populists.”

The civic nationalism affirmed by The Prague Appeal is an essential feature of the Westminster Address and the spirit that Reagan brought to the issue of democratic internationalism.  He affirmed a very powerful sense of identity when he asked, quoting Churchill when he rallied the British people against the Nazis, “What kind of a people do they think we are?”  The answer, Reagan said, was “Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.”

We hear such words today as a faint echo from a distant and very different era.  Yet they remain relevant at a time when new and very dangerous threats to liberal democracy have arisen.  To meet these threats, we will have to relearn how to speak about democratic values and how to respond to new challenges with eloquence and practical ideas – and with a vision that can rally people to the cause of human freedom.  I think that’s possible, and the Westminster Address offers a model of how it can be done.  I also think that gatherings such as this will help clarify our thinking, raise our morale, and strengthen our capacity to address the present and future challenges to liberty with confidence and resolve.