Demonstrators outside of the White House on October 19, 2018Leah Millis / Reuters

Why do murders like those of Jamal Khashoggi and Farzad Barzoft, or disappearances like those of Pakistani blogger Samar Abbas  and Chinese professor Sun Wenguang happen? Simple. Because anti-democratic regimes believe they can get away with it. And because the United States and its allies have failed since the end of the Cold War to embrace a national-security strategy founded on values, rather than naked geopolitical interests, these regimes will largely be right.

Saudi Arabia may be at the center of attention right now, but it’s only one of a growing number of authoritarian regimes. Nations like North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Cuba crush dissent. States that at one time showed democratic hope—Russia, Venezuela, and Turkey—have now joined their ranks. And respect for civil liberties in democracies like South Africa, Poland, and Hungary is rapidly eroding.

Policymakers know autocratic stability is illusionary, and that dictatorships pose a threat to their own people, and often to the United States and its allies as well. But, Washington has neither the resources nor the skill to effect democratic global magic. It is one thing to recognize our limitations in rolling back dictatorships, though, and quite another to dismiss moral sense as the guidepost of our national-security strategy.

The questions of how the United States might help build a better world has confounded American leaders since the nation’s founding. Thomas Jefferson sensed early a special role for America, writing “it is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all Mankind,” even as his compatriot John Quincy Adams, who would also become president, inveighed against going abroad “in search of monsters.” Indeed, there have always been those on both the left and right in American politics who believe that aspirations for democratic transformation abroad are neither the business nor interest of the United States.

Yet especially during the Cold War, and again in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a constituency for what George W. Bush called the “freedom agenda.” In the chaotic aftermath first of the Iraq War and then the so-called Arab Spring, the idea once again fell into discredit. Barack Obama explicitly rejected a pro-democracy policy during his presidency, demonstrated both by his aloofness from more liberal forces in places like Syria and Libya, and his deliberate defunding of democracy programs in Washington. Donald Trump, for his part, has shown no inclination to disagree with Obama.

With Khashoggi’s murder, questions about the cost and wisdom of partnering with dictatorships are again at the center of public debate, even if some critics are motivated more by reflexive opposition to Trump’s stance than by principled commitment to democratization. Nonetheless, the confluence of Trump, anti-Trumpism, and the Khashoggi tragedy may provide an opportunity to restore the moral foundation of American national-security strategy and foreign policy.

Any reconsideration of a “freedom agenda” must start with an unflinching look at the failings of past endeavors. The problems are not limited to Iraq. Efforts to advance democratic norms elsewhere have also had a mixed record. Not only do myriad cultural, political, and economic headwinds stall transitions to democratic capitalism, too often the United States favors symbolism over substance, acquiescing to elections in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories before institutions are built and their populations truly embrace democracy.

How might U.S. policy makers revitalize the freedom agenda? The most important element of any such effort is an overt commitment to the moral principles of democratic capitalism: Free people and free markets, and all that entails. Like the Helsinki Accords of the 1970s that elevated human rights to the forefront of relations with the Soviet Union, that commitment will raise the priority of democratic transformation in all America’s foreign relations. Foreign dictators may appreciate the marriages of convenience with the United States that a larger battle against Iran or China affords them, but they would not mistake the ultimate goal of our foreign policy. To put it more crudely, deals over oil, trade, or counterterrorism will not grant carte blanche to jail, kidnap, or murder. Cooperation need not mean a pass on accountability.

Naysayers will point out that there are often cultural barriers to democracy, and that freer political systems can yield unsought outcomes, like the elevation of Islamists to political power. Their cautions are fair. But a commitment to democratic transformation should not mean a headlong rush to early elections, let alone revolution. First and foremost, incorporating a moral element to American global leadership can end dictators’ confusion about how to deal with the Khashoggis of the world. Dissidents should be able to look to Washington and know they have a patron, not for their every idea, but for their human rights. Only when dictators are unsure if freedom is an American priority do they come to believe they can murder with impunity.

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