US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is emerging as the global face of the US support for democracy worldwide. Her trip to Armenia over the weekend in the wake of clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia follows one to Taiwan in August. In both trips, and in many other meetings and speeches, she has spoken up about the importance of defending democracy globally.
The Biden administration had promised that the US would be “back” under Joe Biden’s leadership, and it is Pelosi and her recent trips that have shown how the US can be “back” in its support for values like democracy.
In August, in Taiwan, she said that the US commitment to the country and its democracy was “ironclad.” Her trips to Taiwan and Armenia are important because in both cases these are small states that face major hurdles and those hurdles are linked to authoritarianism. The rise of authoritarian countries and their decision to work together against the US has threatened smaller states. Some small countries have simply joined the league of authoritarians.
League of authoritarians
At the meetings in Uzbekistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of authoritarians gathered around Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Iran joined the SCO last week, and Russia and China hobnobbed. China’s leader said new “color revolutions” must be prevented when he met with Putin. The message was clear: Russia and China, working with Turkey and Iran, will work to suppress and crush democracy and dissent worldwide.
Meanwhile, in Armenia, Pelosi said, “Democracy is a very fragile thing” in comments on September 18. She said that security and democracy go together. She added that the US would do everything to care for democracy in Armenia.
When Pelosi was in Taiwan she said that countries were facing “a choice between democracy and autocracy.” She said the same thing in Armenia. She also said it means a great deal to stand with democracies. “We want to be helpful in discreet ways.”
In Taiwan she had said, “America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad,” during a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. In Armenia she quoted Benjamin Franklin’s comments about the need to have security and freedom. The point she was making is you need security to protect freedom, but you can’t just have security, you need freedom and democracy internally to maintain it.
Online Pelosi also sounded the same notes about democracy. “Today, I am leading a congressional delegation to Armenia to highlight the strong commitment of the United States to security, economic prosperity and democratic governance in Armenia and the Caucasus region,” she wrote. She memorialized the Armenian genocide as well. The Biden administration broke with previous administrations and has memorialized the mass murder of Armenians in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
Nancy Pelosi's trip to Armenia
“It is the moral duty of all to never forget; an obligation that has taken on heightened urgency as atrocities are perpetrated around the globe, including by Russia against Ukraine. Our congressional delegation’s visit to Armenia is a powerful symbol of the United States’ firm commitment to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Armenia, and a stable and secure Caucasus region,” Pelosi said.
Before her arrival, Pelosi had spoken about the G7 and the importance of democratic values in Europe. “We discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and our ongoing fight against autocracy around the world,” she said. This comes as the EU Parliament has said that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy.
“Overall, [The European Parliament] expresses regrets that the lack of decisive EU action has contributed to a breakdown of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary, turning one of its member states into a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy,” the report about Hungary read. Pelosi’s trip and the EU states singling out Hungary are all part of powerful rhetoric coming out of the West about democracy. This is a shift from years ago when Western countries took democracy for granted and appeared to loathe any more interventions abroad to push for democratization.
The world has gone through several eras of democratization. However, there have also been eras in which democratic institutions have been toppled and rolled back. One of those eras was in the 1930s.
In the last two decades, many democracies have also come under assault. The rise of extremists like the current ruling party of Turkey have deeply harmed democracy and human rights. However, even Western human rights groups have become corrupted as autocracies pour money into them and into Washington-based think tanks to hijack the West from within.
For instance there are think tanks in the US that partner with Ankara’s regime. There are some human rights groups who claim to speak up about authoritarianism but are paid by authoritarians to target other authoritarians. These groups use the language of human rights while working to closely protect dictators.
Pelosi the champion
PELOSI HAS EMERGED as an unlikely champion of democracy around the world in an era when many US politicians and organizations are afraid to disturb the status quo. Some of them have bad memories of the 1990s and 2000s, when the US became a kind of global policeman. They also know that anger about US meddling has led to the opposite effect the US intended in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition, there are voices in the US, such as the Iran lobby and various figures, who describe themselves as “realists” or “pragmatists” and support a US foreign policy in which the US will work with Russia to “balance” China, or work with Turkey against Iran. Some have even suggested working with Iran against the Gulf states. Many of these voices seem to adore dictatorships. They prefer a “stable” authoritarian regime that can be used rather than a complex democracy.
The Middle East is an arena in which there appears to be little chance of new democracies emerging. There are countries with democratic institutions such as Israel, but there are many that have seen any struggle for democracy eroded. In some cases the countries that have supported extremism, such as Qatar or Turkey, have been US partners or allies. This is an ironic trend, where the US partner and ally will crush democracy, even as US leaders talk about US “values.”
For instance, the US backs the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria in the fight against ISIS. The main country attacking the SDF and using drones to kill civilians in eastern Syria is NATO-member Turkey, a country that suppresses democracy. Turkey also has worked to stop democracies from joining NATO, threatening to veto Sweden and Finland’s applications.
Ankara was also at the SCO this month, hanging out with autocracies. This means the US has an unenviable record of being an ally of countries that do the most to destroy democracy. The trips by Pelosi show that the US can turn a corner on this trend of either legitimizing authoritarians or excusing and ignoring them for “realpolitik.”
Another trend that is being confronted is the tendency of some on the Right in the US to embrace authoritarians. For instance, the Hungarian system, and even Russia, have figured prominently in some right-wing magazines and talking points as inspirations for the Right. This shift in the American Right, from a movement that generally liked democratic institutions and opposed the breakdown of law and order, to ideologies inspired by authoritarians abroad, means that commitment to democracy spans a foreign and domestic struggle in the United States.
Pelosi’s decision to use shuttle diplomacy and travel to places where she sees democracy being threatened, to spread the message of US commitment is important. The question that many countries will ask, such as those who attended the SCO last week, is whether the US will really stand with Armenia, Taiwan and other countries.