Are values back in vogue in foreign policy circles? Could it be that the years of cultural relativism of the Obama administration, aided and abetted by the United Nations and the European Union, are over? Will liberal democracies once again take a stand when faced with threats to freedom in the world?
Forty years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, foreign policy speeches and white papers in the West were steeped in the values of freedom and democracy. Leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would invoke liberal democratic values in their speeches when talking about the threat and challenge of communism, the Soviet Union and its client states. Reagan was clear-eyed about the evils of communism:
…while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
On moral relativism in international affairs, he cautioned against:
…the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label(ling) both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
For Thatcher, the distinction between right and wrong in foreign policy was clear: ‘…democracies are morally superior to all states which are subject to tyrannical governments’, and ‘a nation that denies … freedoms to its own people will have few scruples in denying them to others’. Thatcher, with Reagan by her side, began her leadership publicly recognising that ‘we in the West have a common interest and a common purpose. The pursuit and preservation of liberty’.
The repudiation of the Bush administration’s neoconservative agenda of muscular democracy promotion in Iraq and the West’s increasing timidity to defend our values put paid to such faith and pride in the liberal democratic tradition. Without the strong backing of democracy by the West, the democratic decline around the world, and particularly in Australia’s backyard in Southeast Asia, can hardly come as a surprise.
There are no true democracies in continental Southeast Asia, and political freedoms in island nations such as the Philippines are under concerted attack.
Nowhere is the trend of democratic decline in Southeast Asia more apparent than in Cambodia. At its best, Cambodia has only ever been a demi-democracy. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been prime minister since 1985 and as a result is the world’s longest serving prime minister. He has only ever allowed opposition voices to operate in a tightly controlled manner—in a system better described as competitive authoritarianism.
Despite decades of investment by Western governments and the international community, last year democracy in Cambodia effectively died. The Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the only effective opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), on the charge that it had conspired with foreigners to overturn the government. These ‘foreigners’ worked for the United States’ NGO, the National Democratic Institute (NDI). NDI, which forms part of the Reagan-initiated National Endowment for Democracy, had worked in Cambodia for the last 25 years to provide capacity building support for political parties and candidates from both the governing CPP and opposition parties. CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason, while another opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile due to defamation charges against him. In addition, the government closed the leading English-language national newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, and 15 radio stations. This followed the murder of high profile political commentator and government critic, Kem Ley, in 2016 in broad daylight.
At local elections last year, the CNRP had won almost 44 per cent of the seats. With the CNRP now out of the way, Hun Sen’s governing Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) has a clear run to win this year’s election.
It’s hardly surprising that Cambodia scored a dismal 30 out of 100 on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report, and recorded a net downward trend for freedom. Australia and likeminded nations have issued statements condemning Cambodia’s democratic decline, but these criticisms clearly lack influence and fall on deaf ears. Australia currently invests close to $90 million in overseas development assistance in Cambodia. Even if Australia cut off this aid (which mainly focuses on infrastructure, agriculture, and health and education), the likelihood is Cambodia would fill the gap with contributions from countries less questioning of Cambodia’s commitment to democracy and freedom. China’s role in enabling Cambodia’s democratic decline is notable. Importantly, it has outstripped the United States as Cambodia’s biggest single aid donor.
China’s replacement of the United States and its allies as the key economic and strategic partner for countries like Cambodia means authoritarians are empowered and their number growing. China’s rise has given authoritarians like Hun Sen comfort that economic success does not require concessions to democracy and freedom.
The Trump Administration is correct in clearly identifying great power competition with the so-called revisionist powers of China and Russia as the United States’ central security challenge. In its National Defense Strategy released in January 2018, the Trump Administration called out China and Russia for wanting to ‘change the international order in their favour’ and ‘shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.’ This diagnosis is important because it aligns the United States’ security interests with its liberal democratic values.
Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017 also had a welcome focus on the values of ‘political, economic and religious freedoms, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality and mutual respect’ as ‘a critical component of the foundation upon which we build our international engagement’. Importantly, the White Paper, like the US National Defense Strategy, states that Australia’s:
support internationally for these values also serves to advance our national interests. Societies that observe these values will be fairer and more stable. Their economies will benefit as individual creativity is encouraged and innovation rewarded.
While incorporating values into our foreign policy statements is welcome, time will tell whether our actions match these words. Francis Fukuyama’s prognosis that the death of communism marked the ‘end of history’ and triumph of liberalism over all other ideologies was clearly premature.
The next ideological battle between our liberal democracies and the forces of authoritarianism is one we cannot lose, but declining support for liberal democratic values in our own nations means we come ill-prepared.