The new Thirty Years’ War?

middle_east-450x320Today’s Middle East risks incurring something akin to Europe’s seventeenth century Thirty Years’ War, the most violent and destructive episode in European history until the two world wars of the twentieth century, says a leading foreign policy expert.

Three and a half years after the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly, and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse, says Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

Moreover, national identities often compete with – and are increasingly overwhelmed by – those stemming from religion, sect, and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

Democracy promotion in Turkey and Egypt should focus on strengthening civil society and creating robust constitutions that diffuse power,” Haass suggests. But….

There is no room for illusions. Regime change is no panacea; it can be difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to consolidate. Negotiations cannot resolve all or even most conflicts….

Policymakers must recognize their limits. For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.



How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman, Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers, and Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House spoke on a panel entitled “How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?” as part of a recent conference on “Re-thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism.” The conference was jointly sponsored by The American Interest, Freedom House, and Johns Hopkins-SAIS.

TAI‘s editor, Adam Garfinkle, served as moderator.

Obama pledges support for Eastern Europe: faces tough choices on promoting democracy

obama poroshenko

U.S. President Barack Obama voiced support for Ukraine’s newly elected president and called for the international community to “stand solidly behind” him Wednesday, CNN reports:

Obama’s meeting in Warsaw, Poland, with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko can be seen as a sign of U.S. support for the government in Kiev as it battles to quell a pro-Russian separatist uprising in Ukraine’s East….In remarks at a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of Poland’s return to democracy, Obama also voiced his backing for Ukraine, and said the United States would stand up for freedom across the region.

“In that age-old contest of ideas — between freedom and authoritarianism, between liberty and oppression, between solidarity and intolerance — Poland’s progress shows the enduring strength of the ideals that we cherish as a free people,” he said:

Here we see the strength of democracy:  Citizens raising their voices, free from fear.  Here we see political parties competing in open and honest elections.  Here we see an independent judiciary working to uphold the rule of law.  Here in Poland we see a vibrant press and a growing civil society that holds leaders accountable — because governments exist to lift up their people, not to hold them down.

Surrounded by throngs celebrating Poland’s quarter century of democracy, Obama pledged not only to defend Eastern Europe against new threats — but to support democratic movements throughout the world, The Washington Post’s Zachary A. Golfarb reports:

But the truth is far more complicated. Obama, like presidents before him, has made uncomfortable choices in deciding when to promote democracy or when to compromise those principles for other interests. ……Obama has used diplomacy and, on one occasion, military action to support democratic movements in places as varied as Libya, Burma and Ukraine. But more often, he has decided to work with regimes that are either authoritarian (Saudi Arabia and China) or turning that way (Egypt and Russia) because of other U.S. priorities.

“Obama seems to have under-reached,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, said in an e-mail. “He clearly cares about democracy, civil society and human rights, and often speaks eloquently about these values. But at a time when these are clearly in retreat around the world, one sees little sense of an overall Obama strategy to renew global democratic progress and counter the efforts of Russia, China and Iran to suppress and subvert democratic movements worldwide.”

Other analysts are more critical.

“His democracy promotion is a study in schizophrenia — like foreign policy before him,” said Timothy J. Lynch, a University of Melbourne professor who has co-edited a book on U.S. democracy promotion.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, insists that democracy remains a vital component of foreign policy.

“We’ve made a democracy a central part of our approach in every region that we operate,” he said, although he acknowledged a lack of progress in Russia, China and Egypt. “We’re going to be very clear when we have differences with those countries, even as we are  going to work with them on some issues of mutual interest, whether it’s Iran negotiations or removing Syria’s chemical weapons.”

White House advisers insist there is a logic to the strategy even if “there is not a unified-field theory of democracy promotion,” in the words of Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state in charge of the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the Post’s Golfarb adds:

Looking back at the democratic movements of a quarter century ago, Malinowski said there is a bit of revisionism in evaluating the successes and failures of U.S. foreign policy.

“When we look at American foreign policy in hindsight, it looks much more well-planned and triumphantly successful than it appears in the moment,” he said. “At the time, people were confused and it wasn’t clear what would turn out well. And that’s how we feel now. It really isn’t very different.”

“The effort to befriend and engage Russia in this administration was heartfelt and very serious, but it separated the democratic deficit in Russia in a different lane,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter.

But it is clear in retrospect, this official said, that Putin sees civic dissent — whether within Russia’s own borders or in neighboring countries — as a threat to its power.

“People now agree that domestic despotism is related to international aggression,” the official said. “What other reason would Russia offer so much support for Syria?”


Non-Western roots of international democracy support

A striking feature of international democracy support is the connection between a country’s domestic experience with democracy and the shape of its efforts to promote democracy beyond its borders, according to Carnegie analysts Richard Youngs and Thomas Carothers.

The nature of a state’s democratic transition inevitably influences how it perceives and interacts with transition processes in other countries. In addition, the specific form of its own democratic institutions will condition how it seeks to support institutional reform in other countries.

These linkages can be a source of strength. By drawing on their country’s own experiences with a particular institutional form or political process, aid providers and democracy activists can offer usefully grounded knowledge to others grappling with similar challenges. Yet they can also prove problematic if those same actors try to export their own transitional experiences and institutional forms to disparate contexts in which different democratic solutions are needed. Western support for democracy around the world in recent decades has often embodied both the strengths and weaknesses of such internal-external linkages.

As rising democracies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere increasingly engage in supporting democracy outside their borders, internal-external linkages in this domain take new forms. Often these countries have only relatively recently transitioned from authoritarian to democratic rule, and thus lessons from their own experience about how democratization should or should not unfold are vivid in the minds of policymakers and aid providers. ….

Thus, exploring the internal-external linkages that characterize the democracy support work of rising democracies is a useful early step in gaining a deeper appreciation of how these countries go about such work. It sheds light on the assertion made by actors in some rising democracies that their external democracy work benefits from political nuances and sensitivities that Western democracy assistance may lack.

To help illuminate this issue, experts in the recently established Carnegie Rising Democracies Network explain, on a case-by-case basis, how the experience of democratic transition influences external democracy support policies in Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. These case studies highlight how the expanding range of actors involved in international democracy support is increasing the variety and complexity of the field overall.

BRAZIL – Oliver Stuenkel

Brazil’s democratic transition, which began in the late 1970s, was gradual, steady, and relatively peaceful. After introducing free and fair national elections in the 1980s, the government undertook market-oriented reforms and controlled inflation in the 1990s and initiated broad cash-transfer programs to reduce poverty and inequality in the 2000s….

Compared to other countries’ experiences, the Brazilian political transition was relatively drawn out. …..Democratization occurred without the explicit intervention of international actors (the IMF played a key role in the 1980s, but it was not a prodemocratic force). This fact helps explain why Brazilian foreign policy makers today remain skeptical that outside intervention of any kind can be of much help in a country’s quest to democratize, even though Brazilian political leaders agree that outsiders can at times help mediate internal conflicts. Furthermore, Brazil’s relatively smooth and bloodless transition contributed to a natural reluctance to support potentially disruptive prodemocratic movements that may lead to sudden instability and complicate civil-military relations. ….

CHILE - Claudio Fuentes

Following Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990, the country’s new leaders began developing a set of foreign policy initiatives to promote human rights abroad. Several consecutive governments promoted Chile’s proactive involvement in various regional and global institutions—the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Organization of American States, the UN Human Rights Council, the International Labor Organization, and the UN Security Council, among others. Under these governments, the Chilean armed forces also participated in international peacekeeping operations and contributed to international debates on pressing global issues, such as the UN discussion on the global responsibility to protect populations from war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. 

Chile’s domestic experience of transition helped inform this proactive approach in three ways.

First, the experience of human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990, pushed Chile’s new democratic authorities to make human rights protection a foreign policy priority….Second, Chile’s first generation of democratically elected policymakers played a crucial role in shaping the country’s emphasis on international human rights protection. ……Third, policy continuity also played an important role in bringing human rights to center stage. …..

These three factors—historical context, political leadership, and substantial policy continuity—were crucial in shaping Chile’s considerable engagement in advancing human rights abroad.

INDIA - Niranjan Sahoo

Once considered an unlikely candidate for democracy, India’s political journey continues to surprise international observers. With each passing election, India’s democratic credentials have grown stronger. Unsurprisingly, successful democratic governance in a large and highly diverse country like India that is plagued by mass poverty and low levels of literacy has attracted considerable academic interest and global recognition. Given India’s success, Western powers tend to see the country as a beacon of democracy in a region characterized by authoritarian regimes and failed states.

However, India remains hesitant to exercise soft power to promote democracy beyond its borders. ….The reasons why India tends to avoid including democracy support in its foreign policy stem from the country’s complex domestic politics and institutional processes. Respect for national sovereignty, a legacy of India’s anticolonial struggle and Cold War anxiety, remains an abiding principle of the country’s foreign policy. The memory of colonial subjugation and perceived virtues of nonalignment, through which India sought to position itself as the leader of the Third World, mean that Indian diplomats still tend toward nonintervention and active or interventionist democracy support finds few backers within India’s foreign policy establishment. ….

India’s dismal rights records, domestic vulnerabilities, volatile neighborhood, and rocky democratic transition have a decisive bearing on India’s foreign policy postures when it comes to values such as democracy support. Given this, India’s democracy support has mostly been in the form of extending technical assistance, capacity building, and institutional strengthening.

Yet, in recent years, there has been considerable positive movement with regard to India’s changing worldview on the role of democracy and human rights concerns in its foreign policy. The interaction of various internal and external stimuli seems to be creating an environment that is conducive to increasing democracy promotion efforts…..

INDONESIA - I Ketut Putra Erawan

The case of Indonesia exemplifies the close connection between a country’s experiences in democratization and its initiatives for external democracy support. Democracy and reform processes in Indonesia, reformasi, are perceived as new foundational national values and experiences that need to be nurtured internally and shared externally. The country’s experience of democratization strongly colors the characteristics and approach of its external democracy support initiatives in a number of ways. …..

The country’s democratic transition entailed the positive engagement and interaction of the state with civil society and other nonstate actors. The emergence of reformers from inside Indonesia’s state institutions brought not only greater legitimacy to the process of change but also the possibility of reforming the state from the inside. The engagement of civil society, media, and other nonstate activists then became crucial for sustaining the reform process.

As a result, Indonesian democracy support efforts target state, civil society, and nonstate actors. Through the Bali Democracy Forum initiative, an annual intergovernmental summit on the development of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia engages state actors in its neighborhood and beyond to share their experiences with and learn about democracy.

Lessons and experiences made available by international and regional actors and institutions informed Indonesia’s democratic consolidation. These external partners shared with Indonesia examples of constitution building, legal reforms, party reform, accountability mechanisms, and other institution-building challenges. International and regional actors provided support while respecting Indonesia’s internal processes and its leaders, an approach that is now reflected in the country’s emerging foreign policy.

JAPAN – Maiko Ichihara

Japan is one of the few countries that did not democratize as a result of a domestic social movement for political change. Instead, the current democratic regime was installed in the aftermath of World War II by external forces led by the United States. Due to the lack of a mass democratization movement in their own country, the Japanese remain generally opposed to supporting popular struggles for political change abroad. ….

Japan has a relatively weak democratic tradition, which is reflected in the country’s external democracy assistance policy. While the Japanese government has launched multiple policy frameworks on democracy support since the early 1990s, the country has not become a major player in the field. Between 1995 and 2012, Japan on average only allocated approximately 1 percent of its official development assistance to democracy support. ….

SOUTH AFRICA – Tjiurimo Alfredo Hengari

At the heart of South Africa’s transition was a model of tolerance and overcoming injustice. An abiding legacy of South Africa’s transition is that democratization was about “the weak” prevailing over “the strong.” That model now sits at the root of South Africa’s external projection, and this ethos continues to condition the way democracy support is woven into the broader aspects of South African foreign policy. 

A result of this legacy is a duality in South Africa’s foreign policy. During the apartheid years, South Africans saw some countries providing considerable support to the African National Congress (ANC) while other countries supported the government the ANC was fighting. As a result, some in the ANC came to associate democratic transitions with overcoming Western geostrategic neoimperialism; this has bred a reluctance to be at all interventionist in foreign policy. On the other hand, some came to see democracy support more as a civic-led movement with strong links across borders. This school of thought has pushed for more active South African democracy promotion policies built on support for civil society rather than cautious government-to-government, sovereigntist diplomacy. …..

Through the legacy of the past and the messianic tone used by the ANC as it was endorsing the transition in 1994, South Africa has elevated itself to a principled role, and it could serve as a guarantor and promoter of democratic norms and values, particularly in Africa. However, the past two decades have witnessed shortcomings in the manner in which such values have been instituted in South Africa’s external democracy support initiatives. The same features of the country’s transition that inspire others also inhibit or confuse South African democracy promotion efforts abroad. The normative bases in the country’s foreign policy, with democracy at the core, have been pursued inconsistently—albeit within the limits of what is possible and permissible in light of South Africa’s own history and the structural international political context in which the country operates.

SOUTH KOREA - Sook Jong Lee

South Korea’s democratic transition began in 1987, when the ruling authoritarian regime gave in to popular demands to reinstate direct presidential elections (an indirect system had been in place since 1972). The country’s democratization struggle drew the participation of diverse liberal segments of South Korean civil society. The involvement of white-collar workers and middle-class citizens in this struggle played a critical role in pushing the country’s ruling elites to seek a compromise for political liberalization. ….. 

The role of international organizations or foreign governments in this evolution was limited. In fact, the United States, an influential ally of South Korea, did little to press the ruling authoritarian regimes for reform at critical junctures in the process of democratization.

South Korea’s democratic transition thus grew out of successful internal modernization. It was successful only after the country had already modernized substantially.

This particular pattern explains why South Korea today supports the democratization of developing countries primarily through indirect means. Although South Korea experienced a tenacious internal struggle for political change and has evolved into a vibrant democracy, its government and nongovernmental organizations remain reluctant to support democratization struggles in other parts of the world directly. Having experienced no such intervention from the outside world during their own democratic transition, most Koreans view autonomous democratization as the most viable path.

Moreover, South Koreans tend to believe that democracy is sustainable only once a certain level of economic development has been achieved. …..

TURKEY – Senem Aydin-Düzgit

Nowhere is the linkage between a country’s domestic political system and its support for democracy and human rights beyond its borders more visible than in Turkey. In the Turkish case, this connection is best illustrated through three main processes. 

The first concerns the debates on Turkey’s potential as a democratic model in the Middle East. Turkey became active in democracy promotion after the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 in what was widely seen as a test case of whether Islam and democracy could indeed be compatible in a modern state. ….

A second important internal-external linkage in the Turkish case pertains to the ways in which the AKP, particularly after the Arab Spring, has used the discourse of democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa to consolidate its power base at home….

A final key linkage between domestic political developments and Turkish democracy promotion efforts concerns the rise of neo-Islamist ideology, which became prevalent across the Turkish state and government bureaucracy with the AKP’s ascent to power. In the foreign policy realm, this ideology envisions a strong revival of Turkey’s soft power in the post-Ottoman space through the country’s cultural, historical, and religious ties to the region. It is therefore no coincidence that the volume and scope of Turkish democracy assistance (as well as its development and humanitarian assistance) in neighboring regions has increased substantially under AKP rule. The regional dimension went hand in hand with the AKP’s internal political project and was mirrored in the nature of external democracy support.

EASTERN EUROPE  - Tsveta Petrova

The Eastern European members of the EU, and especially Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Lithuania, are some of the most active emerging donors providing external democracy support. Unlike many other new democracies, Eastern European states do not negatively associate democracy promotion with an imposition of Western values. In fact, for much of Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War was a victory for the democratic West over the regional imperial power, the Soviet Union, and its autocratic governance system. ….

As a result, democracy promotion efforts by Eastern European governments and civil society actors primarily stem from the desire to share their own transition experiences with other countries struggling to overcome authoritarian rule, and the Eastern European countries’ own democratic experiences have influenced their foreign policy priorities. Eastern European democracy promoters thus very consciously and purposefully pass on best practices and lessons learned about what worked and what failed during their own transitions. ….

Eastern European democracy promoters also prioritize work with governing elites in recipient countries. Most of this work has been primarily political, that is, building and strengthening the prodemocratic forces within recipient states rather than focusing, like many other donors do, on recipients’ socioeconomic and state development as an intermediate step toward political liberalization.

Lastly, the influence of the Eastern Europeans’ democratic experiences on these countries’ democracy promotion priorities has produced some distinctive thematic investments and policy instrument preferences. For instance, Hungary prefers to implement democracy assistance projects with the consent of the host government and often emphasizes human and especially minority rights questions. Czech diplomats, on the other hand, strongly believe in the power of “naming and shaming” oppressive regimes at the international level. And Estonia has invested in sharing its distinctive e-governance expertise in the realms of information policy and transparency with regional partners. In each case, these thematic priorities reflect aspects central to the country’s own democratic transition.

CONCLUSIONS – Richard Youngs and Thomas Carothers

The group of states included here as rising democracies went through different processes of transition. …..Each of these countries draws on the distinct features of its own transition to inform the way in which and the extent to which its supports democracy externally. This internal-external link can be purposive or more instinctive. That is, in some cases these countries seek to share their own transition experiences directly through democracy initiatives that they fund in other countries. In other cases, they simply tend to believe that the nature of their own transition represents the best way for political change to occur. Central and Eastern European states often foster civic activism as something positive, for example, while for Brazil elite-led change is seen as more desirable. 

These types of internal-external links can be seen as both advantageous and problematic. Rising democracies make a valuable contribution to democratization by sharing their own distinctive experiences. They can add much useful experience that is not so readily available to Western democracy promoters. Arguably, however, there is not sufficient recognition on the part of rising democracies that their own models of change might not be the most appropriate for some other societies. Rising democracies struggle to detach from their own transition experiences and design their external support from an understanding of the local desires and particularities of the countries in which they operate.

In addition, as with established Western democracies, at times these countries operate from myths about their own transitions that underplay complexities and can be unhelpful if projected onto other states. As they fine-tune their democracy support, these rising democracies grapple with the same difficulty that established Western democracies have long faced: they benefit in some ways from the richness of their internal experiences, but they are simultaneously hindered in other ways by the local specificities of their own experiences and models.


Why U.S. promotes democracy – Samantha Power

At a time of democratic regression and authoritarian challenges, there is a moral and a strategic imperative “to ensure that democracy expands, deepens, and delivers,” according to a senior U.S. diplomat.

“True democracy, complete with checks and balances, offers what no other system can,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. “If you give people the tools to correct the parts of their government that are broken, as only democracy can…they will seize them.”

“Democracy wins out in the long run because it offers a chance to fix its own mistakes. It is the only system built on the premise that if something is not working, people can actually correct it, from the bottom up,” she said in a commencement address this week to graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Self-correction is not destabilizing; it is stabilizing.”

“To those who are disillusioned with what’s happened in places like Syria — places where people took valiant first steps towards demanding democracy, only to suffer a horrific backlash — I would remind you that what we are witnessing in the Middle East is not the consequence of too much democracy but rather the toxic consequences of too little democracy for too long,” said Power, who previously served as a professor and founding executive director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

“Even as some countries continue steadily along the path toward greater democracy, others have taken some concerning steps back with respect to political rights and civil liberties,” she said. “Still others seem caught in a rut of tyranny from which even the ambitions and the aspirations of their people have not yet freed them. Your challenge is to ensure that democracy expands, deepens, and delivers.”

“President Obama has instructed all his diplomats to make supporting civil society an integral part of American foreign policy — to support the change makers who are on the front lines of the struggle for universal rights,” said Power, a forceful advocate within the Obama administration for advancing democracy.

No hidden agenda

“It is no coincidence that civil society and journalists are often the first to come under fire when democracy is backsliding,” she said. “That’s why, every day, American diplomats stand up for the right of people to organize peacefully for change, bringing real resources and sustained diplomatic pressure to bear. There is no hidden agenda here, simply a fundamental expression of our support for, and belief in, democratic values.”


As President Obama told graduates of West Point earlier today, the United States must continue to lead efforts to confront threats to democracy and to advance freedom and human progress.

For starters, in some of the “younger” democracies — countries that had been on the path towards greater democracy and rule of law — progress has slowed or setbacks have occurred. This shouldn’t come as too big a surprise, because we know it is much tougher to build a system of genuine checks and balances than it is to depose an autocrat. In too many places, the outward marker of a democracy — elections — marks the absence of basic rights and the strong institutions needed to defend them.

In Ukraine, one of the electoral democracies born out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Maidan protests started last year because successive elections had done little to end the state’s rampant corruption and authoritarian tendencies. In Venezuela, the current government came to power through an election, but when protesters turned out to criticize certain policies, security forces brutally beat them and locked up opposition leaders on false charges.

Additionally, in some places where citizens have demanded the right to choose their own leaders, democratic transition has coincided with political instability and a dramatic increase in ethnic and religious conflict. For all of the jubilation that accompanied the original Arab Spring, this journey was never going to be easy. Think for a second how hard it is to grow trustworthy institutions on fallow ground where, for decades, rulers governed by fear, where people on the losing side of a political contest could never reasonably expect to have a shot at winning the next time around, where there had never before been a next time around.

And finally, at the very moment when we most yearn for a city, or cities, on a hill — models that serve as proof that the democratic system can deliver — many “older,” established democracies are delivering too much dysfunction. Gridlock and partisanship are too common. Political influence can seem to be a special privilege reserved for those with wealth and power.

True democracy, complete with checks and balances, offers what no other system can. You know already that democracies are less likely to go to war, are less corrupt, and, on average, are wealthier than non-democracies. You are also familiar with Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s landmark finding that no genuine democracy has ever experienced a famine.

But I want to emphasize something else today: Democracy wins out in the long run because it offers a chance to fix its own mistakes. It is the only system built on the premise that if something is not working, people can actually correct it, from the bottom up. In fact, democracy works best when people are given the opportunity to constantly monitor and repair the kinks in the machinery. And given the choice, nearly everybody would welcome the chance to rein in abusive police, to stop paying bribes to get social services, and to ensure their children have access to quality education. Self-correction is not destabilizing; it is stabilizing.

Democratic governments that respect human rights have not and will not fail to deliver on their promise. Nor have they lost their intrinsic appeal. In fact, the opposite is true.

To those who are disillusioned with what’s happened in places like Syria — places where people took valiant first steps towards demanding democracy, only to suffer a horrific backlash — I would remind you that what we are witnessing in the Middle East is not the consequence of too much democracy but rather the toxic consequences of too little democracy for too long.

To those who would argue that such fear cannot be overcome and such conventions cannot be changed, I would point you to Tunisia. The Arab Spring began there, as you all know, when a humble street vendor who was humiliated and beaten by local officials went to his governor for help. He wanted to work within the system. He went to his governor. But he was turned away. It was only when he could see no other way to secure change that he set himself on fire.

Show me a clearer illustration of hopelessness in the face of injustice, of living in a system that lacks the means for self-correction.

But look at what’s happened in Tunisia since that time. The Tunisian people not only unseated a dictator but also replaced him with a diverse mix of Islamists and secularists. After two years of intense negotiations, those representatives approved a new constitution, which recognizes fundamental freedoms and the separation of powers. Many people claimed an Arab democracy would never respect the rights of women or religious minorities. Now Tunisia has a constitution that protects both.

Yet it would be a mistake to look at this achievement as the work of Tunisia’s leaders alone. It was the Tunisian people, backed by human rights defenders, civil society groups, a vibrant press, NGOs, and so many others, who pressed these new leaders to reach such a compromise.

Even in places where leaders have repeatedly failed to live up to their pledges, citizens have shown remarkable patience with democracy. This past weekend, millions of Ukrainians voted and elected a leader who promised to replace the graft and divisiveness of his predecessor with accountability and unity. Notwithstanding their recent history, Ukrainians hold out hope in democracy not because they are naïve or because they have short memories but out of a reasoned pragmatism. They know that no model gives them a better shot or a greater hand in correcting the mistakes of the past.

President Obama has instructed all his diplomats to make supporting civil society an integral part of American foreign policy — to support the change makers who are on the front lines of the struggle for universal rights. It is no coincidence that civil society and journalists are often the first to come under fire when democracy is backsliding. That’s why, every day, American diplomats stand up for the right of people to organize peacefully for change, bringing real resources and sustained diplomatic pressure to bear. There is no hidden agenda here, simply a fundamental expression of our support for, and belief in, democratic values.

Indeed, all of the steps toward more inclusive and rights-respecting democracies — in India, in Tunisia, in the United States, and in so many other democracies, young and old — can be traced back to the demands of citizens and the agents of change who have inspired and empowered them. And all of these changes would have been impossible if the system itself were not predicated on fixing its own mistakes.

As we sit here today, at least 200 Nigerian girls are in captivity. They were targeted, quite simply, because they chose to get an education.

I suspect you will not hear me utter a line like this one again, but here goes: Boko Haram understands something very important about those girls. They understand that educated girls will ask smart questions. An educated girl will question whether she wants to grow up in a society where she is condemned to silence and servitude.

An educated girl will question the values of a justice system that sentences a woman to death simply because of her religion or that of the man she loves, as happened two weeks ago in Sudan to a woman who, just yesterday, gave birth to a child in prison.

And an educated girl will question whether a woman should earn less than a man simply because she’s a woman, as a woman named Lilly Ledbetter asked in the United States. For all of those reasons, Boko Haram understands that a generation of girls armed with books, with pencils, and with the ambition to learn is a greater threat to their close-minded vision of the world than any military.