“Do we allow our democracies to wither, or do we make them better?” said former President Barack Obama at the Stanford Foundation on April 21. Eighty years ago, Winston Churchill shared his own observation that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Unfortunately, today democracies are wavering while nationalist popularism and authoritarian rule is on the rise. It is not only harmful to individual nations, but it is having a blithering effect on multilateral cooperation to address global security, economic and climate issues.

Our Founding Fathers wisely crafted a Constitution that guaranteed the functioning of a true democracy: three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial), checks and balances, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, equal justice for all. It has served as a model for other countries struggling to establish their own democracies.

What’s at stake is on full display today in Ukraine. It is Putin’s horrifying attack on the one-time Soviet Republic to reimpose authoritarian rule and suppression versus a viable democracy guaranteeing freedom for all its people. America is united in opposing Russia’s takeover attempts, and providing Ukraine’s government with military assistance and humanitarian aid.

Yet America has a checkered past in favoring democracy over autocracy. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, South America’s three largest countries (Brazil, Argentina and Chile) were jolted with coups d’état, replacing properly elected presidencies with military dictatorships.
The American government also had an ominous role.

The Nixon administration, led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fully supported the military takeover in all three countries, starting with Chile — backing General Augusto Pinochet, who replaced the socialist government of Salvador Allende. In Brazil, a coup d’état succeeded with a military dictatorship that replaced President João Goulart. It had the support of the U.S. State Department through its embassy in Brasilia. In 1976, Argentina succumbed to a right-wing coup that overthrew Isabel Perón as president. The military junta took the reins of power, with Kissinger’s blessing, then proceeded to ban the congress and engage in what was classified as a “genocidal process.” At the time it was widely reported that some 30,000 people mysteriously “disappeared” or otherwise were executed.

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The obvious question is why on earth would the U.S. support military juntas overthrowing popularly elected leaders?

America’s geopolitical strategy at the time was to contain the spread of communism in the Southern Hemisphere, which began in Cuba. The fragile Socialist governments in these countries alarmed President Richard Nixon’s top security officials, concerned about the growing influence of communism in any of these countries as a potential security threat to the U.S.

This rogue foreign policy abruptly ended when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, stating in his inaugural address that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” It was his intent to make human rights, not embracing dictators, integral to the nation’s foreign policy going forward. His successor, President Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address stated, “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”

During these two presidencies, as chair of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations and Human Rights, I conducted a series of hearings on human rights, highlighting what was going on in South America.

My final report emphasized the three fundamental pillars of any democracy are (a) free and fair elections, (b) independent news reporting and (c) a sovereign judiciary.

Since today’s global conversation is about autocracy versus democracy, how do the two most notable nations measure up?

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First, Russia. It does have national elections, but Vladimir Putin is known for poisoning or imprisoning his opponents. Its state-owned media is more propaganda than independent reporting. It’s not rule of law but the government’s control of prosecutors and the judicial system that imperils anyone who dares to confront the Kremlin’s tyrant.

For America, its unwavering commitment to a true democracy is now in question. Today, we have a former president and one of the two major parties that declare the 2020 election was more about fraud than being free and fair. Our media remains independent, not state-owned, but it’s being compromised as never before. As former President Obama recently stated, it’s the power of social media giants to curate the information that people consume that has “turbocharged” political polarization and threatened the pillars of democracy. The most important is the judiciary that is pledged to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Traditionally, Supreme Court and federal justice nominees were highly qualified and received nearly unanimous confirmation votes in the U.S. Senate. Today, it is far more politicized with votes divided along party lines, recognizing that sitting judges have the final say.

If America is no longer the “beacon light” that guides freedom-loving people everywhere, does such a shining city upon a hill exist in today’s tumultuous world? Possibly it is Ukraine. One year ago, it would have been unthinkable that a former Soviet Union country would have global recognition for its commitment and courage to fight and die to preserve the pillars of a true democracy.