I spent much of my early adult life on American warships around the world defending democracy against one of its great 20th century enemies: global communism. The Cold War represented a rare kind of conflict in the span of human civilization, one not between states or princes, but between ideologies. On one side was centralized authoritarian control; on the other, democratic government of, by and for the people. Over the course of the decades-long fight, often carried out in hot proxy wars around the globe, millions of people died, tens of thousands of them Americans. Countries were wiped off the map, and new ones created. It was a high-minded fight, with very real human costs.
When I came ashore and entered the Naval War College in the fall of 1991, it felt like a struggle of historic significance finally had been won. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. It was a heady time, in which democracy seemed to be in full bloom around the world. Later, as a four-star Admiral and then as the 16th Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), I witnessed that expansion firsthand throughout Latin America, the Balkans and the former Warsaw Pact nations, as once-dictatorial nations in South America embraced increasingly free and fair elections, and former Communist-bloc countries in Eastern Europe joined Western democratic institutions.
Was it perfect? Of course not. There was civil war, and authoritarian rulers rose in many nations. But it was exhilarating to watch as millions of people who had lived in fear found greater liberty and economic opportunity.
Today, though, one could be forgiven for believing that the age of democracy has ended. Two massive nations, Russia and China, are trending toward one-man rule. The list of countries drifting into autocratic orbits is growing. In Latin America, they include Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which had shown signs of fledgling if fragile democracy. On the other side of the Atlantic, Turkey, Hungary and Poland, still recognizable as democracies, are centralizing power, controlling the media, manipulating the courts and squelching protest. On the eastern edge of the strategically crucial South China Sea, populist strongman Rodrigo Duterte erodes freedoms in the Philippines.