David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1740) wrote that the following proposition is completely erroneous: "All men, they say, are born completely equal: Government and superiority can only be established by consent."
With respect to an individual, Hume was correct. An individual who objects to the status quo political authorities cannot, by her or himself, change the system. However, if that one individual can identify others who share that belief, or cause others to adopt that belief, and collectively these individuals acquire sufficient critical mass they can force political change.
These musings are not hypothetical, but have significant immediate practical import. For example, had only a handful of American colonists objected to British rule in 1776, the American Revolution would have been stillborn. Instead, individuals who objected to British rule organized (e.g., Committees for Public Safety), enlisted others, and then took direct action (the Boston Tea Party is one of the first examples of this).
For decades, nefarious dictators ruled Libya, Syria, and Egypt (to name only three such countries). Sometimes Western nations formed temporary alliances with one or more of these three – when the Western nations perceived an advantage in doing so, e.g., the U.S. heavily subsidizing Egypt after Egypt signed the Camp David Accords, making peace with Israel. Other times, Western nations condemned the dictators, occasionally initiating direct action against them from a distance, when the Western nations perceived this as advantageous, e.g., the U.S. launching cruise missile attacks on Libya's COL Qaddafi in response to Libya's support for or participation in international terrorism.
The West generally refrained from directly and openly intervening in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, although some funding and other forms of support probably aided dissidents in one or more of the three nations.
The arrival of the Arab Spring has brought numerous calls for Western nations to support dissidents in all three countries. Egyptians displaced longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak without any direct foreign interventions. The current Egyptian government, nominally dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, presently struggles to establish a non-dictatorial form of government acceptable to Egypt's major constituencies. Libyan dissidents succeeded in ousting Qaddafi with the aid of air support from Western nations, but they have not yet formed a stable new government. Syria remains in the throes of the dissidents struggle to overthrow the Assad regime. Western governments are beginning to give the dissidents international recognition and some material assistance.
In general, externally imposed regime change is ineffective and often ends disastrously for all parties. Two high profile examples of this assessment are Iraq, where the al-Maliki government increasingly moves toward dictatorship, and Afghanistan, which is one of the world's most corrupt and ungovernable nations. In both of those countries, U.S. predictions that oppressed people would rise up and embrace democracy proved wrong.
Patrick Henry's memorable words (Give me liberty or give me death) framed more than a personal slogan but a sine qua non for effective regime change. Sufficient numbers of people must want liberty and democracy more than they want life itself in order for a country to move toward democracy and human rights. Conversely, if fear of death (or torture, imprisonment, etc.) inhibits residents of oppressive, autocratic regimes from open dissent, then – sadly and tragically – those people lack the motivation required for a regime change that will move their nation toward democracy and more fully respecting human rights.
What can people of democratic nations that broadly if imperfectly respect human rights do to promote other people and nations embracing these practices?
First, international proponents of democracy and human rights can constructively form alliances with dissidents in autocratic countries and in countries that broadly fail to respect human rights.
Second, democratic nations should similarly move beyond narrow self-interest and convenient short-term answers to promote consistently through diplomacy, rhetoric, alliances, foreign aid, and other non-military ways the enduring values of democratic governance and respect for human rights.
Third, individuals, non-government organizations, and governments can cautiously provide limited assistance and support for dissidents and dissident organizations in autocratic, oppressive nations. External intervention – international recognition and limited logistical support from France, in particular – was probably decisive in the outcome of the American Revolution. Alternatively, the day after the U.S. announced its recognition of a Syrian dissident group as the leader of the opposition to Assad's regime, that group emphasized the importance of its ties to a group of Syrian dissidents linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.
Several factors warrant cautiously extending external assistance and support. Among these are that not all dissident movements succeed and that not all offer a reasonable prospect of establishing a more democratic regime that will improve respect for human rights. External support for dissidents may also prompt a regime to move more vigorously against nascent dissident movements than the regime had planned. Limiting external support ensures that dissidents do not become simply a "front" for external intervention.
Fourth, two well-defined conditions may justify humanitarian intervention and externally imposed regime change, though such intervention launches the invaded nation upon a trajectory in which achieving enduring progress toward democracy and respect for human rights is fraught with difficulty and the possibility of failure. The first such condition is genocide, when a government intentionally and maliciously directs or tolerates the murder of an entire people. The Nazi Holocaust is the highest profile example of this. A second condition is when a government that can prevent large-scale disaster fails to do so, allowing the decimation of an entire people through famine, pestilence, or disease.
No person is an island who exists as an independent entity. Nor do any of us have a voice in choosing the nation in which we are born. Along with our genes, we inherit citizenship and an existing government. However, no government can survive in power without the consent – coerced or freely given – of a sizable proportion of the governed. The fall of European totalitarian Communist states demonstrates the relatively short shelf life of a government in which a small minority (in these cases, the Communist elites) dominates an unwilling and unhappy majority.
Regardless of how much sympathy one may have had for people living under Communist rule, externally forced regime change would have created an even more horrific situation. Thankfully, the Soviets, and subsequently the Chinese, possessing nuclear weapons precluded this option, though a bad outcome was certain even if they had not had nuclear weapons. Nurturing democracy and respect for human rights requires respecting the dignity of others. Allowing them to struggle and to establish their own autonomous governments are integral components of human dignity; violating those components is thus self-defeating, a difficult truth to accept while watching autocratic and oppressive regimes victimize their citizens.