During democratic revolutions, terrorists often attempt to control the political process, and disempowered elites attempting to regain their authority may try to provoke nationalist sentiment into violence. While mature democracies do not go to war with one another, new democracies are prone to civil war and international conflict, as the political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have long argued. Building democratic institutions, especially after decades of authoritarian rule, is extremely difficult, which is why new democracies need the support of countries like our own.

Gov. Mitt Romney made a few puzzling comments about democratic transitions during the debate last night. One of his objections to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy was essentially that things just don’t look very good right now, an argument similar to his criticism of Obama’s handling of the economy and about as substantive. “What’s been happening over the last couple of years is, as we’ve watched this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see Al Qaida rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in,” he said.

Frustratingly, Obama did not respond directly to this point. In justifying their methods, autocrats have always claimed that democracy leads to instability and violence. Like Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad has said that his government is only trying to maintain a bulwark against terrorism. It is important for American public figures on an international stage, as the candidates were last night, to reject that argument as a justification for autocracy at every opportunity.

Romney would never actually say that he supports Assad, but that position is what his words imply. From Iran to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States supported dictators to limit the influence of its geopolitical enemies during the Cold War, and it is not clear what alternative strategy Romney was suggesting last night.

He was trying to exploit the fear that people in this country have of instability abroad. Obama should have responded by reminding voters that supporting democracy around the world requires confidence in the values of liberal societies and courage in the face of uncertainty, which always comes with democracy.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir Bhutto and current Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, made that point when Charlie Rose asked him about Pakistan’s stability a few months ago:

I believe we’re a new democracy, and it might not look it now, but the progress that we have made is making us an even more stable country, as we get more democratic. Democracy is a funny thing that way. Just because people are allowed to protest, the media are allowed to speak their mind, the judiciary is allowed to play an active role, it can look like your country is descending more into chaos. In fact, we’re becoming stronger, as a result.

Dissent and violence in new democracies can eventually lead to stable governments that allow the disaffected to protest peacefully and that ensure orderly transitions of power. In countries such as Indonesia and India, for instance, violence has not prevented stable democratic institutions from developing. This country’s first years under the Articles of Confederation were not peaceful either. Yet that does not mean the colonists were wrong to declare independence.

The violence in the Arab world in the past year and a half has been tragic, but if Romney supports promoting democratic values around the world, he shouldn’t simply use the region’s instability to criticize the president. Romney’s other criticism of Obama’s foreign policy was that somehow the president has failed to project strength. I don’t know what Romney means by that, but I do know that with his “rising tide” comments, he projected a lack of conviction in this country’s fundamental principles.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund