Global Democracy in the Trump Era: Will the U.S. Abandon Its Leadership Role?

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A 'Defend Democracy in Turkey' protest in London, December 11, 2016. 

Even before Donald Trump’s surprise win on Election Day, global democracy was in retreat. As the watchdog organization Freedom House reported this year, rising xenophobia and authoritarian regimes in 2015 helped push democracy into decline for the 11th year in a row. Against this backdrop, Trump’s election sends an ominous portent about the state of freedom in the world. In the United States, many women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and members of the LGBT community now fear for their basic human rights. Internationally, Trump will join a United Nations Security Council whose four other permanent member states could by next year be led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, and the United Kingdom’s inexperienced premier, Theresa May. It’s a cadre that should not inspire confidence in those concerned with promoting liberal values around the world. Ultimately, Trump’s election bodes poorly for democracy, both in the United States and globally.

This starkly reverses a trend that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, when it seemed inevitable that democracy would triumph. As Francis Fukuyama declared in his seminal essay, we had reached “the end of history.” But if the expansion of global democracy has occurred largely within “Three Waves,” as Harvard political Scientist Samuel Huntington suggests, the most recent wave that surged following the fall of the Berlin Wall began losing momentum by 2005. In such fragile, emerging democracies as Turkey, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, and Venezuela, democratic freedoms have actually regressed in recent years. Indeed, Larry Diamond, a leading contemporary scholar in the field of democracy studies, has said that the world is in a “democratic recession.”

Troubling as democratic backsliding may be in these parts of the world, the erosion of basic freedoms in Europe and the United States is arguably even more dangerous. Trump’s election and the emergence of the nationalist far-right in Europe should disabuse us of the notion that once a liberal democracy has been “consolidated,” as political scientists put it, it is here to stay. It no longer holds that once democratic institutions, a vibrant civil society, and certain level of wealth are established, democracy is secure. If anything, liberal democracies around the world are in a more precarious position than is often believed, argue Harvard University Lecturer Yascha Mounk and University of Melbourne political scientist Roberto Stefan Foa in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Democracy. Their research demonstrates that the U.S. and Europe are exhibiting the same declines in public support for democracy, public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, and the same growing support for “antisystem” parties and movements, as newer emerging democracies.

Democratic backsliding in the U.S., aggravated by the president-elect’s own inflammatory and unsubstantiated claims about what actually occurred on Election Day, presents a special hazard to democratic norms internationally. The U.S. has historically played a vital role in advancing global democracy. To be sure, American democracy faces its own serious problems—for example, economic inequality is worse in the United States than in Turkmenistan, host to one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Nevertheless, in the 1980s and ‘90s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, many in the world looked to the American system as a model of prosperity and liberty. In the 1980s, the U.S. founded organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy to promote democracy internationally. The political and financial support of the United States and its European allies played a decisive role in the “Third Wave” described by Huntington.


AS WITH MANY ISSUES, Trump’s democracy agenda is hard to predict. His frequent assertions that such longtime allies as South Korea and Germany should be paying for their own security suggest that his administration is not inclined to commit serious financial resources to democracy promotion. If Trump’s foreign policy has one coherent thread, it is his sharply limited view of American interests. In October, Trump told Meet the Press that the Middle East would be more stable with autocratic regimes in power, referencing Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi.

Trump has also pledged to “abandon the failed policy of nation building and regime change.” He has repeatedly suggested that the crisis in Ukraine, which has rocked that country’s democracy, has little effect on American interests. What’s more, Trump has regularly expressed admiration for such autocrats as Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom the president-elect called “a fantastic guy.” As some observers have noted, we might as well say, “Goodbye, democracy promotion.”

All this has prompted lawmakers such as Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to voice fears that Trump will erode America’s influence and abandon its traditional role defending global democracy. In fact, Trump’s election has already hurt the nation’s credibility as a democracy advocate. As Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general, recently wrote, “A country that confidently counsels others on democratic practice has elected a president who suggested that, if he lost, he might not recognize the result.” He added that Trump’s victory “has exposed and encouraged tendencies the world never used to associate with the U.S.: xenophobia, misogyny, pessimism, and selfishness.”

Ironically, Trump himself noted in a July interview with The New York Times that “When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.” It goes without saying the U.S. has already lost whatever democratic “Beacon on the Hill” status it once enjoyed, and under Trump the nation’s commitment to democratic values stands to be further discredited. Consider his support for waterboarding and recent calls to punish American flag burning, which demonstrate his lack of concern for or even basic understanding of protected constitutional rights. America’s image around the world and its mission to promote democracy were greatly damaged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any gains made on that front during the last eight years are now directly threatened by the election of a president who brazenly dismisses press freedoms, religious liberty, the human dignity of disfavored groups, and other fundamental liberal values.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” Winston Churchill famously quipped. But today many of the world’s leading democracies face immense challenges and inequities.

Some even point to the Chinese model as evidence that economic prosperity need not be premised on political liberalization. There is much to criticize about U.S. democracy promotion policy, but that does not mean it should be scrapped; it must be reformed. As anti-democratic trends intensify around the globe, Trump is stacking his cabinet with controversial figures whose disregard for civil liberties are as pronounced as his own. If anything, the U.S. appears to be backing away from its role as a democracy leader—just when the rest of the world needs it most.

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