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This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here.
When Donald Trump addressed an adoring crowd in central Warsaw last July 6, he had nothing but praise for the Polish government. The location was all too fitting. Krasinski Square faces Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court.
Since sweeping into office in 2015 with an outright majority (a feat that no party had accomplished since the fall of communism), the right-wing Law and Justice party sought to subsume all of Poland’s institutions of government to the will of the party and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Under a key regime proposal, all of the high court’s justices who were not party-approved would be removed from office, and any new appointments would have to be made through parliament.
The government had held off on pulling the trigger, in part over concern for how this would affect the country’s relationship with the United States. Nearly one year to the day before Trump spoke, then-President Barack Obama was in Poland for a NATO summit. Delivering remarks while standing next to Polish President Andrzej Duda, Obama directly expressed his “concerns over certain actions and the impasse around Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.”
“That’s what make us democracies—not just by the words written in constitutions, or in the fact that we vote in elections—but the institutions we depend upon every day, such as rule of law, independent judiciaries, and a free press,” Obama said.
One year later, President Trump delivered a rabble-rousing speech to throngs of supporters of Poland’s right-wing government, bused in from the countryside. In the speech, he railed against the perceived threats to Western civilization by “radical Islamic terrorism” and “the creep of government bureaucracy.” He touted Poland as an outpost of liberty. But unlike his predecessor, he never once mentioned the Law and Justice party’s assault on democratic institutions.
“Any other president would have not gone to Poland,” says John Shattuck, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who served as ambassador to the Czech Republic. “Or if he’d gone, would have raised the issue in public in a way that Trump did not do.”
What Trump did not say in Poland was heard loud and clear. Twelve days after Trump left Poland, Parliament passed the sweeping constitutional court “reforms.” The measure swiftly passed the lower and upper houses, awaiting signing by President Duda. The outcry in the Polish public was immediate, and under intense public pressure and massive street demonstrations, the Polish president vetoed the measure, bucking his own party and its leader, Kaczynski. Modified “reforms” are promised in the near future.
It was a near miss—and one enabled by the lack of the kinds of routine endorsements of democracy and rule of law that generally accompany high-profile speeches by American presidents—coupled with diplomatic pressure behind the scenes. “The absence of an American voice encouraging them not to do this, and not having to worry about the impact on their relationship with the United States—that matters,” Shattuck says.
POLAND IS ONE OF many countries that have experienced what some scholars have called “democratic backsliding” in recent years, as the institutions that sustain a democracy, like an independent judiciary and free press, are deliberately debilitated by the country’s regime. The result is societies that are less free, and nominal democracies that are less liberal.
The Obama administration could not stop this trend, but may well have slowed it down. Without American leadership, the process of democratic backsliding could well accelerate, with more regimes becoming explicitly authoritarian.
“It’s almost as if we are running a controlled experiment to learn what the world looks like without U.S. moral influence,” says Tom Malinowski, who served as Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 2014 to 2017. “What is happening now is that an American voice that served as a constraint on some governments is now gone.”
In its latest annual report on the state of democracy around the world, the watchdog group Freedom House found that 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. This is compared with nearly 30 years of uninterrupted constant gains from 1975 to 2005.
Trump addresses the crowd in Warsaw on July 6, 2017.
The causes of this decade-long trend are manifold. George W. Bush’s use of democracy promotion as a justification for U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq undermined America’s reputation and credibility as a force for liberal internationalism; the successful “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine encouraged Vladimir Putin and strongmen in central Asia and the Caucasus to crack down on political dissent; and the upheavals of the Arab Spring resulted in widespread democratic backslides in the Middle East.
These declines in political freedoms are reflected in shrinking political space for civil society, free press, and rule of law. This is in sharp contrast to trends in the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw ever-expanding political freedom around the world. “Dozens of countries that had previously allowed or even welcomed democracy and rights-support activities inside their borders are now working to stop it,” wrote Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher in a 2014 report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In other words, pushback today often represents the loss of access that had already been achieved, rather than the ongoing struggle over access that has traditionally been denied.”
Around the world, crackdowns on NGOs, universities, and the media are serving to protect entrenched political interests and undermine liberal values. From Turkey to Rwanda, from Egypt to Hungary, governments have been cracking down not just on opposition parties but on civic institutions that provide checks on state power.
President Trump has not only been silent in the face of the restrictions on political freedoms imposed by allies, but his actions domestically often mirror those of illiberal leaders abroad. “What President Trump has unfortunately done is that for the first time you have the leader of a major Western democracy himself openly attack the legitimacy of independent civic institutions,” says Carothers. “When he attacks the press as ‘fake news,’ it’s not just an attack on a specific article, but highlighting the whole sector as illegitimate. It is exactly the playbook of the strongman leaders you see around the world.”
Trends that were already negative are poised to deteriorate even further, and at an accelerated pace. An American foreign policy that eschews in both word and deed traditional commitments to promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law cannot serve as a useful check against ever-tightening restrictions on political freedom around the world.
“How can America persuade others that the United States is the leader of the free world when Trump praises autocrats like Putin and al-Sisi, belittles democratic institutions, and wavers between denouncing racial nationalists and embracing them as ‘good people’?” asks Archibald Puddington of Freedom House.
THE IMPACT IS MOST acute in countries that have longstanding security arrangements with the United States, but over which Europe and other democracies hold little sway. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is carrying out his “war on drugs” with impunity—and with little public rebuke from the Trump administration. In the seven months in which the presidencies of Obama and Duterte overlapped, the Obama administration routinely chastised Duterte over these kinds of extrajudicial killings. Duterte became so incensed over the criticism he famously called Obama a “son of a whore.” Obama later canceled a long-planned bilateral meeting with Duterte at the ASEAN summit, though the two men did “exchange pleasantries” in a brief meeting. Meanwhile, in October, the Obama administration canceled the sale of 26,000 rifles to the Philippines.
Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, speaks with Trump before the opening ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017.
The contrast in approaches from the Obama administration to the Trump administration were apparent even before Trump took office. When asked multiple times during his Senate confirmation hearing (by Democrats and Republicans alike), then–Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson refused to say whether the extrajudicial killings that have accompanied Duterte’s “war on drugs” even constituted human rights violations worthy of condemnation.
Then, in August, during his first official visit to the Philippines as secretary of state, Tillerson met with Duterte and offered only the most indirect of criticisms. “Mr. President, we are all aware of the American people’s criticism of you and your handling of drug cartels,” he said, according to a State Department aide in the room who relayed this comment to the press.
A little more than one week after Tillerson’s meeting with Duterte, 32 people were killed in a series of raids near Manila—the most ever in a single night. The next day, Duterte directly threatened human rights groups. “One of these days, you human rights groups, I will also investigate you. That’s the truth. For conspiracy,” he said. “If they are obstructing justice, you shoot them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government of Bahrain has stepped up its campaign against human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, charging him with terrorism and sentencing him to years in prison. Bahrain’s crackdown against democracy and human rights activists began in earnest in 2011 during an Arab Spring uprising there. The Obama administration came under criticism from human rights groups for sending mixed messages to the Bahraini government, criticizing them on human rights but nevertheless maintaining a major naval base in the country. The Obama administration, however, did seek to condition the sale of 19 new American fighter planes, at $2.8 billion, on improvements in human rights in Bahrain. In March, the Trump administration unilaterally lifted those restrictions, allowing the deal to proceed.
“What I think is being demonstrated right now is that even when you are not making positive breakthroughs, sometimes the steady application of that kind of pressure keeps things from getting worse,” Malinowski says. “Sometimes the knowledge that we are in their heads was not enough to stay their hands, but sometimes it would be.”
ON MAY 3, SECRETARY of State Tillerson stood in the Dean Acheson Auditorium of the State Department building in Washington, D.C., to explain to several hundred staff how exactly they are to implement a foreign policy vision guided by Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan.
“I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values,” he said. “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
With these remarks, Tillerson declared a formal separation from key pillars that guided American foreign policy since Dean Acheson was secretary of state and helped devise the postwar international order in the Truman administration. To be sure, every American administration acted in ways that contravened human rights and supported dictators when it suited its interests. But no administration has abandoned the very pretense of standing for democracy and human rights around the world in the way that the Trump administration has in its short tenure.
“In one speech, Tillerson tossed out over four decades of bipartisan consensus that human rights and democracy are: 1) essential components of U.S. national security and economic prosperity, and 2) not just American values but universal values that the United States, through its long and troubled history, has adopted as the north star of national prestige and international legitimacy,” wrote Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institute and a former State Department official.
As if to drive the message home, a draft State Department mission statement leaked to The Washington Post scrubbed the very mention of “democracy promotion” as a stated goal of U.S. foreign policy. Meanwhile, Tillerson is pushing through bureaucratic restructuring in Foggy Bottom that would result in the downgrading or shuttering of some key bureaus that deal with human rights.
Tillerson is hollowing out the State Department, pushing for a nearly 30 percent cut in the department’s budget as demanded by the White House. Offices that deal in human rights and democracy promotion are being gutted, but so too are the regional bureaus and embassies around the world. At time of publication, there have been very few Senate-confirmed assistant secretary positions filled, and most embassies around the world are without Senate-confirmed ambassadors.
This is leaving a leadership vacuum in which embassy officials around the world are working without much formal guidance, and so they revert to the longstanding traditions—meaning human rights and democracy issues are raised in meetings with local officials. For example, when Hungary’s right-wing government tried to shut down Central European University, which was founded by George Soros, a figure often vilified by Hungary’s leadership, U.S. embassy officials pressed the government to relent. “There was a strong defense of CEU from the embassy in Budapest,” says Shattuck, who served as the university’s rector until 2016.
At some point, though, senior political positions will be filled in the State Department and the autopilot on which diplomats have been operating will be turned off. They will be given clearer directions on how, exactly, to implement an “America First” foreign policy in which American values are assumed to be in inherent conflict with maximizing American interests.
Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte hold a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017.
ON APRIL 3, EGYPTIAN President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the White House. This was a remarkable turn of events for Sisi, a former military leader who led a coup against the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi four years earlier. Despite being the leader of a key regional and strategic ally of the United States, Sisi was kept at arm’s length by the Obama administration. His brutal crackdown on political opponents, including liberals and members of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi drew support, led the United States to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to the country for a period. At the time of Sisi’s White House visit, tens of thousands of political prisoners languished in jail, torture was routine, and extrajudicial killings by state security forces were becoming increasingly frequent—all in the name of fighting terrorism.
But for Trump, none of these concerns apparently registered as he lavished praise upon the dictator. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” Trump said, making no mention of the deteriorating human rights conditions in the country. He concluded: “And I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.”
The two men met again a month later in Saudi Arabia, during Trump’s first overseas trip as president. Again, the praise was fulsome. Sisi has “done a tremendous job under trying circumstance,” Trump said. (Sisi returned the compliment, calling Trump “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.”)
The message was clearly received. The week he returned to Egypt after meeting Trump in Saudi Arabia, Sisi moved to shut down several news organizations, including Al-Jazeera and the Arabic version of Huffington Post. He jailed prominent activist and political rival Khaled Ali on a spurious charge of “violating public morals.” Then, days later, Sisi moved to even further consolidate control over politics by enacting a sweeping law that could force NGOs operating in the country, which are among the last remaining watchdogs to his ever-creeping authoritarianism, to effectively shut down.
“The law ushers in unprecedented levels of repression and will criminalize the work of many NGOs, making it impossible for them to function independently,” said Human Rights Watch and seven other NGOs in a joint statement released at the time.
The law was actually passed in November, but Sisi held off on enacting it, in part due to concerns over how the U.S. government would react. But after meeting with Trump twice in two months, those concerns were very clearly assuaged. “He might have gone ahead and done this under Obama. But he definitely anticipated [that] if he enacted this law, there would be total public silence from the White House,” says Amy Hawthorne of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
For a while, there was total silence. Then, on August 22, the Trump administration stunned human rights groups by announcing that $95.7 million in aid would be withheld and a further $195 million delayed over human rights concerns, in particular the NGO law. Several analysts quickly noted that the move could also have been inspired by Egypt’s continuing business dealings with North Korea in violation of United Nations sanctions. It is also possible that the Trump administration felt betrayed by Sisi—that the Egyptian government had previously assured the Trump administration it would not enact the law. But after meeting with Trump in Saudi Arabia, Sisi could have thought he was given a green light, only to have later learned that he overstepped. Under this scenario, Trump’s public embrace of Sisi could have undermined private assurances on the NGO law. Sometimes, even under Trump, American self-interest aligns with promoting human rights.
In any case, the withholding of these funds suggests that the Trump administration’s willingness and ability to blindly support authoritarians can be constrained. The extent to which it can be will shape the future of democracies around the world. If not, the result could be something unprecedented in recent history: an American government that barely pays lip service to the promotion of democracy and defense of human rights around the world, signaling approval to the world’s despots.