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Democracy Promotion Under Trump: What Has Been Lost? What Remains?
Eight months into his presidency, Donald Trump is still only starting to elaborate his foreign policy. Some crucial areas, such as Russia policy, remain largely undeveloped. With regard to U. Compounding this shift is the damage the new president has inflicted on U. Yet despite all this, important elements of U. And Congress maintains strong bipartisan backing for democracy and rights support. As a presidential candidate, Trump repeatedly signaled a lack of interest in or concern about violations of democratic norms and rights in other countries, a strong disinclination to prioritize democracy support in U.
Since taking office, he has turned those words into action. Visiting Poland in July at a key moment of worrisome democratic backsliding in that country, he avoided speaking to the issue and instead joined the Polish government in attacking the free press. But Trump has moved with unprecedented alacrity, even enthusiasm, to embrace autocrats, many of whom were previously given at least a partial cold shoulder by the United States.
It is an integral part of his larger discomfort with the long-standing U. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his national security adviser, H. McMaster, do speak about not just pursuing U. Yet in speeches, writings, and other ways, both have signaled their inclination to downgrade U. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has spoken forthrightly against human rights abuses abroad, even with respect to U. President Trump has inflicted a body blow to U. The single most important element of U.
Of course, the example has taken multiple hits in the past few decades, such as the disputed presidential election in and the growing gridlock in the U. Congress during the early s. But these and other problems pale next to the current situation of a U.
In all of this, Trump is speaking from the very same script that antidemocratic strongmen have been using in recent years, causing his words and actions to resound especially loudly in autocracies.
I would like to say that President Trump is right: U. The spectacle of a U. As documented by the Washington Post , during the first six months of his presidency, Trump made more than false or misleading statements.
Having a chronic liar as American president greatly undercuts this power. In search of a silver lining, some U. This may prove somewhat true. Yet thus far at least, the negative elements of the present political situation dominate international perceptions. And even with these shows of resilience, the fact that a democracy like America could elect such a leader and plunge into a sustained period of political turmoil will not be forgotten for many years around the world.
Trump not only sets a damaging example of U. Some voices in the Washington policy community try to soften this harsh picture through several lines of argument:. But they do care : One such line of argument is that while Trump and his top foreign policy advisers have been going easy on some autocrats, they have been pressing other dictators on their democratic shortcomings. The administration has imposed new economic sanctions on the Venezuelan government as punishment for its antidemocratic policies.
Secretary Tillerson publicly chastised the Iranian government in May for its democratic failings. According to this argument, Trump has not walked away from support for democracy; like previous presidents, he is just inconsistent. One problem with this argument is that Trump and his team have so far only raised democracy concerns with very few countries.
Rather than supporting democracy being the norm and embracing autocrats the exception, the balance has been reversed. Furthermore, what little attention Trump and his team have devoted to democracy abroad has been directed most pointedly to countries the United States considers hostile in a broader geostrategic sense. Democracy concerns do not appear to be asserted out of some serious attachment to principle, but rather as a club to beat up on disfavored governments.
There are indeed realist elements in the outlook of Trump and his team. Their tendency to treat foreign policy interests and values as intrinsically separate categories, and thus to argue that values are secondary while interests are paramount, is a standard tenet of realism. So too are their doubts about the capacity of the United States to have much effect on the political direction of other societies, and their tendency to view democracy support as all about lecturing friends or, even worse, trying to impose democracy upon them.
Realism certainly acknowledges the need to cooperate with autocratic regimes when it serves the economic or security interests of the United States. It does not, however, call for gushing over dictators and embracing them as political soulmates. Furthermore, whereas realism looks to hard-nosed bargains in which concessions are made to problematic foreign leaders for the sake of clear gains on economic or security grounds, Trump embraces dictators for no apparent quid pro quo, as part of no serious calculation of interest or pursuit of gains.
What, for example, has the United States gotten from the government of Egypt that it was not getting previously in terms of security cooperation after Trump fawned over President Sisi? Where is the sober-minded realist cost-benefit calculation in that? More generally, a realist foreign policy that strikes calculated bargains in service of U. It is true that many elements of his foreign policy still need to be elaborated, and that considerable divergences will occur between statements he has made and actions he will take.
Yet on democracy he has already done much, and has done so decisively. His embrace of autocrats and disparagement of U. They have done so, for example, on policy toward Afghanistan. No amount of quiet diplomacy by experienced advisers can patch up the damage inflicted by a president who waxes lyrical about dictators, disparages democracy promotion, and demonstrates an obvious disdain for basic democratic norms and institutions at home.
Diplomatic efforts well below the level of the president and his top advisers often contribute significantly to democracy support. Democracy assistance can do much good. Engagement with multilateral institutions and initiatives is a valuable multiplier. Congressional support and pressure can help preserve and advance work in these three areas and more broadly.
The damage done so far under Trump in these various areas has not yet been extensive, although much uncertainty exists about how they will fare as the Trump presidency unfolds. A crucial element of U. Agency for International Development, key players on Capitol Hill, and diplomats in the field. Since the s, this sort of pro-democracy diplomacy has become a common element of U.
It is not yet clear how much this will continue in the Trump administration. Many career diplomats remain in place around the world and are thus far largely continuing established policies from previous years.
For example, a career diplomat U. This included rapid mobilization of democracy funds, support for the pro-democratic role by the Economic Community of West African States, and nuanced diplomacy with key Gambian political actors. Yet if such efforts do not receive general encouragement as well as specific backing at key moments from the top levels of the State Department and the White House, they will diminish in frequency and impact over time.
And if adequate resources are not available for timely injections of assistance or the tactical use of democracy assistance programming, they will suffer further. More generally, pro-democracy diplomacy requires an empowered, dynamic State Department, capable and inclined to engage forthrightly in complex political junctures abroad and to delegate significant responsibility to in-country initiatives by seasoned diplomats.
Thus far at least, Secretary Tillerson has not shown signs of creating such an agency, instead demotivating and disempowering the career staff both in Washington and abroad and gravely weakening the department more generally. Often it is in such countries that are not in the daily headlines where U. Supporting democracy in such places is not a matter of pursuing soft-minded idealism in distant corners. In these states, and many others, supporting democracy directly reinforces important U.
By frequently emphasizing the mistaken idea that values and interests are separate and often in conflict with one another—as opposed to pursuits that are closely interrelated and often mutually reinforcing—Secretary Tillerson, National Security Adviser McMaster, and other key members of the Trump foreign policy team have cast doubt over the prospects for active, effective pro-democracy diplomacy under Trump.
Assistance programs aimed at fostering democracy—such as support for strengthening parliaments, political parties, the rule of law, election administration, civil society, or independent media—stand alongside and often work hand-in-hand with pro-democracy diplomacy. Its first international affairs budget called for deep cuts in assistance—approximately 31 percent overall—that included major reductions in democracy assistance.
The signals thus far indicate much less of a cut overall and possibly little reduction in democracy aid, or even an increase for some lines of democracy funding. At the same time, however, dollar amounts are not the only or even the primary determinant of the impact of U. Democracy aid is most effective when backed up by active support for democracy promotion on the part of U.
And the general enterprise of U. Thus, how vital and how effective U. Support for and engagement with multilateral institutions and initiatives that seek to advance democracy is an especially useful area for the United States, as it helps decrease the perception abroad that U.
There are many examples of U. At various regional multilateral institutions, the United States has also been an active force, such as through its funding for and support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Additionally, the U. President Trump has disparaged the United Nations even while his UN ambassador has been taking the institution seriously and engaging effectively.
Secretary Tillerson has significantly delayed deciding on basic elements of the long-planned September ministerial meeting of the Community in Washington, sending a clear signal of disregard for an uncontroversial organization dedicated to bolstering democracy worldwide. Over the last few decades, Congress has built a record of strong support for U.
The Russia sanctions legislation that Congress passed in June and July and Trump signed in August was a sharp indication of the willingness of Congress to step out in front of the administration and effectively take the lead in setting policy with respect to a crucial country. Analyses of the democracy policies of new U. But inconsistencies and shortfalls have always dogged these efforts, with democracy struggling for a place among other interests and priorities that often impel Washington to downplay democracy in its dealings abroad.
Democracy deeds have almost always fallen short of democracy rhetoric. And colossal mistakes have been made in some cases, such as the ambition on the part of some in former U. Even keeping this cautionary reality fully in mind, the approach of President Trump is a startling and dispiriting deviation from the sustained bipartisan consensus that democracy and human rights can and should both figure prominently in U.
His words and actions have thrilled and emboldened autocrats all around the world while demoralizing pro-democratic activists struggling against repression and democratic backsliding in many countries. And they have stunned many partners in Europe and elsewhere who are part of the democracy promotion endeavor, making them question the value and even the possibility of continuing to cooperate with the United States on these issues. All is not lost.
Significant commitment, knowledge, and capacity on supporting democracy and human rights abroad still exist in many parts of the U. Many professionals in these institutions are determined not to let the present ill winds emanating from the White House deter them. Numerous U.
Tradition and Public Administration
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