Two recent stories out of Washington reinforced the impression that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration will not promote democracy abroad.
First came word that those redrafting the State Department’s mission statement are cutting out any language about democracy as a foreign-policy goal. Second, it was revealed that the department’s leadership is dragging its feet about hosting the long-planned ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies in Washington next month. The United States for two years has presided over this organization of countries committed to supporting democratization and was instrumental in its creation in 2000, but Washington appears to have lost interest since January.
These stories reinforce the narrative that the president would rather side with authoritarians of all stripes. Considering the news from the State Department, it is safe to say that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is aligned with Trump on this. (It will be interesting to see what the administration’s National Security Strategy will say on this topic when it is eventually released.)
A lot hangs on the administration’s requested budget cuts, in addition to its plan to fold the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department. Indications are that the U.S. Congress will defend foreign assistance spending, but this will likely still take a hit. The administration also might slow-roll the use of any mandated democracy spending. The revelation that the State Department’s leadership is not willing to spend $80 million allocated by Congress for countering Russian and other propaganda shows how this would happen.
In recent weeks, news stories from around the world have also accused President Trump of effectively giving the green light to different regimes to up their undemocratic game. This trend paints Trump as the “anti-Gorbachev,” a president whose foreign trips embolden governments from Egypt and Bahrain to Poland and Vietnam to crack down on opposition groups, civil society, and independent judiciaries.
But while a complete U.S. abandonment of democracy promotion and the rhetoric of the president will certainly give comfort to authoritarian or illiberal leaders everywhere, Donald Trump’s real damage to democracy’s worldwide prospects is being done at home.
Just as it is naive to give America too much credit for democratic breakthroughs, there is no determinant effect to the words Trump speaks in Riyadh, Warsaw, or Washington. Of course, authoritarians everywhere note what the president says and take comfort. They like that he speaks of sovereignty and that he says he will not tell others what to do at home. Authoritarian leaders sense that “America First” can live comfortably next to their versions of “Russia First,” “China First,” and “Turkey First.” It is no surprise that the poster boy for illiberal democracy in Europe, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, notes approvingly that America now has a leader who shares his ideas.
But this is just icing on the cake for such regimes. They do not need to be encouraged to do what they do, and in most cases they would do it (and were doing it) regardless of who sits in the White House. Trump’s words may affirm them in their sense of impunity, but they are more than capable of deciding by themselves how and when to pursue their undemocratic goals.
To best understand the damage Trump is doing to global democracy, focus on Washington itself.
During his inaugural address, the president said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” It would perhaps not be too cynical to see this as lip service to an idea as old as the United States itself. But actually Trump should be taken at his word and judged exactly for what example his presidency sets for others around the world.
Like America’s ability to directly shape politics abroad, the notion that the country can help bring about change by the strength of its example can often be overstated. Yet there is no doubt that the conduct of the greatest powers in their own domestic affairs shapes the global climate within which others make their own choices. That being the case, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the actions of the president and many of those closest to him have greatly devalued the American example in the eyes of the world.
It is not just a question of the internal administrative chaos that brings mocking comparisons to banana republics. The erosion of rule-of-law norms around the Russia affair, the secrecy and expediency of the legislative maneuvers to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the ethical challenges and conflicts of interest, the president’s politicized talk in nonpartisan forums, such as in addressing the military -- all of these things are noted abroad. And by tarnishing the image of American democracy, these measures tarnish that of democracy in general.
Whether through carelessness, incompetence, or intent, Donald Trump is doing more than making his presidency a laughingstock abroad. His tenure so far -- an unsettling mix of authoritarian parody and serious corrosion of democratic norms -- devalues the United States’ claim to set an example to others. It also makes it much easier for autocrats everywhere to reject the notion that democracy leads to better government.