Democracy Promotion and a Trump Administration

| February 21, 2017
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What happens to the democracy promotion enterprise in a Trump administration? The President’s comments that under his watch the United States will not be seeking to impose its system or values on other countries suggests that the spread and strengthening of democratic systems around the world will not be a top priority and in fact may fall off the list of national security interests of the United States entirely. Some of the early selections for key national security positions–drawing from the business and military communities–also create the impression that the new team will prioritize stability and security over encouraging democratic change and support for civil and political rights.

Even before the 2016 election, however, it was clear that the democracy promotion efforts of the United States were running out of steam. The promise of an Arab Spring has given way to a new winter of authoritarianism. There has been significant backsliding in other parts of the world, even in parts of Central Europe (such as in Poland and Hungary). As a now very prescient discussion at the Carnegie Council last fall pointed out, there are significant stress points throughout all of the advanced industrial democracies of the world. What is clear is that the optimism of the immediate post-Cold War period–that democratic liberalism was inexorably on the march and that its achievements could not be reversed–needs to be replaced by a new realism about the limits and sustainability of the democracy promotion enterprise.

With an eye to advising whoever the next President was slated to be, Ambassador Adrian Basora–who had been present “at the beginning” of the post-Cold War transitions in Central Europe–had been convening a series of workshops and meetings under the rubric of “Does Democracy Matter?” to assess what the future might hold. (Its recommendations and assessments are about to be released in a volume under the same name). Is it possible for the United States to continue to maintain a commitment to advancing democracy as one of its foreign policy priorities?

I am not entirely negative when it comes to this administration. Much has been made of the President’s own business background, as well as that of his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to suggest that democracy promotion would not matter to them as it might to academic idealists. Yet, as business figures, they are aware that things like the rule of law, sanctity of contracts and a predictable business environment are generally, in the long run, better assured in democratic systems over non-democratic ones. Of course, how to encourage societies that are currently non-democratic to start making changes–and without empowering regimes that will be more anti-American in the process–is the trick.

Here, I do think that the new administration will be much more cautious and less willing to pressure current authoritarian regimes that are viewed as stable and/or friendly to U.S. interests. When revolutions may appear to be imminent, my guess is that the preference will be for pushing for regime-directed transitions (say, the plan that Frank Wisner had helped to draft for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011–which might have led to a better long-term outcome than the tumultuous cycle of democracy boom and bust). A business/military perspective may also be more conducive to what I describe in my contributions to this project as democracy “triage”–concentrating resources and attention on those areas where a democracy transition is likely to succeed with a minimum of disruption. But a triage approach is going to rule out active support for democracy promotion in a number of countries where the risks will be seen as too high or the prospects for success too unlikely–an approach that will end up disappointing activists around the world.

The Obama administration–particularly through its spokespersons like then UN-ambassador Samantha Power–took the line that democracy and human rights were their own reward and that supporting them even if the end results could not be guaranteed was worth it. The new administration will not share that view. However, to the extent that human rights and democracy can be shown to be good for business–and there is plenty of evidence to show where and how this can be the case–democracy promotion, while not likely to be a leading priority, will not entirely disappear from the agenda.

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