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Donald Trump: Making the World Safe for Dictators

For 100 years, the United States has championed democracies around the world. Trump is about to undo this pillar of American security and decency.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - DECEMBER 9: President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
GRAND RAPIDS, MI - DECEMBER 9: President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On April 2, 1917, in the course of a speech asking Congress to declare war on Germany, Woodrow Wilson delivered one of the most resonant lines in the history of the presidency: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” A generation later, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, committing the World War II allies to protect “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Since then, all U.S. presidents have insisted that America’s national security depends upon the spread of democracy and individual rights abroad.

But Donald Trump, who will take office on the centenary of Wilson’s famous address, may be the first president since America became a world power who simply does not believe that. We should tremble for the consequences.

The president-elect’s unstinting and often ugly attacks on journalists, critics, and political opponents show clearly enough his contempt for democratic norms. He has demonstrated zero regard for such principles of international law as the obligation to accept refugees, or to refrain from the use of torture. His interest in democratic rights abroad is even more negligible. The foreign leaders he has most consistently praised, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are strongmen who put their critics in jail, and sometimes in the grave. Trump is already such a pal of Sisi that he was both willing and able to persuade him last week to drop a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s ongoing settlement building.

Trump has now nominated or appointed the key members of his national security team. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis are retired generals, while Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is the chief executive of a giant oil company. Any of these three (and especially Mattis) may prove sympathetic to the Wilsonian claim, but their experience has taught them to pay far more attention to the military and economic strategy of foreign leaders than to the domestic political arrangements those men fostered. None of them may be prepared to hinder Trump’s intuitive fondness –perhaps “envy” is the right word — for dictators.

This really would be something new in American life. Both the neocons who supported George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the advocates of Barack Obama’s far more chastened rhetoric of long-term institution-building have much more in common with one another than with the coldly transactional mentality that may guide the Trump administration. As Henry Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy, we are all (except perhaps Kissinger himself) children of Wilson. All but the most hardened realists accept the premise that it is in the interests of the United States to shape a better life for people in other countries, even if they disagree about which instruments to use and how effective they are likely to be.

Some skeptics of America’s self-assigned global mission of reform, like the diplomat-scholar George Kennan, have argued that the United States will serve its interests better by practicing democracy at home than by promoting it abroad. That may be so; but it’s not a proposition that a President Trump — with his nonchalance toward the First Amendment and his newfound devotion to the Second, as well as his steady promotion of crackpot theories and outright lies on Twitter — is likely to test. In all likelihood, the United States in years to come will neither seek to incarnate nor to inculcate the virtues of democracy.

Why should the United States want to “make the world safe for democracy”? Wilson believed that autocratic governments, guided by the selfish interests of leaders rather than the wishes of citizens, would destroy efforts to establish a “concert for peace” such as he envisioned. Only democracies would “keep faith” with one another. Subsequent history may have shown Wilson’s faith to be naive, but it has not discredited the premise that democracies will make more law-abiding and peace-loving custodians of the world order than will dictatorships.

A generation of Cold War leaders believed that democracy and broadly diffused prosperity offered the only secure bulwarks against communism. Presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan may have contradicted their expressed principles by backing anti-Communist dictators; but they were right that a democratic Europe would resist the ideological appeal of communism. Today, in the face of terrorism, the United States makes common cause with Middle Eastern autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere, but nevertheless sees the diffusion of democracy and the rule of law as the best long-term cure for the problem. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush for the first time elevated democracy promotion to a core national-security interest, insisting that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” That, too, miscarried; but the premise was not wrong.

Presidents keep returning to these formulations because Wilson was right about the relationship between democracy and the modern world order. There’s another reason as well: At least since the end of World War II, the idea that the United States stands for something more than its own self-interest has underwritten its claims to world leadership. That idea is the basis of America’s “soft power.” The Marshall Plan, to take the most famous example, did almost as much for the United States, by enhancing its global prestige, as it did for its European beneficiaries.

So what happens if we abandon this tradition? The silver lining of Trump’s chilly agnosticism toward democratic values might be this: No more hypocrisy. The Obama administration has shaken a finger at autocratic allies in the Middle East without inflicting or even threatening serious consequences, thus offending foreign governments without mitigating their brutalities. On the other side, Obama has halfheartedly supported Syrian rebels without making any effort to tip the scales of the horrendous civil war there. Trump will deliver no lectures, and may openly join Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his alleged campaign against Islamic extremism. Honesty bought at such a price, however, is a commodity not worth having.

President Trump might well feel more comfortable with the increasingly illiberal states of Eastern Europe — including Russia, the fountainhead of anti-liberal doctrine — than with the social democratic West. One can all too easily imagine him launching a fusillade of tweets at Atlantic allies who stubbornly persist in using the language of universal rights, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who not-so-subtly warned the incoming president to abide by Western values. How long will it be, in fact, before “Western values” can no longer be used as a taken-for-granted synonym for secularism, individual freedom, or tolerance for diverse opinion?

But there’s a more subtle consequence to forswearing America’s traditional moral claims about its global role. The United States is able to serve as honest broker in disputes all over the world because it is not seen, as for example China is, as a prop to existing regimes, however odious. Thus the Obama administration’s patient diplomacy in Myanmar has given the United States influence with both new democratic leaders and the former military regime. What happens if any of Trump’s favorite strongmen are overthrown or, God help them, voted out of office? What influence will Washington have with the successor regime? How, more broadly, will America compete with China’s growing soft power, or even Russia’s?

Putin’s greatest windfall in recent years has not been his stealth conquest of Crimea or winning the war in Syria for Assad, but rather the growing eclipse of liberal values across the West. Trump’s election is a crucial part of that bounty. (It seems increasingly clear that Putin deserves some credit for that outcome thanks to Russia’s hacking of damaging emails from Democratic Party leaders.) The prestige of liberal democracy has not sunk so low since the 1930s. Anti-liberal parties lead the polls in much of Western Europe and now govern in Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. It is a matter of greater urgency today than it was after 9/11, that the United States act as a beacon of, and spokesman for, democracy. Yet under a President Trump it will cede that role. Who will inherit it? Germany, perhaps. But Merkel, gravely weakened by her open-door policy toward refugees, may well lose her bid to return as chancellor in September. In any case, Germany is a lesser power that in any case has very strong historical reasons for speaking softly and modestly.

If the United States does not lead in the promotion of democratic and liberal principles, as it has for the last century, no one else will. And that vacuum will be filled by someone else whose values are neither democratic nor liberal. Donald Trump’s promise to make American great again will have descended to tragic farce.

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Image

About the Author

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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