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Elephants in the Room

What Trump and Tillerson Get Wrong About Democracy Promotion

Washington’s commitment to spreading freedom isn’t just good for the world – it’s good for America.

US President Donald Trump (L) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wait for a meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and others in the Cabinet Room of the White House June 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wait for a meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and others in the Cabinet Room of the White House June 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since President Trump Inaugural rejection of the role of “Leader of the Free World”, many have wondered whether democracy promotion would play any role in a Trump administration foreign policy. The mixed – or at times, clearly supportive – messages the President has sent to authoritarian leaders in countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the Philippines, have reinforced the concern that the administration would regularly disregard democratic values and democracy promotion as central to American foreign policy. Now, the August 2nd Washington Post report that Secretary Tillerson’s strategy drafting process will exclude any mention of democracy promotion or justice confirms that the Trump administration is officially excising this foundational component of American foreign policy, thus abandoning a traditional Republican foreign policy principle, successive American presidents’ commitment to this objective, and America’s global moral leadership.

The decision to eliminate democracy promotion from the State Department’s objectives shows a lack of understanding about the direct benefit the United States gains from promoting democracy. Advancing democratic values is not simply a service to those around the world longing for freedom (although that is sufficient reason in itself, in my view). Promoting democracy is not only the right thing to do — it is wise policy that advances American interests. Jettisoning democracy promotion will undermine American security and economic interests and its leadership role in the world.

Here are four common misconceptions about democracy promotion that may be informing the State Department’s alleged shift in policy:

  1. Democracy promotion doesn’t help America’s economic and security interests.

Promoting democracy helps to build more accountable, less corrupt, and more transparent societies, which are far better environments for American investments and development. Where American businesses and the U.S. government can operate without the daily reality of corruption, weak rule of law, and lawlessness, the better these entities can pursue their economic interests.

The two greatest threats to American security – rogue regimes and transnational terrorist organizations – emanate from many countries that rank lowest on Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Index. Authoritarian leaders, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who show no interest in domestic accountability and rule of law regularly and consistently flout international security norms. Terrorist organizations are born, grow and flourish in countries where authoritarian leaders squelch basic civil and political liberties, or in completely ungoverned territories.

Conversely, democratic nations are consistently more peaceful, more likely to follow international security norms, and more collaborative in enforcing international security standards. This is not to underestimate the reality that there are security concerns that emerge in democratic nations – as we have seen in Western Europe and the United States – or that we will have disagreements with democratic allies. These are realities.

But the core of America’s greatest security concerns are – not coincidentally – found in non-democracies. The United States’ security and economic interests would be better served by more democracies, not fewer.

  1. Promoting Democracy Locks the Administration into Actions It May Not Want to Pursue

Critics of democracy promotion like to utilize their favorite examples of weak or failed democracies programs or policies to articulate why democracy promotion should not be part of American foreign policy. Democracy cannot be promoted at the barrel of a gun. Democracy promotion must be far more than election support. Democracy cannot be promoted if people on the ground are not willing and ready for democratization. All of these arguments are correct, but speak to operational errors of previous administrations not to the importance of the objective itself. The Trump administration could and should choose to promote democracy without falsely rejecting the concept based on opposition to implementation options. Any administration has the choice as to how it promotes democracy, engaging programmatically, rhetorically or politically how and when it chooses. Naming democracy promotion as a policy objective will no more bring us into unwanted conflict or over-expenditure in this area than naming American security as a policy objective. Successive American presidents have promoted democracy in very different ways, thus showing that there is no one size fits all to fulfill this objective.

  1. American Global Leadership and Respect Is Independent of Its Democratic Voice

The United States’ leadership role in the world has enhanced its ability to advance its security and economic interests for decades. This leadership role has emanated not only from its military, political and economic might, but also on its moral voice. The United States’ willingness to stand for the values upon which the United States and the international legal system were built have not only supported these values, but served our reputation and ability to project power in the world. The world has long looked to the United States to oppose human rights abuses, authoritarian overreach, and violations of international standards. And because of this moral leadership, the world has long viewed the United States as a reliable global leader and trusted as the United States has pursued its interests.

The United States should not promote democracy and stand for universal values simply for utilitarian, reputational purposes. But it should likewise not underestimate the secondary benefits we have derived from doing the right thing.

  1. Democracy promotion means imposing American values.

President Trump stated in his Inaugural that his Administration would not impose American values on other societies. Promoting democracy – and the human rights protected uniquely under democratic systems – is not imposing American values.

By promoting democracy, the United States is seeking opportunities to support the democratic voices that emanate from every society. Throughout the world, we have seen activists take courageous and often life-threatening risk to fight for basic freedoms in their country. These courageous individuals don’t do this because it is an American value; they do so because it is an inherent human desire to live freely. If the United States supports their democratic ambitions, it does so not in order to impose American values, but rather to support the ambitions of locals.

The reverse argument is worth considering. If the United States is truly worried about imposing any values on people of the world, then it should consider the ramifications of collaborating with unelected leaders. By partnering with and turning a blind eye to such unelected and unaccountable regimes, the United States is supporting the imposition of abusive leadership on people around the world. If the administration is concerned about not imposing any value – ours or others – on people of other countries, then we should be genuinely responsive to the voices of the people in other countries, not simply to the authoritarian leaders who have managed to capture power over the society.

And of significant note is that we can no longer call these American values. The United Nations and regional organizations in Europe, Africa, and the Americas all commit explicitly to democratic values, so it is not accurate to claim democratic values as purely American.

This administration has made myriad foreign policy errors over its short tenure. Codifying its rejection of democracy promotion would be yet another. And more importantly, it doesn’t serve the very goals it claims to pursue.

Removing democracy promotion from the State Department’s mandate and objectives will not only undermine American security and economic interests, but also deepen our country’s shift away from our national values and responsibility, undermine American leadership and influence, and ultimately make the world a more dangerous place.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a professor in the practice of international relations at Georgetown University and the chair for the global politics and security concentration in the Master of Science in foreign service program. She is the chair of the board of directors of the International Justice Mission. She served for ten years in the United States Department of State, working on democracy promotion, human rights, human trafficking, religious freedom, refugees, and counterterrorism. The views are hers and not those of these organizations.

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