Trump Isn’t Sure If Democracy Is Better Than Autocracy

America's president is voluntarily abdicating one of the country's biggest strategic advantages.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 9 in Beijing, China. (Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 9 in Beijing, China. (Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)

What a difference a couple of decades make. Back in the early to mid-1990s, Americans (and some others) were pretty much convinced that U.S.-style liberal democracy was the wave of the future worldwide. The Warsaw Pact had crumbled, Latin American dictatorships were turning to the ballot box, human rights were spreading, and liberal institutions were all the rage. Francis Fukuyama famously described mankind as having reached the “end of history,” and Tom Friedman was telling us everyone had to don the “Golden Straightjacket” and embrace DOSCapitalism 6.0. The main exemplar of this system, of course, was the mighty and successful U.S. of A.

Predictably, the next three presidents all embraced and extolled these ideals. Bill Clinton had his “National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement,” whose stated purpose was to spread democracy wherever we could. George W. Bush had his “Liberty Doctrine,” sought a “balance of power that favors freedom,” and gave a 2nd Inaugural Address that declared this to be America’s sacred mission. Barack Obama took a more measured view of this goal, but even he worked to topple tyrants in places like Libya or Syria and told the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 “there is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.” For the past 20-plus years, the United States believed the world was headed toward more open, accountable, and democratic governance.

Fast-forward to 2017, however, and autocracy seems back in vogue. Russia has reverted to de facto dictatorship, Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any leader since Mao, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has undertaken a wide-ranging purge of potential opponents and consolidated vast power in his own hands. Egypt is once again governed by a brutal and corrupt military dictatorship, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has cracked down on journalists and academics, purged the government, and put thousands in jail, and he is slowly strangling what once seemed to be a promising experiment in moderate Islamic government. No one quite knows what sort of government will eventually emerge in the remnants of a shattered Syria, but it is a safe bet it won’t be democratic. And the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland are headed in authoritarian directions, openly rejecting liberal ideals, and would probably be ineligible for European Union membership if they were applying for it today.

Meanwhile, what does the United States government have to say about these trends? Under Donald Trump, mostly words of praise. The Divider-in-Chief seems entirely comfortable with — and maybe even a little envious of — the various autocrats who are richer or more powerful than he is (or both) and free from those inconvenient constitutional constraints and checks and balances that keep getting in the way of Trump’s feuds, whims, and destructive impulses. This is the president, after all, who called our justice system a “laughingstock,” said he regretted not having more control over it, and fired FBI head James Comey because he wouldn’t offer the president unswerving personal loyalty and shut down the Russia investigation. He’s also the guy who suggested we don’t really need a State Department because “I’m the only one that matters.” Now there’s a guy who thinks the ideal system of government is one where a leader gets to do whatever he wants. Sorry, Donald, but that’s precisely the system of government that Americans have long rejected and that many sacrificed their lives to prevent being imposed here.

But instead of standing up for America as a beacon of democracy, Trump congratulated Xi Jinping on his acquisition of even more power, meekly accepted Chinese dictates about talking to the press, and has nothing but good things to say about the ambitious Saudi crown prince (despite the latter’s chaotic program and repeated foreign-policy blunders). Indeed, like any good parvenu, Trump seems easily dazzled by vulgar displays of excess and unable to distinguish between the interests of the United States and the self-interest of his extended family. As Edward Luce sagely observed in the Financial Times, the affinity between the House of Saud and the House of Trump is if anything over-determined. And don’t forget his earlier bromance with Vladimir Putin, which Trump has been forced to downplay amid continuing suspicions of collusion between Russia and Trump and/or his advisors back in the 2016 campaign.

Needless to say, this behavior is a sharp departure from past U.S. practice. To be sure, the United States has often been inconsistent in its support for democracy and all-too-willing to ally with dictators and tyrants when there were important strategic issues at stake. But it is one thing to acknowledge tradeoffs between core political values and other interests and sometimes to favor the latter, and quite another to cast off our ideals completely and rush to praise those who trample on them daily. To do so is also bad strategy, as it squanders something that has been a valuable diplomatic asset in the past: namely, the belief that the United States did in fact stand for something other than naked self-interest, even if its actual performance fell short of its own professed ideals.

This reversal of fortune is not what people expected in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, but it is also not surprising. Instead of moving from strength to strength, the world’s major democracies have all suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds over the past 25 years. The United States invaded Iraq on false pretenses, bungled the occupation, and then suffered a financial crisis that could have been avoided with greater regulatory oversight. America’s domestic political order became increasingly dysfunctional, with public confidence in politicians sinking to new lows (and without considerable justification). Even worse, hardly anyone of consequence was held accountable for these screw-ups, reinforcing public perceptions of an out-of-touch and self-protective elite and fueling the populist wave that Trump exploited so successfully (and quickly betrayed).

In Europe, the creation of the euro proved to be a fatal mistake with far-reaching political consequences, and the British decision to exit the EU has exposed both the follies of trying to govern via referendum and the ever-expanding circle of ineptitude in the British ruling class. It takes a lot of incompetence to make Jeremy Corbyn an attractive alternative, but the toxic combination of Nigel Farage, David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson (along a few of their subordinates) have managed to pull it off. If Justin Trudeau and his fellow Canadians are supposed to restore faith in democratic orders, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

So is it time to sound the death knell for democracy? If the 1900s were the “American Century,” will the 2000s be a new Age of Autocracy? Not so fast. For one thing, the long-run track record of most autocracies isn’t that great, especially as they become more centralized and corrupt and lose the feedback mechanisms that help governments correct mistakes. As James Scott documented in his wonderful book Seeing Like a State, a combination of autocracy and vast ambition usually results in efforts at social engineering that cause great human suffering but do not yield the promised results.

Moreover, many of the dictatorships Trump seems to admire don’t have particularly glowing track records either. Turkey has gone from “zero problems with neighbors” to problems with nearly all of them, and the Turkish economy is likely to face growing problems (and a potential brain drain) as Erdogan tightens his grip. Putin has played a weak hand well in a couple of relatively minor arenas, but he’s done nothing to revitalize Russia’s weak economy or fix its internal social issues (health, life expectancy, etc.), and Russia is bound to grow ever weaker over time. Egypt is still a disaster, and Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious effort to re-engineer the Saudi political order is still a long-shot gamble. Moreover, Mohammed bin Salman’s inept handling of foreign policy has led to a failed war in Yemen, a bungled confrontation with Qatar, an emerging crisis in Lebanon, and even more opportunities for the Saudis’ arch-rival, Iran. Even China’s otherwise impressive performance contains serious problems, and I’d even bet that Xi’s signature “One Belt One Road” initiative will be mostly a failure in the end.

The United States and other democracies have had a pretty bad run over the past two decades (in part because they were in such good shape they could afford to be stupid), but they retain a capacity for self-correction (as the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey suggest). It is also worth remembering that the United States recovered faster from the 2008 crisis than almost anyone else, an achievement for which Barack Obama never got enough credit.

Furthermore, fixing America’s current malaise need not require radical reforms (although abandoning the Electoral College and diminishing the role of money would help). You could do a lot by a sensible tax reform (reducing corporate taxes slightly, eliminating the most egregious loopholes for business and the wealthy, etc.), a serious infrastructure plan (which seems to have disappeared entirely from Trump’s policy agenda), greater restraint in foreign policy (but not isolationism), and perhaps some adjustments to existing entitlements.

The good news for Americans, in short, is that the country’s fate is still mostly in our hands. There is no guarantee that we will fix the current tailspin and regain the mojo we had when the Cold War ended, and I’d even argue for rejecting that level of hubris and basing our politics less on idealistic fantasies and more on a sense of realism at home and abroad. Indeed, I’d settle for ending the current blue/red division and restoring a greater sense of civility to our politics, which may have to wait till we get POTUS46. But it’s too soon to sell our democracy short, and I’d like our current president to stop acting as if he already had.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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