America Must Promote Democracy, Despite Trump’s Disdain for It

Even if 2020 marks a low point of U.S. democratic practice, supporting liberalism abroad must remain a vital element of U.S. foreign policy.

Russian matryoshka dolls depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump on sale at in Moscow on July 13, 2018.
Russian matryoshka dolls depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump on sale at in Moscow on July 13, 2018. MAXIM ZMEYEV/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 23, the U.S. State Department announced that the United States would no longer recognize Aleksandr Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus after he refused to hand over power to his opponent following a fraudulent election. That same day, the United States’ own president, Donald Trump, refused to commit to a peaceful transition after the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

The timing was more than awkward, as was the seeming double standard. In a world already riven by competition among political models, dictators and autocrats sense wind at their backs. A dysfunctional U.S. democracy at home makes it less credible to support liberalism abroad—at a time when freedom continues a more than decade-long retreat around the world. When the world needs the United States to lead in the support of democracy, the country is deeply divided about the strength of its own. Absent a quick correction, this portends trouble for what has long been a core element of U.S. foreign policy.

And a core element it remains, in spite of Trump’s statements and behavior. Take a look at nearly any week of U.S. diplomatic activity, and you will see the thread of democracy promotion running through it. On Oct. 6, for example, State Department officials held a human rights dialogue with Vietnam, in which they emphasized the rule of law, freedom of expression and association, and religious freedom. Two days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement on upcoming elections in several African countries, observing that “[r]epression and intimidation have no place in democracies.” On Oct. 9, the United States sanctioned Nicaragua’s chief prosecutor for fabricating cases against political prisoners, while the State Department committed to “[p]reserve and build upon the gains in democratization and human rights” in Afghanistan “as a necessary condition for sustainable peace.”
Foreign observers might ask Americans to extract the plank in their own eye before seeking to remove the speck in another’s.

These diplomatic efforts—and many others like them—run parallel to similar efforts by democracy promotion organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy. With budgets well-financed by a supportive U.S. Congress, these organizations’ on-the-ground efforts to monitor elections, conduct polling, help build political parties, and strengthen the process of democracy remain vital. Even in a Trump administration, support for democracy abroad remains a distinguishing feature of U.S. foreign policy.

Not a few foreign observers, however, might ask Americans to extract the plank in their own eye before seeking to remove the speck in another’s. Trump has not only refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power but has repeatedly said the election itself will be fraudulent. He has begun insisting that the attorney general indict Trump’s political opponents, tweeted that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “shouldn’t be allowed to run,” and argued that former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “should be in jail.” This is not exactly a firm embrace of the democratic process.

It’s also not new and follows years of undemocratic statements and behavior. Trump has denounced the free press as “the enemy of the people,” claimed that the U.S. Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president,” and made many other statements that show a disdain for democratic norms. The chinks in the United States’ democratic armor go well beyond presidential rhetoric: The government has shut down twice in the past three years; politicians now disagree not only about Supreme Court nominees but even the proper number of justices on the court. With the nation roiled by the coronavirus pandemic, its chief infectious disease expert is under protection against death threats. A militia was caught plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and this year’s Black Lives Matter protests demonstrate once again that the country has fallen far short of its founding ideals. In light of all this, one might ask by what rights the United States demands democracy and freedom in other countries.

Yet a sense of perspective is in order. For all its flaws, the U.S. system of government remains vastly different from that of the world’s autocracies and other illiberal regimes. The U.S. president may denounce the press, but the press gives back as good as it gets. Millions of Americans are freely voting already. Protests against police violence could not have taken place in China, Iran, or Venezuela. With any luck, there will be a peaceful post-election transition of power. There are always inconsistencies in American democracy—yet it always remains far better than nondemocratic alternatives. The key is to fix the flaws, not to lose faith in the project.

Some are indeed losing faith in the democratic project. Freedom House recently observed that the global pandemic has fueled what it calls a “crisis for democracy,” noting that the conditions for democracy and human rights have grown worse in 80 countries. COVID-19 has inspired abuses of power, given governments an excuse to silence critics, weakened institutions, and undermined systems of accountability. After 14 years of consecutive decline in global freedom as measured by Freedom House, democracy today is in need of strengthening.
According to Freedom House, the global pandemic has fueled a “crisis for democracy.”

The Trump administration’s own national defense strategy rightly observes that China and Russia are working to shape the world in accordance with their authoritarian model. By undermining democratic alliances and interfering in the domestic politics of key democracies, Beijing and Moscow not only aim to defend their political systems but seek to gain strategic advantage in their rivalry with the United States. Resisting these efforts requires that the United States protect its own democracy and support it abroad—in places such as Belarus, Ethiopia, and Hong Kong.

Americans have long debated whether they should seek to influence the domestic affairs of other countries. As secretary of state 200 years ago, John Quincy Adams famously held that the United States should not offer active support for liberal causes but lead with “the benignant sympathy of her example.” At the other extreme, former President George W. Bush committed the United States to aid the growth of democratic movements “in every nation and culture.”

For all their differences, both approaches—the United States as exemplar of democracy or as handmaiden to it—rely on a healthy democracy at home, which stands in the balance today. Political dysfunction sows doubt over Washington’s ability to lead the free world, undermines U.S. credibility in supporting liberal institutions abroad, and diminishes the attractiveness of the democratic model. It also lends ammunition to those who tout autocratic alternatives, such as Moscow and Beijing.

Today, U.S. policymakers and foreign-policy experts increasingly hear from their international counterparts that instead of trying to teach the world about democracy, the United States would do well to learn from others: from Estonia about protecting its democracy; from Russian disinformation; from Taiwan about handling a public health crisis without resorting to totalitarian controls; or from South Korea about holding elections during the pandemic. It is good to absorb these lessons—but U.S. foreign policy is strongest when the nation’s democracy functions well enough to convey its own set of positive lessons.
U.S. support has demonstrably made a difference in the past and will do so in the future, especially once the credibility of U.S. democracy is restored.

Even if the United States experiences a drama-free election and smooth transition of power, and even if Trump gives way to the more democratically minded Biden, the country will still have a lot of work to do to firm up its political, economic, and social foundations. Yet the world won’t wait for the United States to perfect itself. It requires Washington to reembrace the cause of defending liberalism and freedom now.

Of course, as IRI President Daniel Twining puts it, activists striving for rights and freedoms in places like Hong Kong and Belarus do so for their own reasons—not everything revolves around the United States’ fortunes. Nonetheless, U.S. support has demonstrably made a difference in the past and will continue to make a difference in the future, especially once the credibility of U.S. democracy is restored.

If 2020 has not marked the high point of U.S. democratic practice, that’s no reason to lose faith in democracy promotion as a core element of U.S. foreign policy. On the contrary, recent experience should be a spur: For both its own sake and the world’s, the United States should prefer supporting democracy abroad to shaking its foundations at home.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine