It is impossible to know for certain what approach President-elect Donald Trump will take to supporting democracy and human rights abroad. So far, he has offered only scattered hints—expressions of instincts and impulses that largely point toward a disinclination to engage in democracy promotion but remain far from being elaborated into concrete policy plans. In addition, Trump’s leadership style and the overall troubled state of U.S. democracy will clearly hurt U.S. efforts to advance democracy’s global fortunes in the years ahead. While all of this points almost uniformly in a negative direction, it is likely that as Trump and his team move to actual policymaking, their actions in this domain will prove less consistently negative than their initial signals might indicate.

Negative Signals

Throughout his campaign, Trump emphasized his intention to take a purely transactional approach to other international powers. Underlying this approach is the idea that the United States will define its interests narrowly and thereby focus on U.S. economic interests and core security concerns (above all, counterterrorism). Democracy and human rights in other countries, and other “soft” interests, are to be put aside in the pursuit of a get-tough, America-first foreign policy. According to Trump and his advisers, their counterterrorism strategy will rest on stepped-up military efforts and possibly harsher treatment of suspected terrorists who are detained or imprisoned. They have shown no interest in longer-term political approaches to undercutting the roots of state fragility: for example, Trump declared at a public event in December that “we’re going to stop trying to build new nations in far-off lands” that “you’ve never even heard of.”

In line with his promise of transactionalism, Trump has taken a strikingly friendly approach toward various foreign strongmen. His favorable statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin have attracted the most attention but are only one part of a larger pattern that includes a recent sympathetic statement about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal crackdown on undocumented immigrants and drug traffickers, a backslapping meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in New York in September, and an effusive postelection telephone call with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He has made it clear that in pursuing warmer relationships with such leaders, he does not intend to raise unpleasant truths about their democratic shortcomings. Of course, the United States has long maintained cozy ties with various nondemocratic governments for the sake of security and economic interests; but Trump has been offering a kind of lavish praise that generally does not characterize such relationships and that extends to strongmen leaders who are not even strategically important to the United States (like Orbán).

Another serious negative signal related to democracy policy is Trump’s deep-seated doubts about the value of core U.S. alliances—both with NATO partners and other crucial longtime allies such as Japan and South Korea. He has exhibited a lack of appreciation of these alliances, which are foundational elements of a broader international order that the United States helped establish and has led for more than a half century—an order rooted in liberal political values. Without anchoring specific democracy policies and programs in a larger strategy to preserve this international order, such efforts will lack real weight.

Of course, U.S. democracy promotion relies not just on actions the United States takes abroad, but the power of the example it sets at home. Various problematic features of U.S. political life in recent years—the institutional gridlock, the ever-rising role of money in politics, and the frequent skirmishing over basic electoral rules and procedures—have already tarnished the United States’ image abroad. But the recent U.S. presidential election process damaged this image much more widely and deeply. Although this damage had many sources, numerous actions that Trump took during the campaign and since the election—from his vows to prosecute his main opponent to his baseless postelection assertions of massive electoral fraud—figure significantly in the dispiriting diminishment of America’s global political brand. Trump went so far as to mock the idea of the United States as a democratic exemplar, declaring in July that “when the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.” 

Moreover, highly visible elements of Trump’s leadership style—from his propensity to engage in personal attacks against journalists and even average citizens in response to minor perceived slights to his unwillingness to seriously address the linkages between his business interests and his political position—set a devastating example to strongmen leaders around the world. In taking such actions, he is drawing from the playbook of these vindictive leaders, who have undercut democracy in a growing number of countries that once enjoyed considerable political space, such as Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey. Many democratically dubious leaders are observing these actions emanating from the president-elect and undoubtedly saying to their critics: How can you object to my efforts to defend myself? When I reach out to slap those who dare criticize me, I’m only doing what the new president of the world’s greatest democracy does.

The Inseparability of Values and Interests

In short, the prospects for serious, effective U.S. engagement by Trump to support democracy and human rights abroad look dismal. But in practice, the picture will likely end up being at least somewhat less negative than the initial signals indicate. The outlook and intentions of incoming U.S. presidents with respect to democracy promotion tend to change when leaders move from campaigning to governing. This is true both because of certain realities of democracy support that come to the fore once new administrations get under way and because international events sometimes surprise and redirect new presidents. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush and his top foreign policy advisers showed only disdain for democracy building and nation building as elements of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Bush’s subsequent embrace of the idea that promoting democratic inclusion in Muslim-majority countries would undercut violent radicalism, Bush was soon trumpeting democracy promotion as the defining theme of his foreign policy.1 President Barack Obama took office intending to deemphasize what he viewed as an overheated emphasis on democracy promotion by his predecessor. He omitted any mention of the topic in his inaugural address in January 2009. However, just six months later, he spoke in Cairo in ambitious aspirational terms about the possibility of democracy in the Middle East; and soon after that, in Accra and then at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, he took up the democracy theme as well.2

One reason incoming presidents intent on rigorous realism end up adopting democracy goals more than they had intended is that a sharp separation between foreign policy interests and values—a key tenet of the tough-minded realism that presidential candidates often find so appealing to articulate—is an illusion. Once one descends from policy generalities to specific country cases, the fact quickly emerges that supporting democracy is often a useful way to advance “hard” economic and security interests. This is especially true in countries newly attempting democratic transitions, where the question almost always arises of whether the United States will lend a helping hand.

Consider three examples. In Burma, U.S. support for the country’s transition to democracy—which involves diplomatic engagement, economic carrots and sticks, and democracy-related assistance—is strongly motivated by values. It reflects the straightforward hope that the Burmese people will be better off living under a democracy than under a military-led dictatorship. But it also has geostrategic motives, including the effort to limit Chinese influence in Asia. The Burmese military began allowing a democratic opening in part to defuse citizen unhappiness with China’s dominant role in the country—a role that the military allowed to grow for decades. A successful transition to civilian, democratic rule would almost certainly result in a greater Western economic and diplomatic presence in the country and a reduced Chinese role.

In Ukraine, the massive outburst of citizen activism that toppled Ukraine’s government in 2014 and led to a new effort to renovate its stagnant, semi-authoritarian political system was rooted in Ukrainians’ powerful wish for their country to have a stronger orientation toward the West. The extensive U.S. and European support for this attempted democratic renovation reflects a Western desire to help Ukrainians enjoy the benefits of democracy. Yet it also has an important strategic impetus: the hope that a stable, democratic Ukraine will be less subject to Russian political interference and a better economic and security partner for the West.

Or look at Tunisia. The country stands as a notable exception to the negative trend of post–Arab Spring political developments in the region thanks to constructive compromises achieved by the major contending political factions. The relatively substantial U.S. and European support for Tunisian democracy is based not only on the hope that Tunisians can enjoy a better life under democracy. It is also rooted in a security rationale: Successful political inclusion in Tunisia may help undercut the threat of radicalization and violent political extremism. And a consolidated democratic transition in Tunisia would be an important example of successful political inclusiveness and accountable governance in a region where political exclusion and unresponsive governance are core drivers of dangerous security crises.

These three cases are not atypical. In most of the dozens of countries where the United States is employing diplomatic, economic, and assistance measures to support potential or struggling democratic transitions—from Cambodia, Indonesia, and Mongolia to El Salvador, Kenya, Nigeria, and Venezuela—such efforts align closely with and serve a critical array of unquestionably hard interests. These include limiting the strategic reach of the United States’ autocratic rivals, fighting terrorism, reducing international drug trafficking, and undercutting the drivers of massive refugee flows. 

In a small number of countries, for example, Albania and Malawi, the United States is engaged in supporting democracy despite having few significant economic or security interests at stake. However, by supporting democracy in such cases as well, the United States helps contribute to positive contagion effects within politically shaky regions where every additional successful democratic experiment helps buttress other fledgling attempts. Trump and his advisers who profess tough-minded realism should ask themselves a basic question: if democracy promotion is such a soft interest disconnected from U.S. core interests, why do our major geopolitical rivals so intensely dislike our attachment to the endeavor?

In this regard, it is worth noting that despite Trump’s signaling about values-free deal making with rivals such as Putin, he has already spoken in favor of supporting democratic principles in some nondemocratic countries. In his statement following the death of former Cuban president Fidel Castro, he pledged “our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.” Late in the presidential campaign, he similarly pledged “to stand with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”

The inseparability of values and interests points to an additional consideration for the president-elect and his advisers that complicates taking a purely transactional approach to dealing with U.S. rivals. Trump has implied that democracy and rights are among those niceties that will need to be put aside in the muscular process of forging new or better deals with these countries. It is indeed true that U.S. criticisms related to democracy and rights seriously irritate governments such as those in China and Russia. One reason that Chinese elites took a somewhat cautiously positive view of Trump’s election was their relief over not having to deal with Hillary Clinton bothering them about their human rights shortcomings. Yet if a focus on democracy and rights is such an irritant, shouldn’t a transactional approach seek to use it as a bargaining chip to be traded away in return for something useful to the United States? In other words, if Trump fancies being a shrewd negotiator on the international diplomatic stage, why not take advantage of every lever or pressure point available to the United States in dealing with difficult rivals? Why unilaterally disengage on the democracy and rights front before even going into the fray?

Giving Up Is Difficult to Do

An attempt by Trump and his advisers to shift decisively away from the longtime, bipartisan consensus on the important place of democracy promotion in U.S. policy will confront not just the complex interlocking of different U.S. interests but also multiple institutional or contextual constraints. None of these constraints is likely to be decisive, but all of them will complicate any effort to reset the dial of U.S. democracy support at somewhere close to zero.

First, the Trump administration will encounter significant resistance within Congress. Various senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle are committed to U.S. support for democracy and human rights, seeing it as a commitment to fundamental values and an intrinsic part of projecting American strength. This group comprises a bipartisan mix of influential senators, including Ben Cardin, Lindsey Graham, Tim Kaine, Patrick Leahy, John McCain, and Marco Rubio. Policy toward Russia—especially how much the United States should overlook Russia’s nondemocratic nature for the sake of cooperation on certain security issues—is already a source of sharp disagreement between the Trump team and some senators and representatives. Conflicts will arise with respect to policies concerning other countries, as well as with assistance programs where administration actions go against well-established congressional preferences.

Second, even if the Trump team deemphasizes democracy support from the top down in its foreign policymaking, the issue is widely institutionalized within the foreign policy bureaucracy. Many U.S. ambassadors and other career senior diplomats have worked for years to employ diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks to support democracy where it is advancing or backsliding. Democracy support is built into country strategies wherever the United States provides aid; and democracy-related programs are rooted in multiple sources of aid, including security-related sources such as the sizeable assistance budget of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. While the Trump team may reduce diplomatic attention to democracy policy from the top, tearing out the many threads of democracy support from the institutional fabric of U.S. foreign policy would not be a simple or quick task.

Third, the U.S. public may be less inclined to applaud the abandoning of a U.S. commitment to a more democratic world than the Trump team may think. It is true that in surveys asking U.S. citizens about foreign policy priorities, supporting democracy abroad ranks low on the list when presented alongside alternatives such as protecting the country against terrorism. It would be surprising if it did not, given the many perceived threats facing the country. Yet the Trump administration will likely be surprised to discover how many Americans still support a broad-gauged U.S. engagement in the world.3 Moreover, once past the initial puffery over the idea of negotiating great new deals for the country, Trump and his team will find that befriending dictators and disappointing democratic allies does not play well over the long term within the U.S. public arena.    

Fourth, as he begins to meet with allies, Trump and his team will confront the reality that democracy support is not a uniquely American preoccupation. They will find that many good friends of the United States work in important ways to advance democracy internationally and want the United States to continue to play a major role in that effort. The idea that has gained traction in U.S. policy circles in recent months—that the liberal international order has no significant adherents anymore beyond Germany—is deeply flawed. It ignores that numerous governments and regional groupings—including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, the European Union, Great Britain, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan—are deeply committed to an international order rooted in shared liberal values. The abandonment of democracy support would not smooth over U.S. relations with most other countries; it would instead put the United States at odds with the majority of its most valuable and reliable international partners. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s congratulatory message to Trump after his election—in which she specified that Germany’s offer of cooperation with the United States is based on shared democratic and other liberal values—underlined this fact.

The Breaking Point

Taken at face value, Trump’s signals regarding democracy and human rights support point to a serious deviation away from a basic recognition that has informed U.S. foreign policy for the past thirty years—that it is in the United States’ interest to give at least some serious attention to these issues. However, there are reasons to think that Trump and his foreign policy team will not end up diverging from this norm as drastically as these signals indicate. They will discover that supporting democracy and rights also helps to serve hard interests vis-à-vis many countries and that significant opposition to dismantling democracy policies will arise from within the U.S. government, as well as from the U.S. public and many U.S. allies.

For the U.S. democracy support community, this situation has several implications. First, the community will need to emphasize to the Trump team the multiple ways that democracy support serves U.S. security and economic interests. Democracy promoters—proud of supporting democracy as an ideal and reticent about giving foreign counterparts the idea that this support is primarily aimed at advancing U.S. interests—have not always made the instrumental case as forthrightly as they could. Second, the community should make extra efforts to build relations as widely as possible throughout the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, going beyond the core set of known democracy promotion stalwarts to reach the next circle of senators and congressmen and staff who are less knowledgeable about and committed to the topic, but open to the idea. Third, U.S. democracy supporters should prioritize bringing together officials, aid practitioners, and activists from other democracies that are engaged in international democracy work with representatives of the new U.S. administration to highlight common interests and the value of joint action. Many of these individuals abroad have been watching the negative signals coming from the president-elect and wondering what will be left of U.S. democracy promotion. The democracy community will need to actively show these counterparts that democracy support will remain a continuing part of U.S. policy and help them connect with the new administration.

Despite the possible constraints the president-elect faces in regard to dismantling democracy support—and the practical, preventive actions the democracy community can take—the situation is troubling. It is difficult to know how deeply the damaged state of U.S. democracy and the possible continuation of antidemocratic actions on Trump’s part—such as his open ridiculing of independent media—will undercut the credibility and legitimacy of U.S. democracy-related policies abroad. Of course, it is not necessary to be a flawless democracy to be a meaningful supporter of democracy in other countries. Many democratic countries engaged in democracy support have significant democratic deficiencies. Effective democracy support draws from the hard and comparative experience of multiple countries, rather than supposedly pristine models. But there is a breaking point in which a democracy is so fractured that its politicians and diplomats lack basic credibility when they attempt to encourage or pressure foreign counterparts to forge a democratic path—especially from a country in the habit of putting itself forward as the head of the democratic pack. The United States is closer to this breaking point than it has ever been before.

Notes

1 George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).

2 Thomas Carothers, Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat? (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

3 A 2014 Chicago Council survey found that “58 percent say that the United States should play an active part in world affairs.” However, it should be noted that a 2016 Pew report found a lower percentage of Americans (37 percent) believe that the United States “should help other countries deal with their problems.” See Dina Smeltz, Ivo Daalder, and Craig Kafura, Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment: Results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy (Chicago: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2014); and Pew Research Center, Public Uncertain, Divided Over America’s Place in the World (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2016), http://www.people-press.org/2016/05/05/public-uncertain-divided-over-americas-place-in-the-world/.