In President Donald Trump’s first year in office, U.S. policy relating to supporting democracy abroad became starkly divided. At the level of “high policy”—direct engagement and messaging by President Trump and his principal foreign policy advisers—the United States sharply downgraded its global pro-democratic posture. Trump’s praise of dictators, criticism of democratic allies, and anti-democratic actions at home recast the United States as at best an ambivalent actor on the global democratic stage. Yet at the same time, pro-democratic “low policy”—quiet but serious engagement by U.S. diplomats to counter democratic backsliding and support democratic advances overseas, and the extensive but generally low-profile domain of U.S. democracy assistance programs—largely carried on, making important contributions in many countries.
During Trump’s second year, this policy schism has only widened. He has doubled down on his embrace of dictators and spurning of democratic partners, as well as his anti-democratic actions at home. His new secretary of state and national security adviser may not share his anti-democratic impulses, but they have done little to mitigate his anti-democratic actions and have reinforced a transactional foreign policy with little apparent commitment to the idea of democracy as a universal value. Still, U.S. pro-democratic low policy carries on, as American diplomats support democracy in various countries at important moments of political change, and as democracy assistance remains at pre-Trump levels of activity. Yet the manifest lack of commitment to democracy at the top is increasingly corroding the low policy domain.
Under Trump, U.S. democracy high policy has reached its lowest ebb of at least the past forty years. If the United States continues its present course for two more years, it will end up stranded on the sidelines, or even on the wrong side, of the global democratic struggle, precisely at a time when that struggle is more acute than at any time in modern history. Nevertheless, democracy’s defenders—both inside and outside of the U.S. government—still have the opportunity to mitigate the damage.
As with most areas of his foreign policy, in the second year of his presidency Trump has not moderated but in fact doubled down on his disruptive actions in the democracy domain. His initial impulse to befriend dictators has hardened into a well-exercised conviction, evidenced in his often effusive praise for authoritarians as diverse as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Trump pairs his penchant for dictators with contempt for democrats. His disdainful comments about democratic leaders from Asia, Europe, and North America often highlight themes of weakness and greediness, as though they are characteristic features of democrats.
More broadly, and unlike his predecessors, Trump appears indifferent to democracy’s global fate. He has shown no interest in the advances and retreats of democracy in specific countries during his tenure. Beyond a few noteworthy references to democratic principles in his administration’s National Security Strategy—which he reportedly has not read fully—he has not articulated any overarching ambition for how his administration can assist democracy’s global advance. On the television screen of his worldview, democracy is entirely absent.
Trump’s disregard for democracy abroad is one part of his larger antipathy toward the traditional liberal order framework of U.S. foreign policy. In that structure, efforts to advance democracy—however uneven and imperfect they historically have been—were one of three interlocking U.S. pursuits, alongside protecting an open international economic system and building a global network of security alliances. Trump rejects all three as a “bad deal” or as irrelevant. The dream of a global convergence around liberal democracy, which lies at the heart of the endeavor to build an international liberal order, has no place in his transactional, each-country-for-itself approach.
On top of all this, Trump’s nonstop personal broadcasting of anti-democratic messages within U.S. politics—a stunning feature of his first year in office—has only intensified during his second year, dealing a severe blow to America’s status as democratic global model. The main elements of this messaging—his attacks on the free press, disrespect for the rule of law, and contempt for truth—align closely with the playbook of illiberal strongmen leaders who are gaining ground globally. And these actions are just the topline features of a much longer list of Trump’s anti-democratic habits and convictions, a catalogue that includes governing in a purposely divisive way, inflaming racial and ethnic hatred and exclusion, tolerating corruption in his senior team, demonstrating nepotism, questioning the validity of basic electoral processes, threatening private citizens with legal harm, and using his office to threaten or punish private citizens who speak up against him.
In short, the U.S. president has become a leading light for the surging anti-democratic forces in many parts of the world, a development genuinely unthinkable just a few years ago.
Some observers, such as Robert Kagan, have construed Trump’s foreign policy as “pure realism.” Others have disputed this opinion, noting that Trump’s foreign policy implementation falls short of effectively achieving realist objectives. Whatever the moniker, there is no doubt that Trump’s foreign policy has ushered in a new era of transactional, rather than universal, values. President Trump’s second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and third national security adviser, John Bolton, do not broadcast anti-democratic messages in the way that the president does (though Bolton has employed Trump’s description of the Robert Mueller investigation as the “Russia witch hunt”). But like their immediate predecessors, their orientation features scant or uneven attention to ideals like democracy. Both Bolton and Pompeo have talked about a tougher stance toward Russia and other authoritarian adversaries, yet in practice they have largely toed President Trump’s line of cultivating warmer relations with dictators. The administration has reinforced ties with autocratic allies like the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and improved relations with some authoritarian challengers, especially Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin.
The three main exceptions in the administration’s approach to authoritarians have been its hard line toward the leaders of Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. Here, the Trump team appears to be hoping for regime change by pressure, via heightened punitive measures and intensified public criticism of the leaders. Yet perfunctory invocations of “democracy” notwithstanding, this approach is less about fostering democracy than it is about eliminating hostile governments—and as recent U.S. history has shown, attempts to effect regime change through external pressure have inauspicious prospects.
A broader U.S. foreign policy development during Trump’s presidency—growing concern about geopolitical competition from China and Russia—might point to an increased role for democracy support. The National Security Strategy that the Trump administration released in December 2017 frames rivalries with China, Iran, and Russia as “fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.” Of course, this competition also entails security and economic dimensions, such as Russia’s muscular efforts to shape security outcomes in the Middle East and China’s expanding economic presence in multiple regions. But it is also about politics—specifically, the concern that Russia and China will reinforce existing undemocratic governments that support their geopolitical bidding and may use their influence to foster new ones as well.
It is possible, therefore, that the United States might upgrade democracy promotion as part of a broader response to this heightened geopolitical competition. The Trump administration might, for example, try to employ democracy promotion tools as a direct counter to China and Russia’s efforts to gain political influence in various countries. One modest indication of a policy shift toward geopolitical competition is the emphasis by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green on the “clear choice” that developing-world counterparts face between funding their development on China’s economic terms or through partnership with the United States. But such a larger shift is highly uncertain. For one, the Trump administration’s determination to actually reorient its foreign policy toward greater confrontation with China and Russia has appeared highly uneven. Regardless of Trump’s provocative efforts to stir up trade conflicts, China remains a key economic counterpart of the United States, and an important partner in some U.S. security endeavors, such as negotiations with North Korea on denuclearization. And despite tough talk from some principals and official Defense Department documents regarding Russia, the president seems determined to continue friendly relations (and carve out solo quality time) with Putin.
Moreover, even if geostrategic competition with Russia and China does become a more dominant orientation of U.S. foreign policy in the next few years, it may actually reduce rather than bolster the U.S. emphasis on democracy promotion. Such competition may intensify the lingering Cold War habit in which the United States becomes more forgiving of undemocratic allies for the sake of maintaining security partnerships. This instinct is already evident in the Trump administration’s warm relations with President Sisi of Egypt, whom Trump has praised as a key security partner in efforts to “fight terrorism and other things.” This summer, Pompeo restored $195 million in military aid to Egypt despite the worsening human rights situation there. Similarly, with respect to Hungary, the administration this year emphasized the need to play up the positive security elements of Hungary’s value to the United States—as a steady NATO partner—rather than push it hard on its democratic shortcomings.
Low Policy Corrosion
Despite the lack of commitment to democracy support at the high policy level, the main elements of U.S. low policy support for democracy abroad carry on. In numerous countries, U.S. officials continue engaging with governments and other actors to limit backsliding tendencies, resolve political blockages around democratic processes, and bolster democratic advances. In Cambodia, for example, the U.S. embassy worked diligently in the early months of 2018 to try to protect Cambodian civil society organizations and U.S. democracy aid providers against the Cambodian government’s growing suppression of independent political and civic activity. Meanwhile, after Zimbabwe’s July 2018 election, the U.S. ambassador collaborated with European Union counterparts to issue a joint statement condemning “serious human rights violations,” and received backing in multiple statements from State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. In addition, over the past year, the interagency has launched implementation of the Global Magnitsky Act, passed in late 2016, to sanction dozens of corrupt actors and human rights abusers in places ranging from Nicaragua and South Sudan to the Gambia and Myanmar—though advocates argue that more should be done. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sanctions targeting regime allies under the Magnitsky Act and other statutes, combined with diplomatic pressure from the United States and other international actors, proved crucial in discouraging President Joseph Kabila from unconstitutionally seeking a third term—although the election still faces considerable risks.
In parallel to this diplomatic work, U.S. democracy aid also continues. As one illustrative example, before this summer’s election in Zimbabwe, the United States supported electoral observation missions and provided training for civil society organizations in preelection advocacy. In Ethiopia, as the new leadership has signaled a democratic opening and lifted a state of emergency, U.S. officials in Addis Ababa and Washington have moved to support the nascent reform process and preparations for elections. Even beyond the higher-profile focus on free and fair electoral events, the United States remains active in supporting political party development, bolstering the rule of law, enhancing civil society, reforming legislatures, strengthening democratic local government, and helping independent media survive. Notably, democracy assistance budgets have remained steady during the Trump administration. The administration has proposed drastic cuts in democracy aid, as part of its efforts to reduce the civilian international affairs budget overall, and has also considered “end runs” around Congress by attempting to cut budgets through rescission. Yet a stalwart bipartisan coalition of congressional leadership has been able to protect democracy assistance. And beyond the explicit democracy assistance sector, economic growth compacts from the Millennium Challenge Corporation still incentivize democratic reform by weighing democratic rights and control of corruption in country selection processes.
Overall then, the schism between high policy and low policy relating to democracy support has become even more stark in the second year of the Trump presidency. When writing about the emergence of this divergence last year, Thomas Carothers noted that if it were to continue—and widen—then over time the gap likely would corrode low policy efforts to support democracy abroad, despite the best efforts of dedicated diplomats and aid practitioners. During Trump’s second year, such corrosion has started to become apparent.
Damage to Pro-democracy Diplomacy
In the realm of pro-democracy diplomacy, this corrosion has undercut specific midlevel diplomatic efforts to push back against strongman leaders. Such weakening often occurs when Trump personally praises or embraces the autocrat in question. In the Philippines, for instance, the State Department’s 2016 and 2017 Human Rights Reports highlighted the sharply rising number of extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte in the nation’s war on drugs as “the chief human rights concern in the country.” Yet Duterte can easily ignore such rhetoric when Trump congratulates him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” and rhapsodizes about their “great relationship.” Thailand represents another example. After taking power through a 2014 coup, the ruling military general–turned–prime minister has repeatedly pushed back an election date, while cracking down on dissent and press freedoms. While Barack Obama’s administration consequently distanced itself from the Thai leadership, and working-level officials still reliably emphasize democratic norms to Thai counterparts, President Trump chose to host the ruling general in a one-on-one meeting in the White House.
Beyond personal embraces of strongmen, Trump undercuts pro-democracy diplomacy when he indicates support for their broader autocratic actions. Given how President Trump cheered on President Xi’s elimination of term limits and Mohammed bin Salman’s mass arrests in an anticorruption purge, would-be autocrats increasingly assume that they have been given carte blanche to pick from the dictator’s handbook. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen almost certainly discounts the pushback against his crackdown that he receives from U.S. officials in the country, confident that President Trump’s sympathy for his strongman style is of greater importance in shaping his relations with the United States. In Ukraine, similarly, while the State Department has maintained an unequivocal line against the Russian annexation of Crimea, noting that Russia held an “illegitimate, fabricated ‘referendum’ in Ukraine in a futile attempt to legitimize its purported annexation of Ukrainian territory,” Trump himself publicly toyed with recognizing the annexation, undermining the State Department’s stance.
Trump has also presided over decay in the institutional structures of U.S. diplomacy that has further weakened pro-democracy engagement. Previous secretary of state Rex Tillerson oversaw an exodus of senior and midlevel diplomats and general suppression of diplomatic energy, leaving the department with no U.S. ambassadors in such key countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and a dearth of senior-level officials in Washington, including no assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor (DRL). Secretary Pompeo has begun to reverse this decay, including by nominating a DRL assistant secretary and reembracing special envoy positions to add senior diplomatic bandwidth. But a full renovation will take years. At the National Security Council, the Trump-era elimination of the Development and Democracy Directorate, and the senior director role that led the office, has removed key champions for democracy-related considerations within the interagency decisionmaking process.
Democracy Aid Under Pressure
The schism between high and low policy is also corroding democracy aid. Although Congress has protected democracy assistance budgets thus far, the president himself has made clear that he would like to dismantle them. All organizations engaged in democracy assistance that depend primarily upon U.S. government support have been living with significant uncertainty, rattling their own strategic planning, program development, and personnel decisions. For practitioners, who understand that fostering democracy is a process, not a onetime event, this lack of predictability poses real challenges to their long-term efforts to effectively cultivate democratic institutions.
Beyond budget uncertainty, the lack of high policy support damages democracy aid in other ways. For example, U.S. efforts to promote free and fair elections do not operate separately from the larger policy context in which the U.S. president congratulates Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other foreign leaders on victories in manipulated and manifestly unfree elections. The same is true for initiatives to support the rule of law, freedom of the press, political tolerance, and other values that Trump regularly tramples. Notably, after the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor announced that it would provide up to $700,000 to support independent media in Hungary, the Orbán government claimed that the grant did not reflect the priorities of the White House, and succeeded in lobbying the Trump administration to cancel the grant.
President Trump’s objectionable policies and profile are also hurting the multilateral partnerships on democracy issues that lie at the crossroads of pro-democracy diplomacy and aid efforts. Through global initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership and the Community of Democracies, as well as country-specific endeavors, U.S. diplomats and aid managers have often worked hand-in-hand with counterparts from other democracies. Over several decades, active partnerships with like-minded countries have enhanced U.S. global democracy pursuits immeasurably; President Trump’s anti-democratic actions and antipathy toward alliance relations have undermined these traditional collaborations. Natural partners for U.S. democracy promotion, such as Canada, Great Britain, and Sweden, are focusing on how to move forward on democracy support without the United States. The emergence of any new significant multilateral initiatives aimed at advancing democratic norms built on partnerships between the United States and other democracies—like the Open Government Partnership established under former president Barack Obama—is unimaginable in today’s policy environment.
Shortcomings of U.S. democracy policy are hardly new: administrations have always had to situate democracy support within an array of other strategic imperatives, such as security or economic interests. During the George W. Bush presidency, the emergence of counterterrorism as a dominant U.S. policy preoccupation generated strain on democracy objectives due to heightened U.S. security cooperation with several autocratic governments, and U.S. disrespect for the rule of law both at home and abroad. Under Obama, democracy promotion receded in profile in some ways, consistent with Obama’s broader shift away from an activist U.S. foreign policy and toward a “long game” aimed at incremental change. Yet the sidelining of democracy concerns under President Trump, together with his damage to the U.S. democratic model, are a diminishment of a different order of magnitude. Although low policy democracy practitioners diligently keep on practicing, given the signals coming from the Oval Office, some observers now argue that the United States has “jettisoned democracy promotion as a foreign policy goal.”
Trump and his top advisers are highly unlikely to shift the substance, or messaging, of U.S. high policy toward a more pro-democratic stance in the remaining two years of this presidential term. U.S. democracy diplomacy and assistance will carry on, but the weakening of these efforts will compound. With renovation of U.S. democracy policy still an uncertain and distant prospect, those committed to making the United States a net contributor to global democracy must focus for now on policy survival. This cohort includes the long-dedicated democracy support constituency within the executive branch, legislative branch, and advocacy and philanthropic communities. Priorities include the following:
Sustaining Pro-democracy Diplomacy
- Highlight public support. In 2018, the George W. Bush Institute, Freedom House, and the Penn Biden Center found that 71 percent of Americans support the U.S. government “taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.” By communicating this notable (and underappreciated) level of support, research and advocacy communities can encourage legislators and other policymakers to continue resisting administration efforts to slash democracy aid and broader international affairs spending, such as the recent rescissions proposal. Given that several defenders of pro-democracy diplomacy, including Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Edward Royce, are retiring from Congress this year, these communities should underscore this public support when forging relationships with incoming lawmakers.
- Push for the restoration of government positions and capacities essential to democracy work, as part of broader efforts to reverse the damage to U.S. diplomatic capacity inflicted during the first eighteen months of Trump’s presidency. Specific priority areas include confirming the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor and filling key supporting roles, as well as restoring democracy-focused positions at the National Security Council.
- Draw attention to key country cases where democracy has a window of opportunity to make progress or is especially at risk, and underline the value of U.S. engagement with them. For example, political openings, or at least signs of them, in Armenia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan, as well as critical junctures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, may merit closer U.S. engagement.
- Don’t neglect “democracy capital” created during earlier administrations. Some signature democracy initiatives launched under the Obama presidency carry on with more low-key U.S. participation, such as the Open Government Partnership and the Young Leaders’ initiatives. Others, such as the Stand with Civil Society Initiative, seem dormant at least in branded form. But many components of these initiatives are still relevant, and continued support from the U.S. government, or new support from other bilateral or philanthropic sources, would help maintain their initial progress.
- Urge the Trump administration to finalize the interagency strategy on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance that the National Security Council has been working on over the past year. The administration’s recent publication of its Stabilization Assistance Review and National Security Strategy documents helped to align internal U.S. government efforts in these areas, and also to communicate the administration’s priorities to external counterparts. Finalizing and distributing a strategy on democracy support would similarly clarify the administration’s approach, and allow non-U.S. government partners to target complementary efforts more efficiently.
- Encourage partners to “burden share” on democracy support. On a related note, allies such as the European Union and its member states, Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea as well as philanthropic organizations, should be aware that their efforts to boost their own pro-democracy support and engagement will be seen as complementing U.S. efforts, rather than stepping on the administration’s toes. With diminished U.S. leadership in organizing these various efforts, other democracy supporters should also be assertive in starting conversations about priorities and division of labor.
Encouraging Policy Innovation
- Encourage Congress to explore creative ways of using its own authorities to support democracy, beyond the important role of holding the line on budgets. On a symbolic level, legislators should consider increasing their number of meetings with pro-democracy activists from abroad to signal support, taking up some of the role that the White House historically has played in demonstrating U.S. support for democratic principles. In the legislative arena, representatives could consider creative legislation, such as limiting foreign assistance to countries whose leaders have extended their own term limits by undemocratic means, in parallel to the long-standing Foreign Assistance Act provision cutting off nonhumanitarian aid to countries whose elected government is deposed by a military coup. Ideally, such aid cuts should focus on the aid that autocrats value most—security sector assistance—however complex that issue is.
- Support greater assistance for regional organizations that are boosting democracy efforts in their own neighborhoods. As one illustrative example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has augmented its role as mediator of some democratic transitions and preventing movement toward authoritarianism in West Africa. Greater U.S. and other external involvement could significantly bolster ECOWAS’s capacities in specific areas.
- Continue to build bridges with the information technology sector to explore how social media and other technologies can support democratic processes globally rather than weaken them. Many companies have communicated the desire to serve the public interest and the imperative to do better; conversely, the core democracy support community has made more of an effort to grapple with the implications of technology for their work. Though specifics vary widely based upon platform, firms with international reach should be urged to develop policies that privilege information over disinformation, emphasize meaningful expression over speculation and sensationalism, and bring their community standards into line with international standards of freedom of expression.
Changing the Conversation
- Inform debates about rising ideological competition with China and Russia by underscoring that the United States should not sacrifice considerations of democracy for the sake of strengthening ties with autocrats. Provide suggestions for ways in which USAID’s “Clear Choice” initiative can encourage democratic citizen-centered governance principles, in addition to a better deal economically.
- Develop a more positive but still realistic counternarrative on global democracy that acknowledges the many problems that democracy is facing but presents a more balanced picture than the burgeoning global doom-and-gloom accounts. The democracy support community should highlight the emergence of various democratic advances around the world, the notable success of anticorruption protests and legal action in driving positive political change, the indispensability of democracy for achieving broad respect for human rights, and the difficulties many authoritarian regimes face in delivering basic goods and services.
In just two short years in office—or two very long ones—President Trump has moved the United States far away from the democratic “city on a hill” invoked by his predecessor Ronald Reagan. But building democracy is a generations-long endeavor, whether at home or abroad, and democracy practitioners know well the imperative of taking the long view. The task immediately ahead is policy survival; policy renovation is a project for some later time. For now, if the United States is to remain a player in the global democracy space, the concerned community must redouble its efforts to preserve what remains, encourage other long-time pro-democractic actors to step up, and identify ways to bring in new partners to this mission.