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US Trump Presidency: Prospects for U.S. Democracy Promotion Under Trump

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.

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.

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 indicates.

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