President is Responsible for America’s Retreat from Supporting Democracy
Abroad, and It Isn’t Trump
than a generation has passed since America hailed the 1991 Soviet collapse as
the dawn of a new world order, wide open to the spread of freedom and democracy.
That euphoria is long gone, replaced these days by apprehension. For years now,
authoritarian rulers have been on a roll, with such aggressive dictatorships as
China, Russia and Iran gaining military muscle, influence and turf. Around the
globe, freedom and democracy have been broadly in decline.
there any serious chance that on President Donald Trump’s watch, these dismal
trends might be stopped, or even reversed? Could his push to “Make America
Great Again” conceivably catalyze a global comeback for democracy? The answer
might surprise you.
clear that to Trump’s more ardent critics, such questions are absurd. He’s a
grandiose businessman from Queens, prone to hyperbole and rude toward many
Washington totems. He appeals in the main to voters who would never think of
applying for membership in the Council on Foreign Relations. In choosing the
slogan “America First,” Trump adopted (whether he knew it or not) the
phrase of 20th century isolationists who wanted to keep America out of the great
and vital struggle for freedom that was World War II. How could such a president
be good for American foreign policy?
column last month for The Dallas Morning News, the president of
Washington-based Freedom House, Michael J. Abramowitz, and his colleague, Sarah
N. Repucci, denounced Trump as a dictator-loving democracy-dismissing reinforcer
of “neo-isolationism.” They were elaborating on a
Freedom House report released in January that described democracy worldwide
as not only in its 12th straight year of decline, but in accelerating
“crisis,” with the acceleration due substantially to Trump. The report
accused Trump of everything from “hostility and skepticism toward binding
international agreements,” to abandoning America’s leadership of the free
world, to rarely using the word “democracy” during his trips abroad.
sweeping damnation of Trump skips right past some essential elements of the big
picture, starting with the context that by the time Trump reached the White
House, freedom and democracy worldwide had been declining for roughly a decade.
For most of that decade the president was Barack Obama, whose foreign policy was
a sweeping exercise in American retreat. As the Freedom House report delicately
summed it up, the Obama administration in its foreign policy statements defended
“democratic ideals,” but “its actions often fell short.”
Obama shortfall had devastating effects on American power, credibility, allies
and interests abroad. While running up a huge national debt to fund a ballooning
welfare state, Obama gutted the U.S. military, to such an extent that during his
final month in office there was an interval in which the U.S. Navy did not have
a single aircraft carrier operating at sea.
began his presidency by appeasing Russia with a “reset” that included
reneging on promises of missile defense for Eastern Europe. He announced to the
United Nations that American exceptionalism was no more exceptional than that of
any other country, and he promised to place at the center of U.S. foreign policy
the U.N. — where Security Council permanent members Russia and China
wield veto power right alongside the U.S., Britain and France.
Iranians rose up in mass protests against their brutally repressive government
in 2009, Obama passively bore “witness,” assuring the world that the long
arc of history would sort things out. When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011,
Obama led from behind on Libya. Then he left the fragmented country to the
feckless mercies of the U.N., the Arab League and the terrorists who in Benghazi
in 2012 slaughtered four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador — while
Obama, running for re-election, assured Americans that terrorism was on the run,
and the tide of war was receding.
pledged a “pivot” to Asia, which to China’s likely relief never took
place. He proclaimed in 2011 that Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, must go — but
did nothing to ensure that Assad went. Instead, in 2013 Obama erased his own
“red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and invited Russia into
Syria, where Putin dug in to support Assad.
embraced Cuba’s brutal Fidel Castro dictatorship, while snubbing, insulting
and undercutting Israel, the only full democracy in the Middle East. Obama
up-ended the hard-won stability in Iraq by pulling out all U.S. forces,
discounted the terrorists of ISIS as the “JV team” during their rise, and,
while ISIS was beheading American prisoners on video, Obama put out the message
that more Americans die from accidents involving guns, cars and bathtubs than
from terrorist attacks. Under the euphemism of “strategic patience,” Obama
largely ignored North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, while totalitarian
dictator Kim Jong Un consolidated power, bulked up his nuclear arsenal and built
signature foreign-policy venture, the Iran nuclear deal — reached with
the help of Russian and China, over the protests of existentially threatened
Israel — did not close Iran’s path to the bomb. By lifting nuclear
sanctions, it did succeed in allowing Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime lavish
access to global resources, topped off with a U.S. “claims settlement” of
$1.7 billion shipped secretly to Iran in cash.
Obama pulled America back, opportunistic dictatorships stepped forward. China
moved full speed ahead to develop a blue water navy, bully its neighbors and
expand its clout in Asia by building artificial islands, topped with military
bases, along major shipping routes in the South China Sea. Russia seized Crimea
from Ukraine in 2014, and in 2015 began bombing in Syria to support the Assad
regime. Iran pocketed Obama’s giveaway nuclear deal, and carried on testing
ballistic missiles and stirring up carnage in its pursuit of hegemony in the
Obama’s tenure, ambitious despotisms were increasingly emboldened to test the
limits of U.S. tolerance. The accelerating dynamic was that they learned from
each other, and sometimes cooperated with each other, against a listless U.S.
The result was, if not quite an axis of evil, a rising network of predatory
tyrannies: chief among them Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang. This gang of
thugs, not Trump’s “America First” policy, pose the core danger,
worldwide, to democracy today.
Trump took charge in January 2017, Obama bequeathed him a weakened, humiliated
and increasingly threatened America. The country’s credibility — vital
to deterrence — was in tatters, its global leadership role in a tailspin.
with his version of “America First,” has been pulling America out of that
trajectory. Whether you love or loathe his words, many of his actions are now
pushing back against the rising gang of tyrannies. For the first time in years,
this is creating room to revive the spread of freedom, or at least arrest its
decline. Domestically, Trump has been easing the smothering hand of government,
reviving the American dynamism with which free markets and democracy combined
long ago to vault the U.S. to the status of world superpower, and spread its
influence around the world.
important, Trump has been pushing to rebuild the U.S. military and wielding
it to claw back some of the U.S. credibility and security squandered by Obama.
Within his first year in office, Trump provided the leadership, and new rules of
military engagement, to evict ISIS from its caliphate.
Syria’s Assad was caught early last year using chemical weapons on his own
people, Trump didn’t dismiss this atrocity as a far-off attack of no concern
to the U.S. He set about restoring the red line erased by Obama. Trump had the
U.S. military fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base that had launched
the chemical attacks. When Assad was caught yet again using chemical
weapons, earlier this year, Trump enlisted America’s two democratic cohorts
among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Britain and France, to
help carry out strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities.
much-criticized demands for NATO members to spend more on defense are not about
America walking away from NATO, but about America leading NATO. Mainly, he’s
telling the complacent welfare states of Europe, notably Germany, that if they
want to deter a rearming and aggressive Russia, they’d better invest seriously
Trump’s skepticism and hostility toward international agreements, he seems
broadly astute at distinguishing good agreements from bad. In pulling the U.S.
out of the farcical Iran nuclear deal this past May, he did not make the world
more dangerous. Rather, he is demanding that the free world face up to the
dangers still on the rise and seek a genuine solution.
though Trump does not habitually deliver teleprompted speeches on democracy
during his trips abroad, his administration did not respond to Iranian protests
in June by passively invoking the long arc of history. Secretary of State Mike
Pompeo delivered a rousing speech on the corruption, brutality and malign
character of Iran’s regime, effectively aligning the Trump administration with
has made a strong point of supporting two of the world’s most threatened and
pivotal democracies: Israel and Taiwan — the world’s great example of
what a democratic China could look like. Trump made good on years of broken
American promises by moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He is
encouraging official exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan, and this June the
U.S. confirmed publicly, for the first time since 2007, that it was sailing
destroyers through the Taiwan Strait. These are deeds that speak volumes about
the value Trump places on defending democracy abroad.
be sure, some of Trump’s moves have been troubling, including his praise of
Kim Jong Un at the Singapore summit and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. It also
remains to be seen whether his showdowns over tariffs will lead to more open
markets or ruinous trade wars.
on balance, Trump’s “America First” presidency is turning out in practice
to be neither isolationist nor dismissive of freedom and democracy abroad. On
the ground, his policy of “Peace through strength,” cribbed from President
Ronald Reagan, has its similarities to Reagan’s defense of U.S.
interests. Reagan was savaged by critics at the time as a war-mongering
know-nothing from Hollywood. But it worked out pretty well.