By PIPPA NORRIS SEPT. 7, 2017
A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 7, 2017, on Page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Trump’s Global Democracy Retreat. Today's Paper
Under the leadership of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson, the State Department is considering a mission reform that includes the abandonment of democratic assistance and human rights. The current mission statementreads, “The department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”
Dropping the words “just” and “democratic” would be fully consistent with the transactional realism that has characterized Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.
And such a change might reflect a growing feeling that most of the programs to support democracy abroad and the importance of democratic ideals are wasteful, inefficient, unappreciated or even damaging. In America, the public (especially Republicans) has increasingly favored nationalism and isolationism, according to some polls, in which the United States focuses on its own problems, with many wary of global humanitarian engagement.
But such a shift in United States foreign policy would be a historic mistake, abandoning America’s deepest values, eroding international commitments to human rights, and setting off dismay among friends and joy among foes around the globe. It would be the ultimate symbol of the end of American leadership in the world.
This commitment to democracy is far from recent; it has been a red thread running through decades of bipartisan American foreign policy. A century ago, on April 2, 1917, during a speech asking Congress to declare war on Germany, Woodrow Wilson delivered one of the most resonant lines in the history of the American presidency: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, in the Atlantic Charter, committed the World War II allies to protect “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”
And since then, democratic ideals have been articulated in speeches by every president, Republican and Democratic.
Under President Trump, however, priorities have shifted. As one important indicator, when speaking about the State Department budget for fiscal year 2018, Mr. Tillerson’s statement was silent about human rights and democracy: “This budget request reflects the president’s ‘America First’ agenda that prioritizes the well-being of Americans, bolsters U.S. national security, secures our borders, and advances U.S. economic interests.” The budget proposes slashing spending for the sector on “governing justly and democratically” to $1.6 billion in 2018 from $2.3 billion in 2016.
This may sound like a lot of taxpayer money, but it is a drop in the bucket compared with the $658 billion for fighter jets, ships, helicopters and troops approved by the House in late July. The Agency for International Development and State Department use the resources for programs on rule of law and human rights, good governance, political competition (including spending on elections and political parties) and civil society.
It is impossible to demonstrate the value of programs in democracy, governance and human rights on a dollar-and-cents basis. But when we drill down to the details for programs of international assistance intended to strengthen democratic governance around the world, my researchdemonstrates that many standard interventions do work: for example, quota policies increasing the number of women in elected office; training that improves the skills of local electoral officials; and constitutional and legal reforms.
Some risky investments may not pay off. Some countries — like Venezuela, Poland and Hungary — have clearly moved toward autocracy in recent years.
In the longer term, however, as Freedom House, an American watchdog organization, demonstrates, there have been widespread gains worldwide. Progress is often incremental and rarely featured in newspaper headlines — but it happens all the time. Advancing democracy and human rights helps to generate the underlying conditions most favorable to peace and stability, ensure the delivery of public services, and build allies and friends. It is also, quite simply, the right thing for America to do.
As the United States has been one of the leading actors promoting democracy and human rights worldwide, any abandonment of this work sends damaging diplomatic signals about America’s priorities.
Of course the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad has sometimes proved more rhetorical than real in cases of United States foreign policy where these values have clashed with other economic or military priorities, especially in Latin America. Today, democracy promotion is colored by memories of the neocon adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan during the administration of George W. Bush. The Obama years saw a more cautious approach in foreign policy than under the neoconservatives.
As one important indicator of changing priorities, the total amount of foreign assistance allocated for democracy, human rights and governance dropped by half under the Obama administration, to $1.9 billion in 2015 from $3.5 billion in 2010, before recovering ground in 2016 at $2.72 billion.
The foreign policy of the Trump administration is likely to accelerate a new global wave of decline for human rights, indicated by the shrinking number of democratic regimes around the world and the resurgence of authoritarianism, encouraging a newly assertive Russia.
Even under the basic principles of transactional realism, this is not in America’s interests.
Pippa Norris is a lecturer in comparative politics at Harvard, laureate professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, and director of the Electoral Integrity Project.