The external promotion of democracy, a long-standing and bipartisan U.S. foreign policy goal and key to the reproduction of U.S. national identity, has come under unprecedented trouble under the Trump administration. What will U.S. democracy promotion policy likely look like under a second Trump administration, and what would it be under a President Biden? In neither scenario, a return to the status quo ante is likely.
When it has come to the promotion of democracy, U.S. presidents and their administrations have always talked the talk much more than they have walked the walk, despite it being a declared key foreign policy goal embraced by both parties since the ending of the Cold War. Whereas the implementation of the policy mostly lagged behind a grandiose rhetoric embraced in its favor, the consensus was relatively clear and uncontested for a long time: democracy is a universal value that all human beings aspire to, outside actors can and should support the democratization of other countries, and the global spread of democracy was in the economic and security interests of everyone involved. For the United States particularly, the self-declared champion of democracy, this often-voiced key mission formed the core of U.S. national identity and functioned as a patriotic rallying cry.
Enter the Trump administration in early 2017. For the first time in over three decades, a sitting president did not embrace this consensus, and Trump, in part, even explicitly rejected it – along with other tenets of U.S. liberalism and ideas about world order. And while he has not managed (or much cared) to disable the foundations of the U.S. “democracy promotion bureaucracy”– Congress has in fact repeatedly shielded the democracy budget from significant cuts and many programs and agencies keep running their programs relatively undisturbed – Trump’s disregard and contempt for the policy has taken its toll. U.S. credibility on democracy promotion, already much-contested in the 2000s, has further suffered greatly, authoritarian leaders all over the world have felt emboldened by Trump’s flaunted disinterest in their governance methods, and a chilling effect has rippled through the ranks of U.S. bureaucrats in and outside the country, for example, muting diplomats’ concerns about their host country’s political development.
If the Trump administration did explicitly embrace the concept of democracy promotion, it did so mostly in the form of a selective and confrontative approach towards countries it considers “enemies”, such as Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba. In the words of one observer, Trump has opted for a “narrow policy of using democracy promotion as a cudgel against America’s enemies.” While this is certainly not the type of overarching policy that defenders of U.S. democracy promotion policy have in mind, and indeed damages credibility further, some observers do at least see some merit in Trump’s attempts to curb tyrants. Overall, should President Trump be re-elected, there is no indication that his stance on democracy promotion would change in the future. We should expect more of the same – and that includes further damage not only to U.S. democracy but also to U.S. credibility as a democracy promoter as well as increasing erosion in the democracy promotion bureaucracy.
All hopes on Biden?
However, if Biden wins the presidential elections, hopes for a full restoration to a prior (highly contested) status will be disappointed. This is mostly due to circumstances the next president has little influence over (see below), but also to Biden’s not exceedingly enthusiastic embrace of democracy promotion’s relevance. President Biden would, to a certain extent, restore the rhetoric around democracy promotion – a factor not at all unimportant, as I argue at length elsewhere. His rhetoric on US leadership in the world, as well as on democracy and democracy promotion’s role in it, evokes earlier presidents’ view of the world. The key aspect of Biden’s promised restoration is, however – and importantly – a return to living democratic and liberal-progressive values and policies at home, and to restore the much-derailed American example as the greatest democracy on earth: “First and foremost, we must repair and reinvigorate our own democracy”, he argues in a prominent contribution to Foreign Affairs entitled “Why America Must Lead Again. Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump”. This is crucial to salvaging U.S. credibility as a (potentially returning) chief democracy promoter, and could lay the foundation for a more active role of U.S. democracy promotion in the future. But the latter certainly plays a role in a mid-to long-term perspective and has to be build up slowly once again to be able to take off the ground.
What is Biden’s concrete plan for restoring democracy promotion? With regard to the United States at home, Biden explicitly faults Trump for having “turned away from the democratic values that give strength to our nation and unify us as a people”, and he vows to undo recent damage, for example, with regard to immigrants’ and minorities’ treatment or restoring the Voting Rights Act. With regard to the international arena, he promises to “organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World” in his first year in office. Notably, the summit would focus on strengthening and defending democracy where it already exists, while promoting democracy and human rights in other countries is merely mentioned in passing. A strong emphasis on leading by the power of example underlines this attention on “regrouping” at home, and Biden specifically intends to focus on “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” Biden’s plan also includes civil society organizations as members of the summit, and he intends to call upon the private sector, especially tech companies and social media, to recognize its responsibility and make a commitment to upholding democratic values.
A return of the U.S. as the “leader of the free world”?
Strongly reminiscent of the indispensable nation-credo crafted during the Clinton administration, Biden once more sees the U.S. as the only country that can unite and lead “the free world”. His foreign policy agenda also implies a realignment with U.S. traditional allies and “a new geopolitical tilt – a pivot to Europe.” Overall, this is certainly a welcome direction in the view of those who are hopeful for a restoration of democracy promotion, but it remains a relatively mild and passive approach. One might go as far as to argue that Biden’s foreign policy proposal is a perfect recipe for doing nothing and will have no impact. Or one might argue that this is the only sensible strategy at times as difficult as these for democracy promotion.
The notion of “times as difficult as these” warrants a closer look. It is plausible to assume that the key variable for what U.S. democracy promotion will look like in the 2020’s, regardless of who assumes office, is the international environment. In stark contrast to the 1990s “liberal honeymoon”, which was quite permissive of democracy promotion efforts, the current state of democracy in the world – and with it what we tend to think of as the liberal world order – is gloomy. Globally, we observe authoritarian resurgence and shrinking civic spaces in authoritarian as well as in democratic regimes – and neither is presently immune to potentially destabilizing nationalist and populist waves. Long before the onset of the Covid19-world pandemic, “autocratization” eclipsed democratization as the defining dynamic in international politics.” And as the United States loses significance on the global stage, so does the relevance of the traditionally strong connection between projecting U.S. primacy in the world and projecting supposedly U.S. American values such as democracy and human rights.
Of course, under these circumstances promoting democracy might be considered all the more important. But this is where the United States’ own dismal state of democracy and, along with it, its severely diminished credibility as a global democracy promoter particularly gets in the way. Trump as a person and as a politician has exacerbated this, no doubt, as he has deliberately fed political polarization and shown a disregard to democratic values and practices within the United States that is stunning. But the Trump administration should be viewed less as a cause and more as a symptom of the troubles U.S. democracy (promotion) is facing. The deep domestic crisis spanning politics, culture, and institutions certainly does not lend itself to active democracy promotion abroad. The focus on internal healing as well as on creating a broader democratic alliance in defense of democracy that Biden proposes is thus prudent – and maybe all that one can reasonably ask for during a time in which one has to fear for a due election process and a peaceful transfer of power in the country that has long claimed to be the global champion of democracy.
A detailed analysis of the concept, structures and values of U.S. democracy promotion is presented in: Poppe, Annika Elena (2020): US-Democracy Promotion after the Cold War. Stability, Basic Premises, and Policy toward Egypt. Routledge.