Overseas Democracy Promotion Forgotten In “America First” Era

The Trump administration has exhibited a sharp departure from the United States’ legacy of overseas democracy promotion since taking office in 2017. As the title suggests, this “America First” presidency is based squarely around the fulfilment of U.S.-centric objectives, with a shrinking degree of attention reserved for matters carried out through international institutions and their collective interests. This conspicuous transformation from the world’s greatest promoter of the principles of liberal democracy to an introverted non-interventionist approach has had far-reaching implications on individual liberties across the globe.


Speaking at the Arab Islamic American Summit in 2017, President Trump summed up his approach to democracy promotion in a single sentence, “We are not here to tell other people how to live.” This may seem innocuous, but within the context of decades of ideologically based U.S.-led intervention, it’s telling. Trump has also been active in his meetings with the world’s most powerful authoritarian heads of state. He became the first sitting U.S. President to meet with a North Korean leader when he held talks with Kim Jong Un last year. The North Korean state has one of the worst human rights records in the world, with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry finding torture, enslavement and extermination in a long list of egregious activities carried out by the state. Yet, despite this, the two seemed to get on merrily, with Trump going so far as to describe Un as “a talented man with great personality.” Engaging with leaders that differ in political ideology is, of course, an essential component to the diplomacy of states the world over, but such effusive praise goes beyond the point of engagement, it suggests that even the most deplorable behaviour is acceptable as long as it doesn’t implicate the United States.


Across the globe, authoritarian regimes are on the rise. In their 2017 report, Freedom House found that countries suffering democratic setbacks were easily outnumbered by countries that improved, with 71 in decline and only 35 improvements. To suggest Trump as solely responsible for this wave of illiberal governance would be negligent, but the same must be said for any analysis that does not credit the President’s considerable impact. Since taking office, the State Department has proposed cuts to the National Endowment for Democracy, the body specifically responsible for pro-democracy action abroad. But it is Trump’s personal conduct that is perhaps even more damning than his policy. His coining of the phrase “fake news,” as applied to media outlets which report on him unfavourably, has damaged the legitimacy of the media and its crucial role as an independent watchdog over political activity. Such strong rhetoric from the leader of the world’s most recognisable government serves as a microcosmic example of the broader implications of Trump’s effect on global democracy.


All of this is a characterises a significant shift in policy from previous administrations. Beginning on September 11th, 1991, then-President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the “new world order,” which symbolised the triumph of western democracy following the fall of the Soviet Union. Embedded within this history-defining speech, was the United States’ vision of a world where democratic states supported one another on an ideological basis, and the U.S. themselves was the primary advocate for the spread of democracy abroad. This policy stood for more than free and fair elections, it championed the adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the sanctity of international organisations such as the United Nations, all of which strive to create a more just and peaceful world.


Over the course of his term in office, President Trump has set about making his unique impact on the United States, and whether intentionally or not, the rest of the world. There is no need to read between the lines on this brand of “America First,” for it is exactly that; a self-serving and ultimately short-sighted agenda. For every action there is a reaction, and seeing as the United States is the most powerful and influential state in the world, every action is significant. Whilst a gradual relaxation of democratic advocacy may seem negligible in the Trump era of Twitter diplomacy, around the world we’re starting to see the effects of an environment where despots are described as talented men.

Oliver Lees