What happens to the democracy promotion enterprise in a Trump administration? The President’s comments that under his watch the United States will not be seeking to impose its system or values on other countries suggests that the spread and strengthening of democratic systems around the world will not be a top priority and in fact may fall off the list of national security interests of the United States entirely. Some of the early selections for key national security positions–drawing from the business and military communities–also create the impression that the new team will prioritize stability and security over encouraging democratic change and support for civil and political rights.
Even before the 2016 election, however, it was clear that the democracy promotion efforts of the United States were running out of steam. The promise of an Arab Spring has given way to a new winter of authoritarianism. There has been significant backsliding in other parts of the world, even in parts of Central Europe (such as in Poland and Hungary). As a now very prescient discussion at the Carnegie Council last fall pointed out, there are significant stress points throughout all of the advanced industrial democracies of the world. What is clear is that the optimism of the immediate post-Cold War period–that democratic liberalism was inexorably on the march and that its achievements could not be reversed–needs to be replaced by a new realism about the limits and sustainability of the democracy promotion enterprise.
With an eye to advising whoever the next President was slated to be, Ambassador Adrian Basora–who had been present “at the beginning” of the post-Cold War transitions in Central Europe–had been convening a series of workshops and meetings under the rubric of “Does Democracy Matter?” to assess what the future might hold. (Its recommendations and assessments are about to be released in a volume under the same name). Is it possible for the United States to continue to maintain a commitment to advancing democracy as one of its foreign policy priorities?