Democracy is under siege globally. The number of democracies spiked impressively after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989-91. But over the past decade, the quality of democracy has fallen in more states than it has risen. Our joint FPRI/Perry World House conference explored why global democracy was faltering, what the U.S. policy response should be, and how the case for continued support must be framed to retain the backing of a majority of Americans.
Panelists discussed three broad reasons for democratic backsliding. The first is the failure of democratization to produce greater well-being. Inspired by the example of the Western liberal democracies, people in the transitional countries saw democracy as a way to improve their lives. Instead, many have seen rising income inequality, corruption, and stagnating growth. These factors have fostered democratic disillusionment and created sympathy for demagogic alternatives.
A second cause is the Putin regime’s systematic assault on other nations’ democracies. Russia has leveraged linguistic, religious, cultural, financial, and personal linkages to promote illiberalism—with the goal of restoring Russian influence, facilitating monopolistic or corrupt business practices and undercutting liberal principles, particularly on Russia’s periphery. A similar mixture of propaganda, disinformation and other “active measures” has been used in Western Europe and in the United States, most notably in the 2016 election.
A third factor was the Obama administration’s approach to democratization. Although global democratic backsliding and increased competition from Russia and China were apparent by Obama’s second term, the administration was slow to counter these threats. Meanwhile, illiberal nationalist ideologies gained footholds across Europe and the United States.
There was consensus on the strong strategic arguments for continued U.S. support for democracy, but panelists also agreed that traditional tools and policy approaches require reform. Some see the “democracy bureaucracy” as wasteful, opaque, and inadequately targeted, thus requiring a major overhaul. Others stressed the need for a policy of triage that takes fuller account of differences among types of countries. In some countries, U.S. democracy assistance is futile or counterproductive, while in others, only indirect forms of democracy support are feasible. Yet, there remain many countries where the ground is fertile and democracy assistance is fruitful, and others where democratic governments face external threats and U.S. support is needed. Effective democracy support also requires a long-term mindset, and the United States needs to make more effective use of the UN and other democratically-based international institutions that the U.S. pioneered.
Panelists also discussed the issue of skepticism about democracy promotion in the Trump era, and concluded that it is essential to demonstrate why the health of democracy abroad is key to the “hard” national security interests of the U.S. First, there is a strong correlation between democratic countries and U.S. allies in the world. Given the resurgence of authoritarianism and its direct targeting of U.S. democracy, to abandon the cause of democracy abroad would be to ignore an existential threat to our own way of life. Second, the liberal order built by the U.S. after World War II has greatly increased American prosperity and security. If that system based on democratic values erodes, U.S. citizens will be less prosperous and less secure. Making this clear to all Americans is key to a long-term, bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting democracy abroad.
Welcoming and Opening Remarks, William Burke-White and Alan Luxenberg
Describing American support for global democracy as “one of the world’s most pressing issues,” Burke-White, director of the Perry World House, compared his optimistic experiences living with a Soviet family in 1989 to the “depressing” world today to underline the wave of authoritarian retrenchment underway in Eurasia. The day’s panels, Burke-White said, would grapple with how American democracy-support policies had succeeded in the past and what form they should take in today’s inhospitable political environment.
Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, framed the ensuing discussion through the prism of FPRI’s “geopolitical perspective,” which looks at contemporary international affairs through the lenses of history, geography, and culture. This perspective is valuable in understanding the issues surrounding democracy promotion and provides a sense of what is important and what is feasible. When work on “Does Democracy Matter?” began, many countries were transitioning towards democracy and now they are transitioning away from it. The origins of this authoritarian revival and the challenges facing U.S. democracy promotion constituted the day’s agenda, and he looked forward to a “suitably provocative” discussion.
Panel I Progress of Liberal Democracy Since 1989, and the Authoritarian Counteroffensive
Thomas Melia, Mitchell Orenstein, Tarun Chhbara, Claire Finkelstein (Moderator)
The first panel explored how liberal democracy has evolved over time. Thomas Melia, a Human Freedom fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and former Assistant Administrator at USAID, began the discussion with an assessment of the threats facing democracy today. He traced the arc of democracy in the world since 1989. Melia noted that in 2017, according to Freedom House, 87 countries were free, 59 were partly free, and 49 were not free at all. He said that per these figures, in terms of numbers of countries, the world had grown more democratic since the fall of the Soviet Union, increasing from 36% democratic to 45%, although he also noted that there had been more declines than advances in the quality of democracy in these countries in each of the past 11 years. As to population comparisons, 5 of the 11 most populous countries are democratizing and that another 3 of the 11 were already consolidated democracies. He summed up the current situation as involving “more democracy, more vulnerability, more threats.”
Panelists (from left to right): Thomas Melia, Mitchell Orenstein, and Tarun Chhbara
He ultimately suggested a decentralized approach to democracy promotion that financially empowered nongovernment entities. To support this proposal, he gave an anecdote from his time inside the government during the ouster of Hosni Mubarak: the U.S. embassy had to pull out most of its personnel from the country for security reasons, so as deputy assistant secretary for democracy policy, Melia had to rely on NGO reports to inform the State Department’s policy.
Melia also emphasized the importance of senior American officials encoraging overseas counterparts to adopt democratic policies. As an example, he cited Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ interest in the subject when he was head of CENTCOM. According to Melia, Mattis requested that the State Department brief him on the democracy situation every time he went on a trip so that, if he had the opportunity, he could push his powerful interlocutors on human rights and democracy issues.
Mitchell Orenstein, Senior Fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI and a professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at University of Pennsylvania, outlined the long-term impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on democracy in Eurasia. Noting that Russia “had never been a real democracy” despite a few brief reform efforts, he was downbeat about prospects for its future democratization. He pointed out that rather than democratizing, the country was in fact leading an assault on other nations’ democratic systems. The fall of the Berlin Wall, according to Orenstein, led to pushes towards democracy in the former Soviet satellite states, but not in Russia itself. He said that Russia has “for sure” embraced far right parties in European states in order to turn these countries against the European Union, NATO, and democracy itself.
This has led to a conflict today over how to “organize the political space in Europe.” On one side, according to Orenstein, is the democratic, market-oriented node in Brussels, and on the other is the anti-democratic, corrupt node in Moscow. The conflict has had different effects on different countries. It is the worst in countries “in between” Russia and the EU such as Ukraine. In those countries, Russia has a direct line of influence to the populace through the Russian Orthodox church, shared Russian language, and long, deep networks of personal contacts through which it can disseminate anti-Western views.
In countries that have joined the EU in central and eastern Europe such as Hungary, Russia has fewer levers to promote populist nationalism. Nevertheless, Russia has found ways to promote its views in other ways, such as through energy deals with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban.
Dr. Orenstein finished by commenting that the conflict going on in the “lands in between” today is the same as the one going on in the United States. He argued that Russia was using the same strategy, and achieving the same effects in the U.S. as it had in places like Ukraine.
Turning to Mr. Chhabra, a fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and a former director of strategic planning at the National Security Council, Dr. Claire Finkelstein inquired about the relationship between democratization and national security. Chhabra said that he thought the Obama administration’s approach to democracy support and promotion “did not catch up quickly enough” to the evolving strategy environment around it. He started off by saying that some in the Obama administration might have suffered from a “hangover from the ‘third wave’ of democratization:” a tendency to see continued democratization as inexorable, if slowing somewhat, rather than reversible and under concerted threat. Members of the administration sought to take a less aggressive approach than President George W. Bush, while still preserving recent democratic gains. But the administration was slow to adapt to two new strategic realities: 1) intensified geopolitical competition with China and Russia and 2) a strong effort from authoritarians to push back, in a coordinated way, against the integrity of democratic institutions in U.S. allies and, as witnessed in the 2016 election, the U.S. itself.
At a conceptual level, Chhabra added, the administration needed to shift its view of democracy support, promotion, and protection from a second-tier good associated mainly with the health of the liberal, rules-based global order, to a core national security interest associated with the integrity of U.S. alliances.
He also suggested that, within policy circles inside and outside the government, there needs to be better communication between the traditional “strategy” community (defense and intelligence experts) and democratization scholars and practitioners. He added that defending and stabilizing democracies should be an element of the U.S. national security strategy, and that U.S. officials must work with fellow democracies—including those that have been reticent in the recent past—to underscore that democracy promotion and support is not a self-serving tool of the United States, but rather, a cause broadly supported by our democratic friends around the world.
After Chhabra concluded, the panel pivoted to a moderated discussion. Professor Orenstein said that Russian attempts to influence elections represent a new and serious threat. As he saw it, the threat was enhanced by the reach provided by social media and potentially willing collaborators in the Trump campaign. He argued that most people want democracy because they want a better life, and that the example provided by the U.S. served as the motivation for nations to emulate the model. Because our democratization policies have not specifically promoted effective economic strategies, many people are more willing to tolerate other, more autocratic forms of government. He identified this trend as a prime threat to democracy worldwide.
Mr. Melia picked up from Orenstein’s argument. He said that populist, illiberal politicians were harnessing popular anger to attack democracy. He noted that the best-scoring countries in the Freedom House index were also quite prosperous, thus linking the attractiveness of democracy to the economic benefits people expect it should deliver to them.
Professor Finkelstein interjected to bring up the case study of the recent French election, questioning why Russian information operations had failed there and why the country voted for a pro-democratic, centrist leader. Melia brought up that Marine Le Pen had greatly outpaced her father, securing nearly a third of the vote, which he attributed in part to Russian efforts. Orenstein added that Le Pen was not the only Russian-backed candidate in the race. When doing a complete tally that included François Fillion and Jean-Luc Melenchon, a full 60% of French voters in the first round of the election chose a Kremlin-supported candidate. Orenstein said Russia’s goal was to organize the world order around whether the candidates had corrupt deals or understandings with Russia, rather than on democratic principles.
Finkelstein asked whether Putin-backed crony capitalists had exploited free market forces to enhance their grip over Russia’s economy. When considering how Russians viewed the free market, Chhabra offered the example of economist Jeffrey Sachs, who became a household name in Russia in the 1990s as a poster child for “shock therapy” austerity and privatization of industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union that yielded profound economic and social dislocation. Chhabra argued that many Russians saw their country’s fledgling attempts at democratization part and parcel of this economic policy. He added that the biggest threat facing our democracy defense and promotion policies abroad might be our failure to address economic issues at home.
Quoting General Hayden’s visit to Penn in the spring, Chhabra also pointed out that Russia’s intervention in the election did not create, but exploited pre-existing social and political fault lines in the United States. Going forward, he argued, it is unrealistic to expect we will resolve such divisions overnight, but we should be able to generate a renewed consensus against foreign influence in our elections; and this consensus needs the buy-in of not only political parties but also key digital media platforms such as Facebook.
Finkelstein asked Melia if restrictions on free markets were necessary in non-democratic nations to prevent bad actors from amassing power by amassing wealth. Melia said that such a response would be justified, highlighting the Obama administration’s belated efforts to cut off corrupt Polish and Russian actors’ ability to access the American economy. Melia said that laws and policies on these figures need to have their enforcement enhanced.
Orenstein expounded on the concept of restricting free market forces to counter crony capitalists. He said that the main question democracies faced was how to grow their economies while increasing wage growth. He also said that policymakers should consider embracing social democratic ideals, something that has been traditionally resisted by democracy promotion experts.
Melia responded to that point by saying that the democracy promotion community had probably undervalued economic literacy training, but that the focus had been on political processes because democracy promoters felt that countries could work those questions out themselves once they developed robust democratic systems. Chhabra said that it wasn’t the fault of the democracy promotion community that they did not have strong economic views, and argued that promoting such policies was probably easier when American hegemony was unrivaled. He said the conversation should go beyond the foreign aid budget and should also consider potential private capital investment.
Finkelstein ended the panel by asking whether the United States needed democracies to have strong national security. Melia argued that we did, citing how the shared interests of democracies in the P5+1 had pushed Iran to normalize its behavior and join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Beyond that, democracies also tended to work together in other international bodies, but only when led by the U.S. He expressed concern today that the United States was no longer showing up at these meetings or putting care into its statements.
Chhabra agreed with Melia that supporting democracy was key to U.S. national security. He said that our interests and values increasingly line up with other democracies in the face of a larger threat from China and Russia. He said that many Americans believe that this is exactly the wrong moment to talk about the virtues of democracy, but the U.S. has a compelling and deeper narrative to tell about the strength and resilience of our liberal democracy: that despite backsliding in the executive branch, and conduct by U.S. leadership that many citizens of autocracies or weak democracies might recognize, America’s other democratic institutions from the Congress to the courts to the press have risen to the occasion.
Panel II The United States and Democracy Support—Does Democracy Matter? Sarah Bush, Melinda Haring, Adrian Basora, Sean L. Yom (Moderator)
Sarah Bush, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Temple University and Senior Fellow at FPRI, began the discussion by talking about the lessons for democracy assistance policies she had learned while researching. She focused on three key points. First, the political priorities in Washington, D.C. matter a lot. Policies such as sponsoring election observers are not enough on their own; they need to be backed up with a clear, pro-democratic diplomatic posture. She cited the cases of Jordan and Tunisia to support her claim. In Jordan, the U.S. has supported several democracy promotion policies, but they have been ineffective because we still support the Jordanian monarchy. Bush said that democracy promotion policies are more likely to work in a country like Tunisia, where we have offered high-level support for the current democratic government.
The second lesson she discussed was that delivery mechanisms matter: some institutions are more effective at promoting democracy than others. Returning to the case of Jordan, she said that it is crucial that the U.S. promote democratic policies in a way that is insulated from other competing interests it has in the country. Institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy are more insulated from our other geopolitical interests, and thus, she argued, better suited to aggressively support democratic policies.
Panelists (from left to right): Adrian Basora, Sarah Bush, Melinda Haring, and Sean L. Yom (moderator)
Bush’s final lesson was that the design of programs really matters. She said that it is important to draw a line between democracy and good governance, to not conflate the progress of one with the progress of another. For example, Bush specifically studies aid programs that support women’s representation in the developing world. In countries that aren’t democratic, involving women in the legislature does not advance democracy like it would in more democratized nations, and it would be wrong to measure such a policy that way.
She then applied these lessons to describe her outlook for democracy promotion under President Trump. She was pessimistic: as she had noted, prioritizing democratization diplomatically makes it more effective, and she has not seen evidence of that kind of prioritization thus far from the administration. If aid programs are not complemented with diplomatic efforts, she warned that they wouldn’t pack enough of a punch to lead to genuine change. She was also concerned about a bipartisan lack of political will to promote democracy in the aftermath of Russia’s attack on the U.S. election.
Dr. Bush concluded by attempting to draw lessons about how to promote democracy within the United States from our efforts to do so abroad. She homed in on the importance of trust in democratic institutions. Citing her work interviewing Americans both before and after the election about whether they thought the results were credible, she said that there was a strong partisan gap: before the election, Clinton voters were much more likely to trust the outcome than Trump voters, a result that reversed itself after the election. Her survey also asked whether people detected foreign influence in the campaign. Two-thirds did, and she found that those who believed Russia interfered were much less likely to trust the results. She highlighted this finding as significant because trust in democratic institutions is key for improving voter turnout and political participation.
The next speaker, Melinda Haring, the editor the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and a Fellow at FPRI, spoke about what Washington could do to stop “dumbing down” democracy promotion policies. She defined what democracy promotion was, whether it worked, how, if at all it was changing under President Trump, and how to make it more effective. She discussed the Trump administration’s proposal to merge USAID into the State Department, slash its democracy promotion budget by one-third, and link its assistance to national security objectives. She specifically highlighted the case of Ukraine, a country in the middle of a democratic transition slated to receive a 70% cut in democracy assistance, as a particularly wrongheaded to place to divest from.
Haring then explained that democracy assistance was a program that began in the 1980s to support programs in Eastern Europe and Russia on a bipartisan basis. It supports American interests because democracies are less likely to fight their neighbors and because it contributes to U.S. national security.
The money itself supports policies such as funding for independent newspapers, business associations, and election monitoring and political party training. The programs cost about $3 billion per year for the U.S.
Haring then asked whether the policies were effective. Her answer was yes, but with some qualifications. She added that one major issue holding back research in the field is a lack of data publicly available to researchers.
She then cited four examples of democracy promotion programs that were failures: 1) in Afghanistan, $260 million was spent on a female empowerment program that was hampered by corruption, 2) in South Sudan, $75 million was spent promoting a peaceful transition to democracy that never got off the ground, 3) in Jordan, $36 million was spent to support King Abdullah, an absolute monarch, and 4) in Azerbaijan, $55 million was spent on democratization programs that left the country less democratic than before.
Despite this waste, she said that the Trump administration presented an opportunity for reform. Because Trump wants to reduce the democracy promotion budget, it could be an opportunity to figure out what is working and what isn’t. She offered five potential reforms: 1) triage – put money in places that truly want to change, 2) only send the National Endowment for Democracy to authoritarian countries because they have a small footprint, 3) be more strategic about assistance – ensure less overlap and invest over the long-term with realistic expectations, 4) greater transparency – make data public and keep it up to date, and 5) figure out what works, which is only possible with greater transparency.
The panel’s final speaker, Ambassador Adrian Basora, the co-director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI and former U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, presented the main policy conclusions of Does Democracy Matter? thus providing an overview of the Why? and How? of U.S. support for democracy abroad. The Trump administration’s downgrading of democracy support notwithstanding, Basora argued that American support for democracy globally over the past 70 years had in fact been a major factor in advancing the U.S. national interest. This was particularly dramatic during the first 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Basora gave two primary reasons why the United States should continue to support democracy overseas. First, it is in our hardcore national security interest. Looking at the world in purely military and domestic security terms, one sees a strong correlation between the number of democracies in the world and the number of allies and other like-minded regimes that we can count on for security cooperation. Given that we now face a systematic authoritarian offensive against the U.S. and its democratic allies, a failure to support others would be to ignore an existential threat to our own way of life and to our global security posture.
A second key reason is that it is in our economic and geopolitical interest to preserve the current liberal international order. The open, rules-based international system that the U.S. created after World War II has contributed mightily over the past 70 years to our own prosperity and to our influence in the world. Yet, this liberal international system is based on the very same principles that underlie our own democracy, such as respect for human rights and freedoms and the rule of law, and this global order has thus been strengthened by the proliferation of democracies since 1945. But this liberal system favorable to U.S. economic and geopolitical interests is currently under attack by Russia and China, in their quest for regional dominance and for a system tilted towards their own advantage. Nurturing and defending democracies abroad must thus be an essential part of our counter-strategy.
Many cite a third argument in favor of promoting democracy in the world: the historical and moral imperative, or the “It’s who we are as a nation” reasoning. However, given the current skepticism among many Amercians, Basora suggested that making the case on these grounds is not the most effective way to defend U.S. democracy support polices with today’s nay-sayers.
Ambassador Basora then discussed the How? of American support for democracy abroad. He argued for a policy of triage that carefully distinguishes among potential target countries. There are some countries or situations in which traditional forms of democracy promotion are not feasible. For example, where our efforts in a given country are futile because of the regime’s ability to stifle them or to create a false veneer of respectability and thus reinforce itself.
And there are a few countries so critical to other urgent national security concerns that we cannot afford to pursue democratization as a bilateral priority.
Nevertheless, Basora argued, there are many countries where external support for democracy is not only feasible, but can make a significant difference. He then outlined three types of countries on which we should focus our main democracy promotion efforts. The first group consists of countries where autocratic regimes are weak or have recently fallen and are already attempting transitions to democracy. For example, many such states were successfully assisted in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
A second group of countries where U.S. support is important involves existing democracies that are currently backsliding. These nations represent one aspect of the recent authoritarian resurgence that we face today, and it is important that we strive to restore and consolidate earlier gains.
Finally, a third group that Levitsky and Way call “competitive authoritarian regimes”—hybrid states run by autocrats who retain the trappings of democracy in order to maintain legitimacy. They permit elections with some semblance of competition; allow free international travel, and educational, cultural and business exchanges; and leave at least space for some associational life and independent media. These openings can be used to help lay the groundwork for eventual democratization through targeted, carefully calibrated activites—such as educational, cultural, and professional exchanges—that serve to plant the seeds of democracy for the long term. But we must also be ready to move quickly and strongly when these regimes unexpectedly collapse—as the in case of Ukraine under Yanukovich.
Ambassador Basora then stressed two other aspects of the stratgegic approach that the U.S. should take towards democratization abroad. First, the U.S. needs to adopt a “patient, long-term view” based on the fact that it takes a very long to build a fully consolidated democracy. These are truly multigenerational efforts, as the recent backsliding of Hungary and Poland demonstrates.
And, secondly, we need to make far more effective use of the democratically-based international institutions that we ourselves pioneered after World War II. For example, in the 1990s, we used the G-7, the Group of 24, the EU, NATO, and World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to excellent effect in nurturing and incentivizing the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.
Then, Dr. Sean L. Yom, Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at FPRI, made the point that the failures and successes of democracy promotion should be seen on a bipartisan basis. He pointed to the greatest American democracy promotion mistake as being the failure to have an inclusive reconstruction in the post-Civil War south, which led to backlash and the Jim Crow era.
Keynote Remarks by Thomas Carothers Followed by a conversation with William Burke-White
After lunch, Thomas Carothers, the Director of the Democracy and Rule of Law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gave a keynote address and then held a discussion with William Burke-White, Director of the Perry World House.
Carothers started by comparing democracy promotion policies to an iceberg: a small part is visible, such as when we see the president issue public statements, but much of it operates beneath the surface. He divided what is “below” the surface into two categories: day-to-day, low- and mid-level pro-democracy diplomacy, and democracy assistance programs.
Thomas Carothers (right) with William Burke-White (left)
He then examined two periods that he believed were critical to understanding the administration’s democracy policy. First was the George W. Bush administration. Bush prioritized democracy promotion; after 9/11, he attached democracy promotion to the country’s new strategic focus on the war on terror. His administration described the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as democracy missions, even though promoting democracy was not the primary impetus for either conflict. On top of this, the Bush administration believed that strong democracies would be more resistant to terrorist groups. This approach faced a huge contradictory reality: the U.S. needed to rely on autocratic partners to fight terrorist groups and the war on terror resulted in less democratic policies domestically. In the eyes of the world, democracy promotion began to be seen during these years in terms of U.S. geostrategic interest and hypocrisy.
Carothers gave an anecdote about how this approach damaged the project of democracy promotion: when on a trip in rural Indonesia, a mayor told him that a Dutch program to support women’s empowerment in his village amounted to “regime change,” showing how widely-held cynical views of democracy promotion were.
Then, Carothers described the Obama administration’s approach. He said that the administration understood the damage that had been done to democracy promotion’s world image and toned down its rhetoric. Carothers remembered Obama not discussing democracy in his first inaugural address and understanding why this different approach made sense to the new president. He also pointed out that Obama differed temperamentally from Bush. Obama was more skeptical of U.S. democracy promotion and was, in Carothers’ eyes, more “traditionally realist.” At the same time, Obama had an idealist streak, which showed in his 2009 Cairo speech when he expressed hope for a transformation in the Middle East. He highlighted Obama’s approach to Myanmar’s democratic transition as an example of him taking an idealistic approach with some success. Carothers also discussed his “halfway” approach to the Arab Spring—Obama wanted to be on the right side of history, but also tempered his support for protesters over concerns of Islamist takeovers in places like Saudi Arabia.
Across the world in general, democratic momentum slowed, and it was tough for the administration to embrace a losing cause. This was also complicated by an uptick in the intensity of counter-terrorism operations in response to the rise of the Islamic State, which again required cultivating problematic partners. Carothers concluded that the administration’s initial impulses were mixed, but reality intruded and pushed it to a very realist place over time.
Carothers then brought up an article he wrote last year called “Is the United States Giving Up on Supporting Democracy Abroad?” In the article, he pointed out that while democracy promotion had retreated as a central U.S. foreign policy goal, much of the “beneath the iceberg” work continued.
Carothers then turned to the Trump administration and said it had two primary influences from its predecessors. First, President Trump was deeply influenced by failed nation building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he saw as too costly and difficult. He also said that Trump’s advisors like Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster were influenced by the same realist tendencies that became marked during the Obama administration, emphasizing the importance of counter-terrorism partnerships and accommodating the realities of the Middle East’s current democracy prospects.
He described two areas where felt Trump was different than prior presidents: his unusually comfortable relationship with dictators and his ridicule of the rule of law and free press, which damaged the image of American democracy and diplomacy in the eyes of the world. Carothers noted that this behavior was similar to that of strongmen leaders in undemocratic countries on issues relating to tolerance of opposition and respect for checks and balances.
He said the current administration was drawing on the negative lessons of the Bush administration, inheriting the realism of the late Obama years, and adding on to that anti-democratic behavior from the president. Thus, today’s approach reflects not just President Trump’s behavior, but also the evolution of democracy promotion as a policy area over the past 17 years.
Still, Carothers pointed out that U.S.-led democracy promotion continues because of how deeply it is embedded in our foreign policy bureaucracy. Diplomats are still fighting democratic backsliding. The State Department did, for example, condemn Orban for taking legislative action against Central European University, and the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia has been helping various U.S. organizations deal with the political crackdown in that country. Congress also rejected President Trump’s budget that slashed democracy assistance program funding. Still, for democracy promotion to succeed, it needs to be supported at the top.
He then pointed to a few things to watch for in the coming years. First was the Congressional-Executive relationship. Carothers noted that Congress has been taking a more aggressive stance on foreign policy issues. Second was how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s State Department restructuring would shake out. Specifically, would the department truly be substantially downsized? Third, he said to look out for how the administration’s counter-terrorism policies develop. In the long run, they may see how supporting autocracies may undermine the fight against terror, which could change their calculus. Fourth, there may be good news with respect to democracy on the horizon. If that were to occur, Trump may see promoting democracy as a way to secure “wins,” which could cause him to pursue it more aggressively.
Overall, he said that we should not expect a reversion to the favorable environment of the 90s—realism and strong autocrats are here to stay. Rather than shying away from these facts, Carothers said, the democracy promotion community should be motivated, because democracy promotion is now more important than when things were easier.
With that point, the conversation shifted to a discussion between Carothers and Burke-White. Burke-White asked first how democracy promotion should be squared with realist foreign policy. Carothers responded by saying that we should not distinguish between our national security interests and our values. He highlighted the case of Egypt: it is a key Arab country and an exemplar for the failure of democracy to get off the ground in the region. People in the democracy community have been trying hard to convince their national security colleagues that it is not in our security interest to support the regime over the long term. National security officials would argue that there are short term gains we can get from collaborating with the Egyptian government, but Carothers argues that it will be much costlier to support a leader taking his country in such a poor direction over the long term.
Burke-White then pivoted to a discussion on the relationship between democracy and populism. Burke-White said that when we talk about democracy promotion, we are discussing a specific vision of democracy that is different than a “populist democracy.” He asked Carothers if he saw the rising level of populism in the developed world affecting democracy promotion at all. Carothers said that election of Trump and Brexit had contributed to Anglo-American gloom, which was being unfairly projected on the rest of the world. While there are several populist parties in other European countries, it would be too much to say there is a global trend toward populism. In Latin America, Africa, and the Arab world, there are not widespread signs of rising populism. Still, he pointed out that democracy in many parts of the world is still struggling to “deliver the goods.” Many nascent democracies still face corruption, weak rule of law, and poor economic performance. But this is unrelated to populism. In fact, Carothers said, given the lackluster performance of democracies in many areas, he is surprised that the “populist moment” hasn’t been more intense.
Burke-White then turned to the mechanics of democracy promotion. He asked whether there were any positive trends amongst alternate sources of democracy promotion, given the budget and personnel cuts government bureaucracies are facing. Outside the U.S. government, Carothers said, there are 30-40 governments that substantially try to promote democracy. He said that it turns out that it is the natural tendency of democracies to try to promote their form of government abroad. Within the government, Carothers was optimistic that things “wouldn’t empty out” that fast. USAID is a large operation in many countries, and, since its funding is slated to continue, will probably continue to function. Carothers was concerned about the lack of appointees to the State Department, but said that the administration may realize that supporting democracy diplomatically is in the U.S.’ core national security interest.
Burke-White then asked Carothers whether he was optimistic about what the current bipartisan Congressional support for democracy could mean for the future. Carothers said that Russia’s recent aggression was “revivifying” Congress’ interest in the issue and said that the bipartisan coalition was still there because it has deep historical roots.
Finally, Burke-White asked Carothers to be prescriptive: how do we get democracy promotion back on the country’s agenda? Carothers then said the main question we face was how do we take the challenges our democracy is currently dealing with and translate them into more support for democracy abroad. He said that we should change our pitch from “we are good at this, you should follow us,” to “we know this system has good values embedded in it; we are struggling with it, you’re struggling with it, let’s find common cause.” Our institutions were built at a time with the first mindset, and only the most agile have transitioned to the second. He also added that we need to determine what kind of work is best done by NGOs and how we should fund them. The community, he said, needed a “renovation.”
With that, the conference adjourned for a reception and book-signing.