By supporting democracies around the world, Trump really can make America great again
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President Trump famously has promised to “make America great again.”

Like Ronald Reagan, who first used this slogan in his 1980 presidential campaign, Trump’s campaign has been built around restoring the promise and optimism at the center of the American dream.

But Reagan’s vision wasn’t just about defeating communism or reviving the economy, though he achieved both objectives — he proposed that supporting new democracies worldwide should be a key component of U.S. foreign policy.

This was not just a moral proposition. President Reagan understood that strengthening democracy would serve American interests, and that a relatively small investment could yield invaluable returns in the form of a more stable and prosperous world.

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America’s best allies are almost always democracies, precisely because democracies tend to make the best partners for ensuring a safe and prosperous world. Continuing to support the development of democracies around the world will help accomplish the objectives President Trump laid out in his inaugural speech: to make America safe, prosperous, proud and strong again.

 

Make America safe again

We are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II — a problem that is straining the resources and political equilibrium of allies from Jordan to Germany. Critics on both the right and left argue that this is a consequence of too much American involvement in regional disputes. Yet the Syrian civil war is a classic case of the disastrous consequences of American disengagement.

Bashar Assad’s murderous six-year campaign against his own people has been a boon to authoritarian powers like Iran and Russia. Syria has become a proxy through which these powers sow instability and undermine American interests, and a vacuum in which ISIS expands and exports its reign of terror.

Not all of the world’s democracies are America’s closest friends, but none of our current threats come from truly democratic nations. In this sense, democracy assistance is a crucial preventative weapon in our arsenal.

Make America prosperous again

Trump’s promise to strengthen our economy and bring jobs back to the U.S. requires stable, healthy international markets. Democracies provide the safest markets for American-made goods and investments. The economic boom in post-war Germany and Japan are just two notable examples of the transformative power of democracy and free markets and their benefits for U.S. commerce. Democratic institutions provide a bulwark against the kind of systemic corruption that characterizes nearly every autocratic government, stabilizing markets and creating new business opportunities for the U.S.

A relatively tiny investment in strengthening representative government, the rule of law and property rights can yield incalculable returns in the years to come. Depriving ourselves of this important tool would be the definition of the old adage, “pennywise, pound foolish.”

Make America proud again

Throughout our history, Americans have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect our bedrock principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Reagan famously saw this embodied in the image of a “shining city on a hill.” In his inaugural address, Trump promised that “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.”

Democracy assistance, properly understood, is entirely in line with the visions of both presidents. America should strive to be a beacon to the world. But despite what some detractors might say, this does not mean we should force our way of life on others. As anyone familiar with the field of democracy assistance knows, we can only have an impact by working with citizens to build representative institutions that correspond to their own needs and cultures. This in turn protects against radicalization, corruption and other destabilizing forces.

Through this work, the U.S. has helped the former Eastern bloc transition from one-party rule to representative governments in just over two decades, and is working today to bring autocracies such as Burma and Tunisia into the community of democracies. That’s something we can be proud of, and continuing this vital work around the world can make us prouder still.

Make America strong again

The U.S. is strongest when we work with our allies to advance common values and objectives. Continuing this work through both governmental and civil society partnerships enables us to present a united front against geopolitical threats. Partnering with allies like the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan to confront security challenges and foster robust, democratic alternatives to violent extremism and autocracy reduces the danger to us all, and keeps the world safer and more prosperous.

Throughout our history, Americans have made enormous sacrifices to protect our right to determine our own futures. However difficult some environments may be, history suggests that this is a universal impulse. The fact that the number of democracies has doubled in the last four decades is no coincidence — nor is it a coincidence that those democracies have opened up new business opportunities and proven valuable partners in the face of global challenges.

Retaining democracy support as a key plank of our foreign policy isn’t just the right thing to do, it is one of the key ways we can make America safe, wealthy, proud and strong again.  

Thomas E. Garrett is the vice president of programs at the International Republican Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.