Global democracy retreats as authoritarianism marches forth

President Xi Jinping’s brazen gambit to perpetuate his unchecked rule has dashed Western dreams that global economic integration will inexorably democratize China. But that nation’s descent into despotism is just one example of a global authoritarian turn that jeopardizes the liberal international order. Indeed, that order risks crumbling entirely, as assaults on liberal democracy extend to the West itself.

The liberal international order originated late in World War II, when the Roosevelt and Truman administrations laid ambitious plans for an open, rule-bound world. That order would be founded on an interlocking of multilateral arrangements — including the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and a global trade system — within which sovereign nations could reconcile differences, pursue shared prosperity, and defend domestic liberty.

{mosads}Although the outbreak of the Cold War dashed these globalist dreams, the United States and its allies stuck to their principles. They built a more circumscribed liberal order, coalescing around bodies like NATO and the European Community, creating what became known as “the West.” Its underlying logic was openness, through open economies, open societies, and open politics, defended by a network of alliances to contain the Soviet Union.

The architects of containment hoped that these principles might someday spread to the entire world. By 1989, Francis Fukuyama declared that liberal dawn at hand in his celebrated essay on the “end of history.” As the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved, Western political and economic models seemed poised to become universal.

That was certainly the assumption behind Bill Clinton’s 1994 national security strategy. America’s goal, as national security adviser Tony Lake explained, was “enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” The tools to realize this Kantian vision included democracy promotion, expansion of NATO and the European Union, and above all globalization, including China entering the World Trade Organization. The democratic zone of peace would ultimately encompass the entire world.

This liberal teleology rested on shaky assumption. It presumed that economic integration would spur political convergence, alleviate security dilemmas, and mute geopolitical competition. But its biggest flaw was the notion that economic and political liberalism were inextricably linked. China’s trajectory in the four decades since Deng Xiaoping’s first economic reforms has exposed these illusions.

What is dying today is not just the “China fantasy” but the pipedream that globalization will produce liberal politics. Look around. The world economy expanded by 3.7 percent in 2017, and global trade by 3.6 percent. But the link between external and internal openness has been severed. Democracy is in retreat, while authoritarianism is on the march.

In January, Freedom House released its annual freedom in the world report, grimly titled “Democracy in Crisis.” For the 12th consecutive year freedom has declined, with 71 countries suffering “net declines in civil and political liberties.” This democratic recession is global. Although Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are in the vanguard, other tyrants are tightening their grip by crushing dissent, eliminating opponents, and destroying independent civil society.

Fellow travelers in this “authoritarian international” include Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Abdel Fattah Sisi of Egypt, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. But the authoritarian wave has also washed into the West. Viktor Orban of Hungary and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland challenge the European Union’s liberal principles. The democratic center still holds in Germany and France, but far-right nationalists have emerged as the main opposition parties.

But the bleakest development is the collapse of America’s moral authority as the world’s premier champion of democracy. Back in 2002, George W. Bush committed the United States to defend the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity,” subsequently declaring that human rights to be the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy.

Not so Donald Trump, who embraces the thug life. At home, he denigrates the rule of law, threatens the free press, embraces crony capitalism, and jettisons civil political discourse to demonize adversaries. Abroad, he cozies up to dictators like Putin, Xi and Sisi, while slashing federal funding for democracy and human rights and employing a secretary of State who considers American “values” an obstacle to realizing U.S. interests. Unsurprisingly, the White House characterized Xi’s power grab as a purely internal Chinese matter, emitting not a whisper of concern.

By depriving oppressed populations abroad of moral and material support, the Trump administration is destroying the credibility of the United States as a champion of freedom around the world and squandering America’s once-ballyhooed “soft power.”

If a silver lining exists, it is that this amoral foreign policy is unsustainable. For the moment, the American public has soured on democracy promotion, conflating it with unending nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the defense of liberty remains central to American national identity, as it has since the United States emerged in 1776 as the first republic based on the consent of the governed.

Since it won independence, America has fluctuated in how best to support democracy abroad. Should it serve merely as a beacon for others to emulate? Or should it adopt the crusading mantle of a redeemer nation? Whatever path they have chosen, past American presidents have endorsed democracy as the only legitimate basis for political rule.

In this respect, Donald Trump is fundamentally un-American. For if the United States no longer stands for freedom, what does it stand for?

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.” He is on Twitter @StewartMPatrick.

Tags Bill Clinton China Democracy Donald Trump Europe Foreign policy George Bush Global Affairs Government history Russia United States Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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