Originally published in Foreign Policy.
Freedom is falling out of fashion, and the autocrats are on the move. Ever since 2006, human rights watchdog Freedom House has recorded a drop in democracy and a rise of authoritarianism around the world.
It gets worse. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, neither major presidential candidate in a U.S. election has offered a full-throated defense of the principle that America should continue supporting democracy around the world.
If freedom is already on the decline, what’s happening in the 2016 campaign will only accelerate that trend.
Ever since Woodrow Wilson called on the United States and its allies to “make the world safe for democracy” in 1917, it has been American foreign policy to loudly extoll the virtues of liberal governance. As I’ve written in my book, The Despot’s Accomplice, the United States’ track record of actually making the world more democratic is checkered, to put it charitably. But the rhetorical commitment alone has been an important consideration for governments around the world. That signal has been particularly vital since the end of the Cold War, acting as a crucial deterrent that has kept despots in check.
Until now. The biggest loser in the three presidential debates of the 2016 campaign wasn’t Donald Trump. It was the reformers around the world who are fighting to bring at least a breath of freedom to their societies. Even in the most entrenched autocracies like Belarus — often described as the “last dictatorship of Europe” — the influence of the West is an important restraint on a ruthless despot. “Without the influence of the West, we would be in the Middle Ages,” Nika Wegosky, a Belarusian democracy activist, recently told me. “We need more support, not less, but the limited support we have now is crucial.”
Activists like Wegosky have long relied on the knowledge that making the world more democratic is a bedrock principle of American foreign policy. Without that commitment, dictators and fake democrats in all corners of the world start to feel bolder in cracking down on their opponents.
The word “democracy” was spoken just three times over the course of four and a half hours of posturing in this year’s presidential debates (and in each case the reference made was to the United States). There was no talk of supporting fragile new democracies like Tunisia; no commitment to supporting the opening underway in Burma; no condemnation of backsliding in once-democratic countries like Turkey; and not even any generic commitments to making the world more free.
There was nothing.
The debates are, admittedly, only one snapshot of the campaign. But they are the highest-profile occasions for presidential candidates to make their priorities clear to the American public and the world. Anyone watching for cues that either of the United States’ two future leaders cares about democracy abroad heard only deafening silence.
This is a stark departure from past presidential races, particularly since the end of the Cold War. In the 1992 debates, George H.W. Bush boasted that 44 countries had “gone democratic” during his time in office. His opponent, Bill Clinton, could do nothing more than agree, arguing that the United States “needs to be a force for freedom and democracy” and to back democratic reformers “wherever the seeds of freedom are sprouting.” Clinton doubled down on that rhetoric in 1996 against Bob Dole.
Four years later, Al Gore called for a future in which the United States was “promoting the values of democracy and human rights and freedom all around the world.” Though at the time portraying himself as an opponent of “nation building,” his opponent, George W. Bush, concurred, expressing the hope that world powers would “encourage democracy to take hold.” That rhetoric continued into his reelection in 2004, by which time President Bush had made the so-called “Freedom Agenda” a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Most recently, in the 2012 debates, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama chided dictators and despots while offering promises of a more democratic world.
In other words, Republicans and Democrats used to agree on at least one thing: A more democratic world would be not just a moral good, but also in the United States’ best interests. How to achieve that goal was a contentious partisan issue (as the Iraq War made clear), but the goal itself was never seriously questioned.
Today that bipartisan consensus appears to be extinct. Trump’s admiration of strongman leaders is well known. In October, he offered himself as apologist-in-chief for the butcher of Baghdad, who killed thousands of civilians in a 1988 gas attack: “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘oh he’s using gas!’”
Such language also has an effect on Hillary Clinton’s campaign: It gives her a pass to ignore democracy as a serious consideration in American foreign policy. On the debate stage, she missed a major opportunity not only to articulate why Trump’s adoration for despots is dangerous, but also to contrast it with a foreign policy vision that would put democracy center stage. By failing to capitalize on the opening Trump provided, Clinton sent a signal that pro-democracy reformers may not have an ally in the White House during her presidency.
Instead of agreeing with the goal of promoting political freedom and arguing over who would be better at it, the Trump/Clinton debates showcased two candidates who didn’t seem to care too much about democracy abroad one way or the other.
This gives mainstream currency to a viewpoint that was unthinkable even just a few years ago.
Trump’s rhetoric represents something new. It’s true that past U.S. leaders have made unsavory friends. After all, Saudi Arabia, which only banned legal slavery in 1962 and still doesn’t let women drive, is one of the United States’ closest allies. President Obama has done smiling photo ops with the likes of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled since 1979, repeatedly proclaiming himself “the country’s God” with “all power over men and things,” and using this power to torture and kill his opponents. Clinton had to maintain those unsavory relationships as Secretary of State.
But such alliances result from a perceived strategic self-interest that occurs even as the State Department documents human rights abuses in those same countries and calls for democratic reform. The photo ops are usually accompanied by behind-the-scenes pressure for change. And, in general, American diplomacy is genuinely committed to democracy promotion, even if it isn’t always as effective as it could be. This doesn’t excuse standing arm-in-arm with despots, but at least it tempers the damage.
What Donald Trump has said in his campaign matters enormously — even if he doesn’t become president. That’s because he has succeeded in lowering the standards of what is acceptable in U.S. foreign policy. When Hillary Clinton (as appears probable) enters the Oval Office, she will do so in a world where it is no longer a mainstream view that the United States should concern itself with promoting democracy abroad.
That is particularly worrying because the shift is occurring at a moment when more people than ever, both overseas and at home, are questioning the virtues of democratic government. As Trump peddles the myth that American elections are stolen by a “rigged” system that involves droves of dead people voting (it does not), Americans are losing faith in their democratic institutions. In a recent poll of U.S. voters, 41 percent of respondents said that they worry the election could be “stolen,” and 64 percent of Trump supporters said that they would not accept a Clinton presidency as legitimate. Only a third of millenials now say that they find it “essential” to live in a democracy, down from nearly three-quarters of those in older generations.
As faith in democracy erodes at home, it becomes far more difficult for a president to promote it abroad. Just this May, a general in Thailand’s junta told me: “If Donald Trump is what democracy is all about, don’t sign us up for it.
Now, more than ever, we need a president who will be an outspoken advocate of meaningful democratic reform from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Instead, both presidential candidates appear to be shying away from the greatest challenge of our generation: ensuring that billions of people receive the basic human right to have a say in how their lives are governed. This failure, if it stands, means that we will not only have abandoned brave democratic reformers around the globe; we will also have abandoned our most sacred ideals.