Donald Trump is popularly labeled a threat to democracy and democratic governance the world over. And on the face of it, there’s plenty of evidence to support the accusation, from the example set by Trump’s own autocratic style of leadership to his professions of affinity for foreign tyrants. That criticism has been amplified with enthusiasm by the Democratic Party, and even those most reluctant of internationalists—Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—have echoed the chorus of claims in favor of “small d” democracy promotion and against Trump tyranny. But the Democrats’ own record belies those claims, and indeed, there is every reason to suspect that the left’s newfound enthusiasm for exporting freedom will last as long as the 2020 presidential campaign, and not a moment beyond.
To begin at the head of the putatively rotten fish, it’s not hard to make the case for Trump’s antipathy to small-d and big-D democrats alike. He can’t abide Angela Merkel but always has time for Vladimir Putin. He loathes America’s traditional allies but thinks it’s a good plan to bring Moscow back into the G7. He has no time for or patience with the European Union but thinks democracy skeptics in Budapest and Warsaw are the bomb. Despite his administration’s ongoing battles with Beijing, Trump is often pleased to spare a kind word for Chinese Communist Party dictator Xi Jinping. His bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is the stuff of legend. And there’s the Khashoggi affair, ambivalence over Hong Kong protests, and the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria, among other things.
The Trump administration has taken the president’s prejudices to its budget as well. In Trump’s first budget request, democracy funding through the Department of State and the Agency for International Development was axed by 32 percent over the previous year’s appropriation. (Ironically, “Good Governance” funding was allocated substantially more than “Political Competition and Consensus-Building,” go figure.) The next year it was 40 percent off the previous fiscal year’s numbers. (Note, however, that contrary to the president’s wishes, Congress restored most of that funding, as it did in the latter years of the Obama administration. For all the gory details, check out this handy interactive.)
But there is a substantial silver lining to this black cloud of democracy doubting and dictator worship. Because, rhetoric and budget-cutting efforts aside, the Trump administration’s actual record on human rights promotion, on supporting democrats, and on isolating and marginalizing tyrants is far better than many—the president included—are willing to admit. More than that: His administration’s record is actually good.
Whether it’s Russian oligarchs and Putin-employed mercenaries, companies facilitating the oppression of Hong Kong democracy protesters or Chinese Communist Party concentration camps in Muslim Xinjiang; Iranian proliferators and human rights abusers, Syrian enablers of dictator Bashar al-Assad, Tehran-sponsored terrorists around the world, Venezuelan kleptocrats, Cuban tyrants, or Russian little green men in Ukraine, and yes, even North Korean bad guys, the Trump administration has gone after them hammer and tongs. Primary sanctions, secondary sanctions, asset freezes, prosecutions, visa restrictions, and arrests—all have been part of the Trump tool box in taking on the anti-democrats of this world in all their forms. Sure, some will argue that the president doesn’t support those policies, but calling Trump a tyrant while at the same time suggesting he doesn’t control his own administration is oxymoronic on its face.
And then there is the Democratic record. Barack Obama came into office in 2009 repudiating everything the Bush administration stood for, including its much-ballyhooed democracy-promoting “freedom agenda.” Perhaps because that effort was wrapped in Team Obama’s mind with the Iraq war, perhaps because Bush derangement syndrome played a signal role in Obama’s worldview, the new leader of the free world chose as his first international message to go to Cairo—the land where Hosni Mubarak had been murdering, imprisoning, and otherwise oppressing his opponents for years—and give a speech saying, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Now that is a clear message to deliver to people living under a dictator.
The Obama/Biden administration quickly put its money where the president’s mouth was, with the enthusiastic acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled House and Senate. Democracy programs in Egypt were reduced by 60 percent. Jordan also saw its democracy promotion funds axed. Funding for other independent democracy advocacy groups was sliced by 70 percent. Six months into the term, the National Security Council’s senior democracy promotion post looked to be abolished and there was no assistant secretary of state for democracy, rights and labor. Eighteen months in, the editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page—which endorsed Obama for president twice—noted that under President Obama, “democratic allies felt that his focus was on improving relations with authoritarian powers, while democracy activists felt there was always some priority higher than theirs.”
When the Green Movement arose in Iran to challenge that country’s stolen 2009 presidential election, the Obama administration made clear it considered calls for democracy to be an inconvenient distraction from its aim of negotiating a nuclear deal with the ruling theocrats. During the Arab Spring, the Obama administration was notably absent, failing to support democracy activists anywhere in the Arab world. When Syrians peacefully demonstrating against their hated dictator came under attack, neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden could muster much enthusiasm to support them. And after an ill-fated intervention in Libya—nominally to save the Libyan people from their dictator (and opposed by Biden)—the Obama administration beat a hasty retreat, leaving the Libyan people to the predations of regional powers, Russia and Salafi jihadists. That war is still ongoing.
Half a million people would die in the war in Syria, which lead to the creation of ISIS and the occupation of vast territory by terrorists. International norms were violated on a regular basis—rape and murder systematized, the chemical weapons convention violated, and worse. Nor could the Obama-created “Atrocities Prevention Board” solve the problem; all it did was serve as a fig leaf for his inaction in Syria and elsewhere. Still, some in Obama’s ranks took the notion of atrocity prevention seriously: Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry repeatedly counseled U.S action in Syria to defend human freedom. (By the bye, Biden consistently, and reportedly, angrily, opposed them.) Obama’s response: After deciding not to seek to end the conflict, he laid down a red line daring the Syrian government to use chemicals again. Which it did. Here’s how Obama whisperer and Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg described the president’s take on what happened next: “The moment Obama decided not to enforce his red line and bomb Syria, he broke with what he calls, derisively, ‘the Washington playbook.’ This was his liberation day.” After “liberation day,” the then-president invited the Russians into Syria to adjudicate the chemical weapons issue.
Nor was Team Obama/Biden better when it came to human rights in China, democracy promotion in Russia, the defense of those under attack by Putin’s forces, addressing the nightmare of Kim rule in North Korea, and oh … Iran. The Islamic Republic’s crimes; its killings; its terrorism; its murder of U.S. troops; its role in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon; its WMD proliferation; its attacks on women, minorities, non-Shiite religious groups, unions, students—all matters of apparent indifference to Obama, Biden, and all the other birth parents of the Iran Deal.
In short, there’s a lot to dislike about Donald Trump and his fealty to the democratic principles the United States stands for around the world. But don’t hold your breath for a better record under a Biden administration. The former vice president, the Democratic caucuses in the Senate and House, and the Democratic apparatchiks who filled the Obama administration’s ranks have proven time and again their belief that small-d democracy is a weapon to be wielded in domestic politics, not a value to be upheld in foreign policy.
Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.