More than a generation has passed since America hailed the 1991 Soviet collapse as the dawn of a new world order, wide open to the spread of freedom and democracy. That euphoria is long gone, replaced these days by apprehension. For years now, authoritarian rulers have been on a roll, with such aggressive dictatorships as China, Russia and Iran gaining military muscle, influence and turf. Around the globe, freedom and democracy have been broadly in decline.
Is there any serious chance that on President Donald Trump’s watch, these dismal trends might be stopped, or even reversed? Could his push to “Make America Great Again” conceivably catalyze a global comeback for democracy? The answer might surprise you.
It’s clear that to Trump’s more ardent critics, such questions are absurd. He’s a grandiose businessman from Queens, prone to hyperbole and rude toward many Washington totems. He appeals in the main to voters who would never think of applying for membership in the Council on Foreign Relations. In choosing the slogan “America First,” Trump adopted (whether he knew it or not) the phrase of 20th century isolationists who wanted to keep America out of the great and vital struggle for freedom that was World War II. How could such a president be good for American foreign policy?
In a column last month for The Dallas Morning News, the president of Washington-based Freedom House, Michael J. Abramowitz, and his colleague, Sarah N. Repucci, denounced Trump as a dictator-loving democracy-dismissing reinforcer of “neo-isolationism.” They were elaborating on a Freedom House report released in January that described democracy worldwide as not only in its 12th straight year of decline, but in accelerating “crisis,” with the acceleration due substantially to Trump. The report accused Trump of everything from “hostility and skepticism toward binding international agreements,” to abandoning America’s leadership of the free world, to rarely using the word “democracy” during his trips abroad.
Such sweeping damnation of Trump skips right past some essential elements of the big picture, starting with the context that by the time Trump reached the White House, freedom and democracy worldwide had been declining for roughly a decade. For most of that decade the president was Barack Obama, whose foreign policy was a sweeping exercise in American retreat. As the Freedom House report delicately summed it up, the Obama administration in its foreign policy statements defended “democratic ideals,” but “its actions often fell short.”
The Obama shortfall had devastating effects on American power, credibility, allies and interests abroad. While running up a huge national debt to fund a ballooning welfare state, Obama gutted the U.S. military, to such an extent that during his final month in office there was an interval in which the U.S. Navy did not have a single aircraft carrier operating at sea.
Obama began his presidency by appeasing Russia with a “reset” that included reneging on promises of missile defense for Eastern Europe. He announced to the United Nations that American exceptionalism was no more exceptional than that of any other country, and he promised to place at the center of U.S. foreign policy the U.N. — where Security Council permanent members Russia and China wield veto power right alongside the U.S., Britain and France.
When Iranians rose up in mass protests against their brutally repressive government in 2009, Obama passively bore “witness,” assuring the world that the long arc of history would sort things out. When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Obama led from behind on Libya. Then he left the fragmented country to the feckless mercies of the U.N., the Arab League and the terrorists who in Benghazi in 2012 slaughtered four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador — while Obama, running for re-election, assured Americans that terrorism was on the run, and the tide of war was receding.
Obama pledged a “pivot” to Asia, which to China’s likely relief never took place. He proclaimed in 2011 that Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, must go — but did nothing to ensure that Assad went. Instead, in 2013 Obama erased his own “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and invited Russia into Syria, where Putin dug in to support Assad.
Obama embraced Cuba’s brutal Fidel Castro dictatorship, while snubbing, insulting and undercutting Israel, the only full democracy in the Middle East. Obama up-ended the hard-won stability in Iraq by pulling out all U.S. forces, discounted the terrorists of ISIS as the “JV team” during their rise, and, while ISIS was beheading American prisoners on video, Obama put out the message that more Americans die from accidents involving guns, cars and bathtubs than from terrorist attacks. Under the euphemism of “strategic patience,” Obama largely ignored North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, while totalitarian dictator Kim Jong Un consolidated power, bulked up his nuclear arsenal and built long-range rockets.
Obama’s signature foreign-policy venture, the Iran nuclear deal — reached with the help of Russian and China, over the protests of existentially threatened Israel — did not close Iran’s path to the bomb. By lifting nuclear sanctions, it did succeed in allowing Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime lavish access to global resources, topped off with a U.S. “claims settlement” of $1.7 billion shipped secretly to Iran in cash.
As Obama pulled America back, opportunistic dictatorships stepped forward. China moved full speed ahead to develop a blue water navy, bully its neighbors and expand its clout in Asia by building artificial islands, topped with military bases, along major shipping routes in the South China Sea. Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and in 2015 began bombing in Syria to support the Assad regime. Iran pocketed Obama’s giveaway nuclear deal, and carried on testing ballistic missiles and stirring up carnage in its pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East.
During Obama’s tenure, ambitious despotisms were increasingly emboldened to test the limits of U.S. tolerance. The accelerating dynamic was that they learned from each other, and sometimes cooperated with each other, against a listless U.S. The result was, if not quite an axis of evil, a rising network of predatory tyrannies: chief among them Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang. This gang of thugs, not Trump’s “America First” policy, pose the core danger, worldwide, to democracy today.
When Trump took charge in January 2017, Obama bequeathed him a weakened, humiliated and increasingly threatened America. The country’s credibility — vital to deterrence — was in tatters, its global leadership role in a tailspin.
Trump, with his version of “America First,” has been pulling America out of that trajectory. Whether you love or loathe his words, many of his actions are now pushing back against the rising gang of tyrannies. For the first time in years, this is creating room to revive the spread of freedom, or at least arrest its decline. Domestically, Trump has been easing the smothering hand of government, reviving the American dynamism with which free markets and democracy combined long ago to vault the U.S. to the status of world superpower, and spread its influence around the world.
Most important, Trump has been pushing to rebuild the U.S. military and wielding it to claw back some of the U.S. credibility and security squandered by Obama. Within his first year in office, Trump provided the leadership, and new rules of military engagement, to evict ISIS from its caliphate.
When Syria’s Assad was caught early last year using chemical weapons on his own people, Trump didn’t dismiss this atrocity as a far-off attack of no concern to the U.S. He set about restoring the red line erased by Obama. Trump had the U.S. military fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base that had launched the chemical attacks. When Assad was caught yet again using chemical weapons, earlier this year, Trump enlisted America’s two democratic cohorts among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Britain and France, to help carry out strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities.
Trump’s much-criticized demands for NATO members to spend more on defense are not about America walking away from NATO, but about America leading NATO. Mainly, he’s telling the complacent welfare states of Europe, notably Germany, that if they want to deter a rearming and aggressive Russia, they’d better invest seriously in defense.
Whatever Trump’s skepticism and hostility toward international agreements, he seems broadly astute at distinguishing good agreements from bad. In pulling the U.S. out of the farcical Iran nuclear deal this past May, he did not make the world more dangerous. Rather, he is demanding that the free world face up to the dangers still on the rise and seek a genuine solution.
And though Trump does not habitually deliver teleprompted speeches on democracy during his trips abroad, his administration did not respond to Iranian protests in June by passively invoking the long arc of history. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a rousing speech on the corruption, brutality and malign character of Iran’s regime, effectively aligning the Trump administration with the protesters.
Trump has made a strong point of supporting two of the world’s most threatened and pivotal democracies: Israel and Taiwan — the world’s great example of what a democratic China could look like. Trump made good on years of broken American promises by moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He is encouraging official exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan, and this June the U.S. confirmed publicly, for the first time since 2007, that it was sailing destroyers through the Taiwan Strait. These are deeds that speak volumes about the value Trump places on defending democracy abroad.
To be sure, some of Trump’s moves have been troubling, including his praise of Kim Jong Un at the Singapore summit and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. It also remains to be seen whether his showdowns over tariffs will lead to more open markets or ruinous trade wars.
But on balance, Trump’s “America First” presidency is turning out in practice to be neither isolationist nor dismissive of freedom and democracy abroad. On the ground, his policy of “Peace through strength,” cribbed from President Ronald Reagan, has its similarities to Reagan’s defense of U.S. interests. Reagan was savaged by critics at the time as a war-mongering know-nothing from Hollywood. But it worked out pretty well.