Can U.S. Democracy Policy Survive Trump?
Low Policy Corrosion
Damage to Pro-democracy Diplomacy
Democracy Aid Under Pressure
Sustaining Pro-democracy Diplomacy
- Highlight public support. In 2018, the George W. Bush Institute, Freedom House, and the Penn Biden Center found that 71 percent of Americans support the U.S. government “taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.” By communicating this notable (and underappreciated) level of support, research and advocacy communities can encourage legislators and other policymakers to continue resisting administration efforts to slash democracy aid and broader international affairs spending, such as the recent rescissions proposal. Given that several defenders of pro-democracy diplomacy, including Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Edward Royce, are retiring from Congress this year, these communities should underscore this public support when forging relationships with incoming lawmakers.
- Push for the restoration of government positions and capacities essential to democracy work, as part of broader efforts to reverse the damage to U.S. diplomatic capacity inflicted during the first eighteen months of Trump’s presidency. Specific priority areas include confirming the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor and filling key supporting roles, as well as restoring democracy-focused positions at the National Security Council.
- Draw attention to key country cases where democracy has a window of opportunity to make progress or is especially at risk, and underline the value of U.S. engagement with them. For example, political openings, or at least signs of them, in Armenia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan, as well as critical junctures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, may merit closer U.S. engagement.
- Don’t neglect “democracy capital” created during earlier administrations. Some signature democracy initiatives launched under the Obama presidency carry on with more low-key U.S. participation, such as the Open Government Partnership and the Young Leaders’ initiatives. Others, such as the Stand with Civil Society Initiative, seem dormant at least in branded form. But many components of these initiatives are still relevant, and continued support from the U.S. government, or new support from other bilateral or philanthropic sources, would help maintain their initial progress.
- Urge the Trump administration to finalize the interagency strategy on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance that the National Security Council has been working on over the past year. The administration’s recent publication of its Stabilization Assistance Review and National Security Strategy documents helped to align internal U.S. government efforts in these areas, and also to communicate the administration’s priorities to external counterparts. Finalizing and distributing a strategy on democracy support would similarly clarify the administration’s approach, and allow non-U.S. government partners to target complementary efforts more efficiently.
- Encourage partners to “burden share” on democracy support. On a related note, allies such as the European Union and its member states, Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea as well as philanthropic organizations, should be aware that their efforts to boost their own pro-democracy support and engagement will be seen as complementing U.S. efforts, rather than stepping on the administration’s toes. With diminished U.S. leadership in organizing these various efforts, other democracy supporters should also be assertive in starting conversations about priorities and division of labor.
Encouraging Policy Innovation
- Encourage Congress to explore creative ways of using its own authorities to support democracy, beyond the important role of holding the line on budgets. On a symbolic level, legislators should consider increasing their number of meetings with pro-democracy activists from abroad to signal support, taking up some of the role that the White House historically has played in demonstrating U.S. support for democratic principles. In the legislative arena, representatives could consider creative legislation, such as limiting foreign assistance to countries whose leaders have extended their own term limits by undemocratic means, in parallel to the long-standing Foreign Assistance Act provision cutting off nonhumanitarian aid to countries whose elected government is deposed by a military coup. Ideally, such aid cuts should focus on the aid that autocrats value most—security sector assistance—however complex that issue is.
- Support greater assistance for regional organizations that are boosting democracy efforts in their own neighborhoods. As one illustrative example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has augmented its role as mediator of some democratic transitions and preventing movement toward authoritarianism in West Africa. Greater U.S. and other external involvement could significantly bolster ECOWAS’s capacities in specific areas.
- Continue to build bridges with the information technology sector to explore how social media and other technologies can support democratic processes globally rather than weaken them. Many companies have communicated the desire to serve the public interest and the imperative to do better; conversely, the core democracy support community has made more of an effort to grapple with the implications of technology for their work. Though specifics vary widely based upon platform, firms with international reach should be urged to develop policies that privilege information over disinformation, emphasize meaningful expression over speculation and sensationalism, and bring their community standards into line with international standards of freedom of expression.
Changing the Conversation
- Inform debates about rising ideological competition with China and Russia by underscoring that the United States should not sacrifice considerations of democracy for the sake of strengthening ties with autocrats. Provide suggestions for ways in which USAID’s “Clear Choice” initiative can encourage democratic citizen-centered governance principles, in addition to a better deal economically.
- Develop a more positive but still realistic counternarrative on global democracy that acknowledges the many problems that democracy is facing but presents a more balanced picture than the burgeoning global doom-and-gloom accounts. The democracy support community should highlight the emergence of various democratic advances around the world, the notable success of anticorruption protests and legal action in driving positive political change, the indispensability of democracy for achieving broad respect for human rights, and the difficulties many authoritarian regimes face in delivering basic goodsand services.