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Trump’s nationalism bad for liberal democracies; emboldens autocrats with deplorable human rights records

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By Ted Piccone

U.S. President Donald Trump’s exaggerated “America First” doctrine elevates a zero-sum approach to pursuing U.S. interests that undermines both U.S. and global security. The era of Pax Americana, which brought seven decades of relative global peace and prosperity, has entered a new and more dangerous stage of decline thanks to Trump’s embrace of narrow-minded nationalism. The result will be a much more favorable environment for autocrats at the expense of liberal democracy and human rights.

These trends have already come to life in the first year of the Trump administration and will only get worse in year two. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear weapons deal, rising U.S. tariffs against America’s most reliable democratic trade partners, and ongoing appeasement of authoritarians in China and Russia – and now North Korea – are exacerbating the self-inflicted harm of a longer-term U.S. retreat from global leadership. 

Meanwhile, respect for democratic governance and human rights continues to fall even in states once considered safe, such as Hungary and Poland. Few, if any, democratic allies are able to fill the growing vacuum left by the U.S. retreat, leaving the field of geopolitical competition open to the maneuvers of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. 

Why should the survival of strong democracies matter to national and global security? Why not let each country decide how to govern themselves on their own terms, without regard to universal rights and democratic accountability by their citizens?

First, democracies historically have not gone to war against each other. If we want to avoid war and all its harms, therefore, we should support the consolidation of healthy democracies. 

Empirical evidence shows that strong democracies are much less likely to experience civil wars, less likely to suffer deadly terrorism in comparison to non-democracies, have lower levels of violence, including against women, and generate fewer refugees. Strong democracies are also more transparent and accountable to their citizens and their neighbors and more likely to provide security through the rule of law rather than violating sovereignty through armed force, cyberattacks or terrorism. A world with more and stronger democracies is a safer world.

The reverse is true for dictatorships and other non-democracies, especially weak and failing states that fall in that messy middle between liberal democracy and autocracy. As authoritarians amass economic, military and technological leverage at home and abroad, they increase pressure on their opponents to expand their hold on power at the expense of more open societies. 

The inevitable results have already come to pass: Russia’s growing interference in international elections, China’s militarizing international waters and artificial intelligence , Iran’s harboring and sustaining terrorists, and questions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Trump, despite his advisers’ best attempts to maintain the long-held bipartisan commitment of international leadership, seems determined to keep digging the United States deeper into the hole of populist nationalism and protectionism. The president continues to praise strongman rulers in countries around the world: el-Sisi in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, and the Philippines’ Duterte, despite their deplorable human rights records. The few times this administration has spoken out clearly in defense of human rights have been tainted by overt and covert messages calling for military coups and regime change, as in Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Longstanding U.S. programs designed to support free media, human rights defenders and women’s rights around the world face repeated White House attempts to cut funding, which Congress has rejected so far. 

Worst of all, Trump’s rhetoric and actions against domestic opponents are the exact opposite of what are most needed if the United States is to lead a world safe for democratic peace. His record of undermining the separation of powers, attacking independent prosecutors and judges, demeaning journalists, and abetting racist and nativist forces sends precisely the wrong message to both struggling reformers and ambitious autocrats around the world. His partners in the Republican-controlled Congress are going along for the ride; looking the other way while advancing their own factionalized interests wherever possible. Such weaknesses at home will further America’s decline abroad as evidenced by recent polling showing a precipitous drop in U.S. standing around the world, which in turn makes it harder for our democratic allies to partner with us to solve global problems.

The good news is that there is nothing wrong with democracy that free citizens cannot fix themselves. The self-correcting features of popular accountability, coupled with respect for human rights and the rule of law, are antidotes to the current mood of retrenchment from globalization. The rise of Trump and his ilk should be a wake-up call not to take our liberties for granted. Democracies, especially the United States, should lead by example and urgently address their political and economic dysfunctions, in order to define a new agenda of cooperation to strengthen the international liberal order.  

Ted Piccone spent eight years as a senior foreign policy advisor in the Clinton administration, including on the National Security Council staff, at the State Department's Office of Policy Planning and the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon. He is now a senior fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution."

© The Mark News

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

13 Comments
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Populism IS one of the purest expressions of democracy. That's what these globalist, elitest free trader neo-libs, don't get.

The threat against civil liberties is mostly posed by globalists like George W. Bush, with his "War on Terror" and sanctioned torture, and Merkel, who pushes hugely important public policies with zero public discourse.

Until Trump, the Western establishment was more than happy to cozy up to China's Politburo and shrug off its distorted trade practices.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

'deplorable human rights'

Yes, those that have huge trade surpluses think so.

Yes, illegal aliens think so.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

What Jeff said. There is good populism and bad populism. The saddest thing about Trump is that it allows technocrats and elitists to paint all expressions of the popular will as unseemly or dangerous. This is regularly how it's framed in the NYT or WaPo. i.e. That Bernie Sanders is just as threatening as a loon like Trump. Their message is just wait until the mature adults are back in charge, you know the fine folks who delivered massive transfers of wealth upwards over the past 3 decades and counting, who nearly destroyed the global economy and have waged endless war. Right-wing populism was borne as a result of their myriad failures and their inability to acknowledge this connection is astonishing.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

The author is confused, liberals don't run democracies, they are the autocrats, tyrannies, the one world under liberal socialism government is impeded by trump nationalism. Nationalism is how countries should be for it's free people in these nations who will stop liberal tyranny

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

The author is confused, liberals don't run democracies, they are the autocrats, tyrannies

And then in the real world outside the American extremist bubble...

2 ( +4 / -2 )

The author is confused, liberals don't run democracies,

They run some of them. Sometimes they gain power by democratic elections and sometimes they are thrown out of power by democratic elections. Some of them are in government as part of coalitions. Some are in parties which would be described as on the left or the right. I’d be described by some as a ‘liberal’ and I hate autocrats.

That’s pretty much it. I’d recommend you look into it further. Politics is quite interesting.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

“Meanwhile, respect for democratic governance and human rights continues to fall even in states once considered safe, such as Hungary and Poland.”

Huh? Hungary & Poland are hell more safer than Germany, France, UK etc......because they slammed the door on the Islamic refugees who marched into Europe.

Ohwell, at least England got the “Brexit” thing right.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

JeffLeeToday  09:25 am JST

Populism IS one of the purest expressions of democracy

Not even remotely close; you could not be more wrong if you tried.

Populism is the self-deception that people of your ethnic group, birthplace, religion, are realer members of your country than anyone of any other ethnic group, than any immigrant, than anyone of any other religion. It is the lie that the people who share your values and ethics can only be the people who look and dress like you. Populism reduces a population to the qualities that are only skin-deep, and denies them the opportunity to be anything other than how they were born. It is the antithesis of democracy, because it is the antithesis of choice based on shared values and ideas. It is no surprise there is a heavy overlap between appeals to populism and appeals to fascism right now.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

katsu, I don't know where you're from (or Jeff for that matter) but that does not remotely describe the meaning of populism in my part of the world, however hijacked it may seem at present. Here's the late great Howard Zinn on Bill Moyers talking about populism:

BILL MOYERS: So, help us get a handle on the word and the tradition of Populism. What was Populism in essence?

HOWARD ZINN: Well, populi-- the word Populism came into being in the late 1800s, 1880, 1890, when great corporations dominated the country, the railroads, and the banks, and these farmers were victims of them. And these farmers got together and they organized north and south, and they formed the Populist movement. It was a great people's movement. And they sent orators around the country, and they published thousands of pamphlets. And it was-- I would say a high moment for American democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Well, if populism is thriving today, it seems to be thriving on the right. I mean, Sarah Palin, for example. And the tea parties. Some-- one conservative writer recently in "The Weekly Standard" even said that Sarah Palin could be the William Jennings Bryan of this new conservative era because she is giving voice to millions of people who feel angry at what the government is doing, who feel that they're being cheated out of a prosperous way of life by forces beyond their control. What do you think about that idea?

HOWARD ZINN: Well, I guess William Jennings Bryan would turn over in his grave if he heard. William Jennings Bryan was antiwar, and she is not antiwar, she is very militaristic and so on. But it's true that she represents a certain angry part of the population. And I think it's true that when people are — feel beleaguered and people feel that they are being overlooked, they will turn to whoever seems to represent them. Some of them will turn to her. And some of them will turn to the right-wingers, and you might say that's how fascism develops in countries, because they play upon the anger and the frustration of people. But on the other hand, that anger, that frustration can also lead to people's movements that are progressive. You can go the way traditionally of the Populists, of the labor movement of the '30s, of the Civil Rights movement, of the women's movement to bring about change in this country.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I think 'populism' is impossible to define because it's not actually a substantive ideology which stands for or against anything. It is pure democracy in a sense, but it usually embraces a form of utopianism where people start believing that they can engineer a better society by implementing the general will of the people even if it's leads to a radical transformation of the status quo. It can go in any direction, from toppling the elites, to kicking out a particular ethnic group, to nationalising industry, or the New Deal.

The idealism of 'populist' thinking is quite similar to socialist/Marxist movements, but it's not ideologically limited to issues of class struggle and material well-being. The only characteristic of 'populist' movements that I can see is that they are usually anti-conservative, in the sense that they welcome radical transformation of society. We see this in modern 'populist' movements like UKIP and Nigel Farage who constantly railed against the establishment elites, and with Trump supporters who actually despise traditional conservatives (or 'cuck-servatives' as I've heard them called). It's definetly not easy to define though.

@katsu78

But Hugo Chavez and Teddy Roosevelt are universally regarded as having been populists, and they never engaged in the sort of ethnic, racial or religious exclusionary politics you describe as defining populism. How do you square that circle?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I, for one, oppose Trump’s so-called “America First” doctrine on two grounds: 1. Geographicall: America is the name of the entire continent and not the name of my country. 2. Philosophically: It stands for the opposite of what the USA stands for.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Thank god for Trump,

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Extreme national is always the sign of corrupt and failed society.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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