U.S. pro-democracy policy is surviving, but only in places Trump considers ‘shitholes’

Trump at the State Department in April 2017.
Trump at the State Department in April 2017.

Earlier today, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a riveting and important article posing a troubling question: Can U.S. Democracy Policy Survive Trump?

(Suggestion: Get your mind off Kavanaugh and read it. It won’t cheer you up, but at least you’ll feel smarter when it’s over instead of dumber.)

I admire the bluntness with which Thomas Carothers, the endowment’s senior vice president,  and Frances Z. Brown, a fellow there, describe the problem.

“In short,” they write, “the U.S. president has become a leading light for the surging anti-democratic forces in many parts of the world, a development genuinely unthinkable just a few years ago.”

They back this up very, very well.

I admire how they acknowledge that the “shortcomings of U.S. democracy policy are hardly new” — although Trump’s actions amount to a “diminishment of a different order of magnitude.”

And I’m sympathetic to their argument that, even as the U.S. is praising dictators and denouncing democratic allies at the Trump level, U.S. diplomats are nevertheless quietly and seriously countering democratic backsliding overseas.

But if you look at which countries Carothers and Brown are able to cite as examples of the latter, it appears that pretty much the only place where diplomats are successfully pursuing pro-democracy efforts is in Africa.

You may recall that Trump called the African continent a “shithole” back in January, as he complained privately about non-white immigration. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked.

It was an unmistakably, horrifyingly racist comments that dehumanized people and denigrated entire populations and cultures. It was contemptible.

And sadly, it also suggests why diplomats are still able to do their job in Africa: Because Trump simply doesn’t care.

The leading example the authors cite for U.S. officials engaging “to limit backsliding tendencies, resolve political blockages around democratic processes, and bolster democratic advances,” is Cambodia, where the U.S. embassy “worked diligently in the early months of 2018 to try to protect Cambodian civil society organizations and U.S. democracy aid providers against the Cambodian government’s growing suppression of independent political and civic activity.”

Unfortunately, as they themselves note a bit further down in the article, those efforts were waved off by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who expressed confidence “that President Trump’s sympathy for his strongman style is of greater importance in shaping his relations with the United States.”

The other examples cited are from Africa, such as when:

  • Embassy and State Department officials condemned “serious human rights violations” in Zimbabwe.
  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sanctions and diplomatic pressure helped discourage President Joseph Kabilafrom unconstitutionally seeking a third term.
  • U.S. officials in Addis Ababa and Washington have “moved to support the nascent reform process and preparations for elections” in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump “congratulates Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other foreign leaders on victories in manipulated and manifestly unfree elections.”

Furthermore, Carothers and Brown write, Trump “regularly tramples” on “initiatives to support the rule of law, freedom of the press, political tolerance, and other values.”

Some pro-democracy diplomatic efforts are actively disrupted by Trump. They describe how a State Department’s promise to support independent media in Hungary was canceled after the increasingly authoritarian Orbán government successfully argued that it did not reflect the priorities of the White House.

And then of course there’s Ukraine:

[W]hile the State Department has maintained an unequivocal line against the Russian annexation of Crimea, noting that Russia held an “illegitimate, fabricated ‘referendum’ in Ukraine in a futile attempt to legitimize its purported annexation of Ukrainian territory,” Trump himself publicly toyed with recognizing the annexation, undermining the State Department’s stance.

Carothers and Brown finish with a number of suggestions for how the pro-democracy community can “redouble its efforts to preserve what remains, encourage other long-time pro-democratic actors to step up, and identify ways to bring in new partners to this mission.” Most of us, I’m sure, wish them well.

But they acknowledge the uphill battle for the pro-democracy movement, not just because of Trump, but also because of what they call the “burgeoning global doom-and-gloom accounts.”

“The task immediately ahead is policy survival,” they write; “policy renovation is a project for some later time.”

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