Nicolas Bouchet is a nonresident research fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
When on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, he not only made the case for the United States’ entry into World War I. He also gave the seminal statement of what slowly became a central strand of U.S. foreign policy. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he declared. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” The centenary of Wilson’s speech effectively marks that of American democracy promotion. Ironically, it also coincides with the start of a presidency that future observers might see as closing this chapter in the history of the United States.
Unlike most of his predecessors, President Trump is certainly not given to talking about “democracy” and “freedom.” His praise for authoritarian leaders is well-documented and he has said that America should not give lessons to other countries. The political philosophy of key advisers and supporters such as Stephen K. Bannon and Peter Thiel mixes nationalist populism and extreme libertarianism in ways that cast democracy as an afterthought, if not worse.
The spread of democracy is one pillar of Wilsonianism. So are free trade, collective security and U.S. international leadership, as Tony Smith shows in a new book on the legacy of the 28th president. On all four fronts, Trump is probably the least Wilsonian president since Wilson left the White House.
For Wilson and those who tried to put his worldview in practice over the last 100 years, self-interest as much as idealism dictated that the United States should try to make the world more democratic. Wilson argued that Germany’s aggression, which had caused Europe’s war and dragged the United States into it, resulted from having an unaccountable government. The menace to peace came from “autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.” From the beginning, making the world safe for democracy has been just as much about making the world safe for America.
This Wilsonian argument clearly does not resonate with Trump. He is not, however, alone in this. His nationalist, Jacksonian supporters are little interested in a universal mission to make other societies freer. Those, like Trump, who have long criticized how Wilson’s ideas have become ingrained in U.S. foreign policy thinking (and have produced failures such as Russia and Iraq when taken too far) would welcome a change of direction. Even if they are no fans of Trump, some realists see at least one saving grace of his presidency in the prospect that he might end what they consider misguided and sometimes dangerous adventures.
Jettisoning Wilson’s legacy could be momentous at a time when the world seems to be turning unsafe for democracy. It is not only organizations such as Freedom House that are ringing the alarm bells about political freedoms eroding in many countries. The U.S. National Intelligence Council says that democracy at the global level cannot be taken for granted and that the rising number of countries mixing democratic and autocratic features threatens international stability. Similarly, the World Economic Forum warns that growing government crackdowns on civil society can erode social, political and economic stability. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about the state of politics in the United States and Europe — the mainstays of liberal democracy during the Cold War and of democracy promotion after it.
The combination of a potential reverse wave in democratization, political stresses in the United States and Europe, and rising global influence for autocracies such as China and Russia should not be taken lightly. In this context, neither should the possibility that Trump will turn the United States away from supporting democracy abroad.
The White House’s wish to slash the foreign aid budget suggests he is moving in this direction. The president’s speech to Congress contained only a brief mention of “free nations” — with some boilerplate about each having its own path — juxtaposed with an insistence on respecting the sovereign rights of nations, something that will be noted approvingly in Beijing, Moscow and other capitals.
We should not expect to hear Trump criticizing autocrats. On the other hand, he may find it harder to gut the democracy assistance budgets and bureaucracy that have developed over the last 30 years, especially given the bipartisan support these tend to enjoy in Congress. There also does not appear to be a counter-lobby in or around Congress that is virulently opposed to democracy promotion — though there may be forces who are disinterested in it. But even a period of malign neglect by the administration could have wide-ranging repercussions.
If the recent democratic erosion is to be halted, the next years will be a pivotal period. Smart actions by the United States and other democracies to hold the line will be crucial. Here the multilateral aspect of Wilson’s legacy could be tapped. A more effective collective approach to democracy promotion should be one response to the current situation. This would mean a framework for coalitions of older and younger democracies to support one another in the face of autocratic pressures at home, and to help democratic actors in closed or hybrid regimes. Unfortunately, Trump’s disdain for America’s alliances or collective action in general makes this less likely than ever.
There is one further factor that could prove debilitating for the impact of the United States when it comes to democracy abroad. At times when their country’s ability or willingness to promote it is in doubt, Americans are usually tempted to return to a pre-Wilsonian approach in which it simply is an example to others. Such voices have been heard increasingly in recent years, including at the progressive end of opinion. Unfortunately, this comes precisely at the moment when growing political dysfunction and the early turbulence of the Trump administration are making the American “city on a hill” lose its shine in the eyes of the world.
The next four years could therefore see a triple whammy of declining American interest in promoting democracy, the undermining of collective action by the world’s largest democratic power, and a deteriorating image for American democracy. All this would be bad news for aspiring or threatened democracies around the world. And this, as Wilson knew, would eventually be bad news for the United States itself.