While many Americans are focusing on President Trump’s unhinged tweets and Michael Wolff’s scandalous book on chaos in the White House, the big story of Trump’s first year has been the shift in the global balance of power away from Washington.
Indeed, in a recently released Gallup survey of 134 countries, the world now prefers China as a global leader to the United States. Median global approval of U.S. leadership fell 18 percentage points in just one year, by far the largest single-year decline. The world’s view of U.S. leadership is lower now than it has been at any point in the history of that poll.
The Gallup survey adds to similarly catastrophic findings from Pew Research. After just six months of Trump, confidence in U.S. leadership fell 75 percentage points in Germany, 70 points in France, 57 points in Britain and 54 points in Japan. Even long-standing U.S. allies no longer have faith in the White House.
There are four global powers that can meaningfully shape world affairs: the United States, the European Union, China and Russia. The first two have long been inconsistent but important champions of democracy and human rights. The last two are autocratic states who want to see a world based on hard economic and military power, not shared values and certainly not democracy.
Unfortunately for the forces of democracy, Trump’s America is willfully abdicating global leadership and turning inward as “America First” rapidly morphs into “America Alone.” The European Union’s foreign policy has long been splintered, but it, too, is turning inward as it struggles to cope with Brexit and the rise of authoritarian populism within its borders (notably in Hungary and Poland). China and Russia are only too happy to fill the void.
Those shifts matter. According to Freedom House’s new report, the world became more authoritarian in 71 countries during 2017, continuing and deepening an alarming 12-year trend. The democratic recession is accelerating. As the report notes: “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades” in 2017.
It is not a coincidence that authoritarianism is surging globally at a moment when Trump is in the White House. His impulses and instincts are strikingly authoritarian. Just consider his relentless attacks on the press, his calls to jail his opponents, his entourage of family members and generals, his attempts to undermine the rule of law by politicizing it, and his administration’s laundry list of ethics violations.
Such behavior undercuts efforts by U.S. diplomats or the State Department to press foreign autocrats on their own abuses. After all, U.S. pressure to respect freedom of the press and affirm the critical role journalists play in a democratic society rings a bit hollow when the president of the United States touts his “Fake News Awards” and refers to the press as “the enemy of the people” or a “stain on America.”
Authoritarian regimes haven’t missed this obvious signal. Several regimes have started decrying reports about their own human rights abuses as “fake news.” Indeed, Burma’s government has even claimed that its mass atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic minority are “fake news,” too.
2017 saw the highest number of journalists jailed around the world since records of those figures began. But is that really a surprise when Donald Trump joked about journalists being “spies” in the Philippines, a place where more than 100 journalists have been murdered since the early 1990s?
And while Trump’s use of the word “shithole” shatters our reputation in Africa, China is investing heavily in the continent, subverting U.S. influence there.
High up on the Freedom House naughty list this year is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rigged an election last year to further consolidate his power. Most Western leaders condemned Erdogan for it. Trump congratulated him.
Self-serving dictators and despots such as Erdogan look to the United States to see what they can get away with. They often push the limits, seeing how far they can go before provoking a meaningful international backlash. After all, if aspiring despots had it their way and Western pressure didn’t exist, they would jail their opponents, shut down critical independent media and ensure that nobody could really challenge their authority.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, they now have a kindred spirit in the White House.
Trump’s first year in office has therefore coincided with and partly caused a perfect storm against democracy: a president who attacks democratic norms and lavishes praise on despots, a weakened United States, a splintering liberal order, a rising China, and a more aggressive Russia.
In his farewell address, Ronald Reagan said this: “After 200 years, two centuries, [the United States] still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
As the Party of Reagan became the Party of Trump, 2017 was the year that made a mockery of those powerful words. The granite ridge is breaking apart, China is picking up the pieces, and democracy is fading in the storm.