One of the oddities of current U.S. foreign policy is that despite the stark divides between advocates and critics of the liberal international order, they share some implicit assumptions. Furthermore, those assumptions are somewhat faulty.
Take, for example, the question of democracy promotion. It seems undeniable that we are experiencing a “democratic recession” in the world, although just how severe it is remains an open question. What is more intriguing is that President Trump and liberal internationalists blame the current situation on American overextension.
Trump has not really been a big fan of democracy promotion while in office. His White House attempted to slash the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy. He has praised autocrats and insulted democratic allies. His national security strategy says nothing about democracy promotion. His most positive comments about democratic values came in his most coherent foreign policy speech to date, his Warsaw address a year ago. He said, “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. . . . And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.”
Later in that speech, however, Trump also made it clear that his concern was limited to whether those values could persist in Western civilization:
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?
. . . Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.
Note the exclusive appeal of Trump’s rhetoric — it is limited to the West. Skepticism about the ability of liberal democratic values to thrive in non-Western societies also explains the tendency in certain GOP circles to embrace such leaders as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as perceived bulwarks against Islamic fundamentalism.
Intriguingly enough, even Trump’s fiercest critics talk about the limits of the liberal international order beyond the borders of the West. In a January essay in International Affairs, John Ikenberry offered several explanations for why the liberal international order was under threat. One reason, however, was its expansion beyond the Cold War Western bloc:
The liberal order lost its identity as a western security community. It was now a far-flung platform for trade, exchange and multilateral cooperation. The democratic world was now less Anglo-American, less western. It embodied most of the world — developed, developing, North and South, colonial and postcolonial, Asian and European. This too was a case of “success” planting the seeds of crisis. The result was an increasing divergence of views across the order about its members, their place in the world, and their historical legacies and grievances. There was less of a sense that liberal internationalism was a community with a shared narrative of its past and future.
It would be understandable if observers of this debate conclude that a newfound area of consensus is the need for the United States to de-emphasize the promotion of liberal democracy beyond the West, because the soil is less fertile. It would also be wrong.
Paul Miller, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, has an excellent essay on “non-Western” liberalism in the Washington Quarterly’s most recent issue. While liberal democracy as we understand it emanates from the West, that does not mean it should be confined to Europe and the Americas:
The history of the relationship between liberalism and Western history is just that — history. It is not a deterministic blueprint for the future of liberalism, nor its prospects outside of the West. Non-Western liberalism exists: it is demonstrably possible to have a democracy in a place that did not experience Western history or produce Enlightenment philosophers.
In reviewing the sources of democratic change in areas beyond the West, Miller concludes that indigenous demands for representation matter far more than overt coercion from the West:
Liberal institutions exist outside the West. Irrefutably, there is a widespread, grassroots, indigenous desire for accountable, representative government around the world as repeatedly demonstrated by referenda, protests, demonstrations, people’s movements, uprisings, and revolutions — to say nothing of successful elections and peaceful transfers of power. As President Ronald Reagan said in 1982, “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” There is nothing uniquely Western about not wanting to be oppressed.
The days of U.S. investments in forcible regime change to promote democracy are behind us, and that’s probably a good thing. But there is a tendency to conflate the costs of Iraq with a belief that the project of democracy promotion is misguided. That is a caricature that is almost as garish as one of Trump’s rally speeches.
Liberal democracy has its challenges. Even in 2018, however, social movements have upended entrenched single-party regimes in places such as Malaysia and Armenia. Even Uzbekistan has taken modest steps toward a more open society.
Do not count liberal democracy out. And definitely do not count it out beyond the West.