He was responding to a widespread sense of pessimism. It has become commonplace to argue that the values of “the West” are losing ground around the world. The Chinese Communist Party has provided a successful alternative model of government to achieve economic growth, with spectacular results over the past four decades. The rise of authoritarian populism and nationalism around the world have also undermined claims that liberal democracy is the way to go.
Yet there are also powerful arguments against the pessimism.
Compared with the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s, or most of human history for that matter, democracies are more prevalent and more robust in the world today. Democracies still outnumber autocracies. Most people in the world still prefer democracy to dictatorship or military rule. Immigrants prefer migrating to and seeking opportunities in democracies, and foreign students prefer to study in universities located in democracies.
And when citizens courageously mobilize against autocratic regimes, they almost always do so to press for democratic change. How many mass demonstrations has the world witnessed recently in favor of theocracy, Putinism or Communist Party rule? By my count, the number is zero.
If you bracket out fossil fuel exporters, the world’s richest countries — measured by per capita gross domestic product — are all democracies except one, Singapore. (Notably, non-oil exporting autocracies tend to be low income.) At 71st or so in the rankings of per capita GDP, China remains a middle-income country, and comparative historical analysis teaches us that there is often a lot of political turmoil — including autocratic breakdown, revolution or democratization — as countries try to move from middle-income to high-income status.
So Pompeo was right to push back on Munich’s pessimistic predictions concerning the demise of the “West” — or what I prefer to call “the free world,” because liberal democracy and freedom are universal, not Western, values.
Yet there’s an important ingredient missing from Pompeo’s analysis: American agency. If the most powerful democracy in the world does not stand up for those who are confronting authoritarian regimes, the autocrats will win. The United States used to be a leader in providing such support, but President Trump shows little interest in assisting the cause of democracy. In some cases, indeed, he has proved to be actively hostile to it.
Trump has alienated democratic allies, from Canada and Japan to Germany and Denmark; Pompeo’s lecturing in Munich won few new supporters. Trump has embraced strongmen and dictators: Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Egypt (Trump’s “favorite dictator”), Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, Trump has done little to help new democracies consolidate their gains. His contemptuous treatment of Ukraine is most striking. He has not only damaged bilateral U.S.-Ukrainian relations but also undermined support for Ukraine’s decidedly pro-Western political and civil society leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, who seek to consolidate their democracy while still fighting against the occupation of part of their territory by autocratic Russia.
Trump rarely defends democratic opposition leaders or civil society activists around the world. (The only exceptions: Venezuela and Iran.) Most damagingly of all, Trump has eroded democratic institutions at home, making it harder to inspire people elsewhere with our example. Disparaging the media as the “enemy of the people” is exactly the kind of demagoguery American democracy promoters have been telling leaders in other countries to avoid. The use of public office for personal gain is what democracy advocates have been seeking to reduce in other countries.
Similarly, the politicization of the U.S. legal system gravely undermines judicial independence and the rule of law. In Munich, Pompeo rightly underscored that immigrants “risk a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to reach Greece or Italy … clamor to study in Cambridge, and not Caracas … compete to start businesses in Silicon Valley, but not in Saint Petersburg.” Yet it is Pompeo’s own administration that is making such immigration more difficult. It’s a contradiction that undermines arguments for the benefits of democratic government.
American nongovernmental organizations and foundations continue to promote human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance across the world today. But without more robust and effective leadership from the U.S. government, we will not win the ideological battle between democracy and autocracy.
Pompeo’s diagnosis of the long-term structural forces in favor of democracy was mostly correct. That analysis now needs to be matched with smarter prescriptions for a more active American role, both in supporting democratic consolidation abroad to strengthening our democratic values and institutions at home. Hectoring our democratic allies about how good they have it is not enough.