Opinions and analyses on US and global security presented by H. Ross Kawamura: a foreign policy commentator; an advocate for liberal interventionism and robust defense policy; a watchful guardian of a world order led by the USA, Europe, and Japan.
Thursday, May 16, 2019
Trump Puts American Democracy in Danger
Earlier this year, “Freedom in the World 2019” by Freedom House told that democracy was losing momentum worldwide, and particularly, the decline of democracy in America was critical. The total score of the 100 point Freedom House index has dropped sharply since Donald Trump took office. Founded by Wendell Willkie and First Lady-then Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, Freedom House has been involved in reinforcing America’s value diplomacy. Wilkie was a Republican presidential rival against Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election, who edged out isolationist candidates in the primary of his party. Today, the bipartisan NGO for democracy promotion worldwide is shifting their focus to the domestic front. The decline of democracy at home is more critical to American hegemony than the 5G rivalry with China. Historically, Britain stood out as the world role model of parliamentary democracy, even though Germany emerged as a formidable rival in techno-hegemony during the Bismarck and the Kaiser era. The corrosion of American democracy is so devastating.
The Freedom House report narrates the general trend as follows. After the victory of Western democracies in the Cold War, authoritarian powers like China and Russia backlashed the liberal world order. Some Third World nations follow this trend, and their freedom score has dropped sharply. In addition, globalization has widened inequality in the Western society. It has benefitted the rich in developed nations and workers in emerging economies, while low skilled workers in developed economies are impoverished. This has led to the rise of anti-liberal movements in America and Europe, and they embrace authoritarian nationalism to deny multilateral rules, immigrants, and constitutional democracy. This report calls such loss of confidence in liberal democracy from 2005 to 2018 “the 13 year decline of global freedom”. Deplorably, the United States is not the leader of global freedom, but a battleground between democracy and autocracy, now.
The vital reason why I consider democracy decline in America so important is that this is an internal corrosion of the superpower. When experts talk about great power rivalries in this century, they tend to focus on external factors like global power shift, the rise of China, and the resurgence of Russia. But the supremacy of liberal democracies rests on internal strength, stability, and confidence, rather than external challenges by autocracies. American democracy was already in crisis before Trump. Partisan divide widened, economic mobility decreased, special interest groups grew uncontrollable, and people did not respect fact-based journalism. In the Trump era, things are deteriorating furthermore. The Freedom House report describes the state of American democracy as follows. Since Trump scorns fundamental norms of democracy, the United States is the worst among the G7 plus Australia in the Freedom House index. Though this country has managed to stay in the category of “free”, not falling to “partially free” or “not free” of the Freedom House grading, it suggests that the American political system of the Founding Fathers is no assurance to sustain sound democracy. The report raises examples like Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, to argue how vulnerable democratic institutions are to autocrats.
The report gives a diagnosis of the Trump presidency from the following five points. First, Trump is too contemptuous of the rule of law. When the judge made decisions disadvantageous to him over immigrant issues, he attacked the credentials and impartiality of the judges, like “Obama’s judge” and “so-called judge”. He even demanded the Department of Justice to prosecute political opponents, notably James Comey and Hillary Clinton. His political manipulation of judicial system goes furthermore to use his pardon power to reward political allies. These are critical threats to the independence of justice. Second, Trump represses the press freedom. He easily labels some media unfavorable to him “fake news” or “the enemy of the people” to agitate popular distrust to fact-based journalism. He disdains legal and social protection of journalists, which could ruin the safety of news reporters, as it happens in some autocracies like Putin’s Russia. These two points raised by Freedom House show that Trump infringes on checks and balances. In my view, Trump exploits popular anger just for himself, at the expense of democratic governance. He does not care how many people he sidelines, in order to achieve his goals. He does his job just to satisfy his electoral base.
Such egoism leads to corruption, which is vital for the country-based assessment by Freedom House to determine the level of democracy. The third point of the report is transparency and public service norms. Trump has broken the ethical standards of modern democracy so frequently. Notably, his affiliates have received money from questionable foreign sources. The Trump Organization negotiated for investment from the Shanghai Municipal Investment Group, a Chinese state-owned company, for a construction project in Manhattan (“As tariffs near, Trump’s business empire retains ties to China”; Washington Post; July 5, 2018). Also, Saudi Arabian lobbyists reserved Trump’s hotel rooms, shortly after the presidential election. In addition to these foreign interferences, the appointment of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump is Third World nepotism. There are so many conflicts of interests. The fourth point is that Trump attacks the legitimacy of the election when the result is unfavorable. In the midterm election in 2018, he told his supporters that Democrats cheated voting, without evidence. On the other hand, his administration shows little interest in gerrymandering and foreign meddlings including Russia.
In addition to these four domestic issues, the fifth point is that Trump disdains democracy promotion and collective defense so much that allies and the global community trust America less and less. On the other hand, autocratic nations from Russia, Saudi Arabia, to Cambodia applaud Trump’s refusal to uphold American values. Even China, that faces a bitter trade war with the United States, welcomes this trend so that she can export her authoritarian development model to the Third World. Freedom House worries that this will provoke the breakdown of the liberal world order. All the five points that Freedom House raises are deeply intertwined in the Russia probe. It is questioned that Trump’s handpicked Attorney General William Barr distorts the recommendation of the Mueller Report, though Robert Mueller and his fellow prosecutors say Trump is indictable. The administration’s wrongful behavior hurts the rule of law and the legitimacy of election in particular.
The problem is Republican appeasement to Trump. This is typically seen in the closed door meeting between former Vice President Dick Cheney and Vice President Mike Pence, which was set by the American Enterprise Institute. While Cheney raised a concern with growing frictions with allies and “Obama-styled” noninterventionism, Pence justified it to say that it was voters who had chosen Trump, and the administration acted accordingly (“Former vice president Cheney challenges Pence at private retreat, compares Trump’s foreign policy to Obama’s approach”; Washington Post; March 11, 2019). Furthermore, Max Boot comments that leading Republicans such as Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham embrace Trump’s illegal and unethical conducts over the Russia Probe, though they denounced similar Democrat misbehaviors in the past (“Republicans are hall-of-fame hypocrites”; Washington Post: May 9, 2019). Democracy promotion is the core value of American hegemony. Currently ongoing trade war with China draws much attention, but whether to win or lose it is just a local skirmish in the world order. This is typically seen in the speech of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Western liberal model of the society is dying and the world no longer trust America (“The New New World Order and the Russian Care Bear”; New American; April 15, 2019). So many allies still prioritize the relationship with the United States, though Trump makes America less and less trustworthy. That is turning the world more and more destabilized.
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