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The U.N. General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Trump, Clinton and the future of global democracy

Donald Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladamir Putin puts the U.S. perilously close to abandoning its longstanding role as democracy’s greatest proponent. In the process, Trump is challenging the already threatened notion that democracy is the only legitimate system of rule.

When he and Hillary Clinton take the stage, in what is expected to be the most-watched presidential debate in history, Americans won’t be the only ones paying attention. People living under dictatorships around the world will want to know if the next U.S. president will be on their side, or not.

To understand the damage Trump is doing, it’s critical to take a deeper look at what democratization really is. As I argue in my new book, “The Democratization Disconnect,” today’s global democratic revolutions are about broad ideas of human dignity with aspects of both political and, especially, economic change.

Often, revolutionaries promise democracy because it is the path of least resistance. The international community, through organizations such as the United Nations, bestows legitimacy only to rising democracies.

When the dust settles, leaders of these new democracies often revert to nondemocratic rule – either because they were never democrats in the first place, or in the name of quickly fulfilling constituents’ largely economic expectations. In the case of Georgia’s internationally celebrated Rose Revolution, for instance, it took just months for the new president to launch a repressive but popular anti-corruption drive.

Georgia highlights what I call the democratization disconnect, which stems from a glaring mismatch between the rhetorical promises of democracy on the one hand, and the bleak everyday realities of transition on the other. It is this mismatch that helps explain why the world is now in the throes of a democratic recession, marked by the failure of one in five new democracies since the turn of the millennium.

The growing list of failed democracies could soon undermine the idea that democracy is the only legitimate regime type. This amounts to a moral defeat for Americans, and even more importantly, threatens to make the world a more dangerous place.

Democratization: A disservice to humanity?

The Republican and Democratic nominees’ proposed fixes could not be more different. Trump has called democratization an enormous waste of money and “a tremendous disservice to humanity.” He has pledged to “abandon the failed policy of nation building and regime change.”

Hillary Clinton directly oversaw State Department efforts to support democratization during the Arab Spring. She has argued that while democratization does not always succeed, people “deserve a chance at democracy and self-government.” Just as she promoted democracy as secretary of state, Clinton has pledged to keep trying as president.

While Clinton’s stance represents the continuation of decades of bipartisan democratization efforts, Trump’s is a total rebuke. His message to democratizing states is that if it doesn’t work, don’t fix it. Ditch it.

Such a policy change goes against Americans’ long-held belief that we should promote democracy abroad. It also dismisses a significant amount of research indicating that a world of democracies would be a much safer and more prosperous one.

President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state talk with guests after his speech on the Arab Spring in 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Many sympathetic to Trump’s stance point to the relative failure of the Arab Spring to secure democracy as evidence that democratization is a disaster we should avoid. Few, however, would likely be opposed to regime change in countries such as North Korea and Iran, which have made starkly clear both their enmity of the West and their desire for nuclear weapons.

Disneyland democracy

At the same time, Clinton’s record of following the standard pro-democracy formula is not without problems.

U.S. foreign policymakers have long been convinced that people around the world want nothing more than political freedom. Four-fifths of those asked in every single region of the globe show support for democracy, according to surveys from 1999 to 2001. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find that people have quite different understandings of what democracy is. Most want, above all, greater human dignity with all of the political, but especially economic, guarantees it entails.

Democracy’s privileged place in the world emanates from two sources. One is purely rhetorical. Since World War II, the world community through the United Nations and other institutions has deemed democracy the sole legitimate source of power. One reason is that democracy, a system based on consent and transparency, seemed the only real way to ensure cooperation from such diverse countries. Today, even the mightiest nondemocracies, such as China, walk the democratic walk insofar as their leaders feel they must and safely can. In return, they are rewarded with international memberships, trade deals, grants and loans.

The American flag flies outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Established democracies, including the United States and European Union members, also give off a Disneyland sparkle to those struggling in nondemocracies. They dominate the world’s ranking of countries with the highest life expectancy, standard of living and quality of life. With all that glare, it’s hard to see that democracies can actually face worse corruption, more sluggish economic growth and higher levels of inequality than their nondemocratic counterparts.

For example, if you’re out to avoid corruption, you’ll have more luck in non-democratic China compared to democratic Peru, or in non-democratic United Arab Emirates compared to democratic India. Economic growth is much stronger in authoritarian Uzbekistan and Ethiopia than in democratic Germany or Japan. And, the inequality epitomized by that “1 percent” we keep hearing about in the “land of opportunity” is worse than that in Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive states on Earth. These examples show democracy does not necessarily guarantee economic dimensions of human dignity.

Despite these realities, the democratic image has long proven hard to tarnish.

But as more and more states have begun brazenly challenging the democratic template, democracy is no longer so safe. This wouldn’t matter if we accepted that democracy is no good. But, all evidence suggests it is the best system around at providing the political side of human dignity, including rule of law and electoral accountability. These are things nearly everyone wants to the extent they can afford them.

Getting democratization back on track

I believe Trump’s policy recommendation to abandon democracy promotion is reckless. At the same time, Clinton’s may be shortsighted. At this pivotal period in democracy’s evolution, Western democratic leaders can’t continue to operate business as usual.

On its face, the U.S. demonstrates a significant commitment to bringing democracy to the global population. The Department of State and USAID plan to spend US$2.7 billion on democracy, human rights and governance in 2017. Elections and civil society building account for a large chunk of this spending – $173 million and $652 million, respectively.

Unfortunately, my experience as a researcher and former U.S. diplomat suggests that such programs do very little with respect to real democratization.

Many of the overwhelmingly small, professional organizations that the U.S. aids might do a decent job monitoring human rights, observing elections and pressuring nondemocratic governments to make legal changes. But, they operate in relative obscurity, having much more contact with foreign donors and diplomats than with the populations they serve.

These organizations occasionally take on the role of democracy’s cheerleaders in the newest spontaneous democratic revolt. But, evidence suggests that U.S. democracy efforts are in fact failing to reach the masses. Nearly two-thirds of Egyptian protesters polled around the time of their revolution in 2011, for example, said they were motivated by low living standards and job scarcity. Less than one in five said that “lack of democracy and political reform” were their key motives.

One alternative to supporting elite, pro-democracy organizations is to put greater resources into organic groups such as trade unions, peasant associations and civic groups. These organizations could be better positioned to heighten popular understandings of, and commitment to, the democratic process. Part of increasing popular conceptions of democracy could involve highlighting the political rights democracy does such a good job of protecting. Another part could be preparing people for the messy and complicated reality that comes with democracy.

More realistic expectations mean more patience on the part of constituents. That means fewer incentives for state leaders to take nondemocratic shortcuts during the transition.

It might also be helpful for democracy promoters to adopt a quality over quantity approach, making a deeper commitment to democratization in one state rather than encouraging democratic breakthrough in multiple countries. The logic is simple: Better one case of democratic consolidation and four cases of continued authoritarianism than five cases of democratic failure. As we saw in post-communist Europe, shoring up the economy enough to create popularly shared dividends from the transition is critical.

Whatever the path forward, one thing is clear: As the democratization disconnect threatens the future of democracy, our leaders need to focus on policies that strengthen democracy abroad. Not abandon it.

Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected. The original version suggested that China was less corrupt than India and Peru. According to the Transparency International 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, China is less corrupt than Peru, but more corrupt than India.

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