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Liberal Democracy in Retreat?

DENVER – We are only in the second month of Donald Trump’s presidency, but many Americans have already tired of the drama, and are wondering what the next 46 months have in store.

Beyond producing constant anxiety, Trump’s bizarre presidency poses a more fundamental question: Having already come under siege in many of its outposts around the world, is liberal democracy now at risk of losing its citadel, too? If so, the implications for US foreign policy, and the world, could be far-reaching.

The United States has elected a president whose understanding of American democracy is apparently limited to the fact that he won the Electoral College. To be sure, this does require some passing acquaintance with the US Constitution, where the Electoral College is defined. Beyond that, however, Trump seems to have little respect for the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, and the separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. Nor does he respect America’s “fourth estate,” the press, which he has begun describing as the “enemy of the American people.”

Elections, while necessary, are hardly sufficient for upholding liberal democracy’s central tenets. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and many other despots have come to power by winning a popular vote.

As any schoolchild should know, elections require all citizens to tolerate views that differ from their own. Elections are not meant to transcend or overturn democratic institutions or the separation of powers. Regardless of how the Trump administration ultimately performs, its first month of presidential decrees – or, in American political parlance, “executive orders” – can hardly be viewed as a triumph for liberal democracy.

Trump would do well to study the Constitution; and while he is at it, he should find time to read some of the republic’s other founding documents. He could start with the 1620 Mayflower Compact, which implicitly recognized the rights of political and social minorities in one of America’s earliest religious colonies.

But Trump is not the only American who should use this moment to reflect on his country’s history and its role in the world. Although the administration’s “America first” sloganeering may sound frightening to some foreign ears, it might come as a relief to others.

Since the end of the Cold War, more than a quarter-century ago, the primary goal of American foreign policy has been to spread democracy around the world. But in pursuit of this lofty ambition, the US has sometimes overreached. Although America’s support for democracy would seem to put it on the side of the angels, its policies have often been implemented with a measure of arrogance, and even anger.

America has sometimes force-fed democracy to countries, or even delivered it at the tip of a bayonet. There are many reasons why liberal democracy seems to be in retreat around the world. But among them is surely the growing resentment of other countries and their leaders, who have tired of listening to American accusations, lectures, and admonitions.

Consider Iraq. Many Western observers were inspired by the sight of Iraqis’ ink-stained fingers after they had cast their ballots in that country’s first election. But while free elections are often a first step on the road to democracy, the aftermath was not so smooth in Iraq. Political identities became increasingly defined by sectarianism, rather than substantive issues; and it soon became clear that democratic institutions and the culture of tolerance on which they rely are not so easily introduced to societies that have not known them before.

Some years ago, I spoke to a Balkan leader who had just spent the day listening to an American philanthropist lecture him about all of his troubled young country’s democratic shortcomings. As he contemplated the political pain of following the philanthropist’s free advice, he asked me, “What am I supposed to do with that?” He had identified a fundamental shortfall in the movement to promote democracy: telling someone how to implement democratic reforms is not the same as taking on the risks and responsibilities of actually doing it.

Notwithstanding its currently toxic political scene, the US still has one of the most successful democracies in history. It provides a great model for others to emulate, but its example cannot be forced on the world. Telling people that their countries have to be like America is not a sound strategy.

Liberal democracy was already off balance before Trump’s victory; now it has lost its center of gravity. The next four years could be remembered as a dark period for this precious form of government. But liberal democracy has outlasted its rivals in the past, and it will likely do so again. Those who have fought so hard and sacrificed so much for it will be ready to ensure that it does.