Giving democracy the finger

Some of the most iconic—and perhaps misleading—news images of the 21st century were of smiling Iraqis holding up their purple-ink-stained index fingers to show that they had voted in their country’s January 2005 election. For many, it was the first vote they had ever cast.

The purported story behind the images was that democracy had finally arrived in Iraq. A system without elections cannot claim to be a democracy. So, for many, seeing images of a well-run voting process (the ink stains prevented voters from casting more than one ballot) was proof enough that things had changed.

But democracy is an exceedingly complex system, and free elections are only one feature. An absence of elections certainly implies an absence of democracy. But it does not follow that the inverse is also true. Elections are a necessary but insufficient condition of democracy, which also requires durable institutions that embody democratic values.

Today, more and more countries hold elections, and yet democracy itself is in peril. Across developed and developing countries, violation of the public trust and failure to protect democratic institutions are straining systems of checks and balances that, in some cases, have been in place for centuries.

Assaults on democratic institutions are not limited to countries with little democratic experience. They can be seen almost everywhere, including in the world’s oldest existing democracy, namely the United States.

In the West, extolling the virtues of democracy to others has long resembled proselytisation of a secular religion, complete with the threat of fire and brimstone for those who do not embrace the democratic creed. But the developed world’s lectures to the developing world were never particularly useful.

Years ago, after an event in which an international philanthropist lectured about democracy for hours before flying into the sunset on his private jet, a Balkan prime minister in attendance asked me, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ While he was on the front lines grappling with sensitive issues relating to ethnic minorities, interlopers were offering him a constant stream of take-it-or-else advice for which they would never have to assume responsibility.

Now, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, especially with respect to US foreign policy. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the American government does not even bother to pay lip service to democracy anymore.

To be sure, this partly reflects fatigue from decades of democracy promotion on the part of the West. But it is more than that. Democracy is being directly threatened in the country where it should have the deepest cultural and political roots.

Trump does not just want to avoid repeating the failed policies of the past, as he puts it. He and his supporters also have taken aim at the fundamental institutions upon which American democracy is based, including the courts, the legislative branch, the independent media, and more.

The 19th-century Prussian military officer and theorist Carl von Clausewitz spoke presciently about the age of total war that would arrive less than a century after his death. What he did not address was the coming age of total politics, whereby all of a society’s institutions would be pressed into the service of a totalising ideological struggle. America is now in the midst of such a struggle, and how we manage it will inform how other countries handle similar struggles of their own.

America’s crisis at home is now preventing it from performing its traditional international role as both a source of institutional reassurance and an agent of change. Throughout the post-war period, the US has backstopped collective security through NATO and other institutions, and it has been more than willing to brave regional and global threats, often with few friends at its side.

Sadly, Trump shows little respect for this legacy, or for America’s tradition of optimism and confidence in its institutions. He either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care that the American system of governance has been the main source of the country’s global prestige. Instead, he rejects America’s historical ascent, and reframes it as a parable of self-delusion and naiveté, wherein the US puts on a lavish feast for the world’s freeloaders.

Already, America’s silence is deafening. In Syria, the US has ceded the field to others, even though the fight there could determine the future of the Muslim Middle East. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s rejection of trans-oceanic trade and investment pacts has confused its friends and emboldened its rivals. The US Department of State, regardless of what its beleaguered chief, Rex Tillerson, might say, now lacks global reach. And without proactive diplomacy, the US will quickly be eclipsed internationally, namely by China.

But Trump won an election in 2016, so he is holding up a stained finger as if that is the only thing that matters. In 2018, it will be up to Americans of all stripes to hold up their own—and to make clear that democracy is about much, much more.