What has happened to democracy?
31 Oct 2018|

Being seen as the global champion of democratic values has underpinned US global leadership as much as its economic and military preponderance. As this perception ebbs, the accompanying erosion of domestic support among European allies will fracture important strategic relationships.

From the start, the US Constitution was fixated on ensuring liberty while guarding against ‘mobocracy’. Scholar Michael Genovese declaims, ‘[O]ne thing is clear: the Constitution was not democratic.’ The framers ‘were decidedly not interested in establishing a pure democracy. The fear of mobocracy existed alongside a fear of monarchy.’ They settled on a compromise between Thomas Jefferson’s popular democracy, Alexander Hamilton’s oligarchic agenda, and the pragmatism of James Madison, with checks and balances against both excessive government authority and oppression by the majority.

But promoting democracy was to become a raison d’etre of US foreign policy. In 1917 Robert Lansing, then secretary of state, effused, ‘[I]t is for the welfare of mankind and for the establishment of peace in the world that Democracy should succeed.’ Internationalist President Woodrow Wilson told Congress in 1920, ‘[T]he day has come when democracy is being put upon its final test.’ Wilson declared, ‘This is the time of all others when democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.’ In recent times both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama championed democracy promotion as a foreign and national security policy goal.

A recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that even Americans no longer believe the US stands as strongly for democracy today. Despite partisan differences, 61% of Americans overall think the fundamental design and structure of American government require significant change. And the US political system is rated by 57% as average or below average compared to other developed nations.

Just 3% of Americans surveyed expressed a great deal of confidence in their elected officials; another 22% said they had only a fair amount of confidence. Although 84% considered protecting the rights and freedoms of all people to be a very important democratic value, only 47% believed they were so protected. Similarly, while 74% regarded open and accountable government to be very important, only 30% thought this was the case in America now.

A second survey provides evidence of weakening international recognition of US global leadership and a loss of belief among Europeans that the US still stands firmly for democracy. The survey was conducted across 25 countries in the first half of this year. There were important differences in the findings between European states and those in the Asia–Pacific region.

In the major NATO member states in Europe—the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy—just 42% of citizens had a favourable view of the US. Only 16% had confidence in President Donald Trump as a world leader. Poland and Hungary were the most positive towards the US and Trump. Germany and France were the least positive.

The fading perception of the US as the democratic exemplar and protector of rights parallels the precipitous drop in favourable views of the US in Europe and Canada. Majorities of European allies’ citizens no longer believe the US respects the personal freedoms of its people: 57% in France, 69% in Germany, 52% in the UK and 66% in Spain.

Clearly, proximity to China or Russia shapes the image people hold of the US. Positive impressions and support for strong US leadership was pronounced in the Asia–Pacific and in Eastern Europe. However, while in Japan 67% had a favourable view of the US, only 30% had confidence in Trump’s global leadership. In South Korea, the respective results were 80% and 23%; in the Philippines, they were 83% and 16%; and in Australia, 54% and 21%.

The world prefers the US and not China to fill the role as the world’s leading power. But the general perception is that China’s status is rising while the US’s leadership wanes. More confidence was expressed in the leadership of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin than in Donald Trump.

The US’s claim to be leader of the free world and the champion of democracy galvanised the Western allies against the totalitarian Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the same manner, democratic rhetoric against illiberal extremism and jihadist terrorism after the 9/11 attacks enabled the NATO allies to justify the first out-of-area operations and follow the US into Afghanistan.

Now, if the US finds itself in conflict with Iran in the Middle East, or Russia in the Ukraine, or China in the South China Sea, European governments will find little domestic support to follow. The differences between European allies and the US—caused by Trump’s nationalism, zero-sum trade policies and unilateral actions on matters like Jerusalem and the Iran nuclear deal—are exacerbated by the growing differences in values and national objectives.

What is troubling is the opportunity presented to right- and left-wing groups in Western Europe to mine this vein of discontent with the US and Trump in any strategic crisis. Governments across Europe are already reeling from rising nationalism, Euroscepticism and xenophobia. The traditional centrist parties, struggling to hold power, are unlikely to make unpopular strategic decisions while they are vulnerable to populist challenges.

Moreover, Europeans are increasingly looking towards providing for their own defence and reducing their reliance on US power—although that is a longer term project. In addition, they are now more focused on their own strategic interests in North Africa and Central Asia.

There is no certainty that democratic European or Asia–Pacific governments would automatically respond in any conflict to US leadership under Trump. Barring an existential threat, few would see domestic political dividends from siding with the US in the absence of at least some credible claim to defending democratic values. Even in the Asia–Pacific it appears following Trump into a war would be unpopular.