Donald Trump: Making the world safe for dictators

James Traub (Daily News)

For 100 years, the United States has championed democracies around the world. Trump is about to undo this pillar of American security and decency.

On April 2, 1917, in the course of a speech asking Congress to declare war on Germany, Woodrow Wilson delivered one of the most resonant lines in the history of the presidency: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” A generation later, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, committing the World War II allies to protect “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Since then, all U.S. presidents have insisted that America’s national security depends upon the spread of democracy and individual rights abroad.

National security team

But Donald Trump, who will take office on the centenary of Wilson’s famous address, may be the first president since America became a world power who simply does not believe that. We should tremble for the consequences. The president-elect’s unstinting and often ugly attacks on journalists, critics, and political opponents show clearly enough his contempt for democratic norms. He has demonstrated zero regard for such principles of international law as the obligation to accept refugees, or to refrain from the use of torture. His interest in democratic rights abroad is even more negligible. The foreign leaders he has most consistently praised, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are strongmen who put their critics in jail, and sometimes in the grave. Trump is already such a pal of Sisi that he was both willing and able to persuade him last week to drop a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s ongoing settlement building.

Trump has now nominated or appointed the key members of his national security team. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis are retired generals, while Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is the chief executive of a giant oil company. Any of these three (and especially Mattis) may prove sympathetic to the Wilsonian claim, but their experience has taught them to pay far more attention to the military and economic strategy of foreign leaders than to the domestic political arrangements those men fostered. None of them may be prepared to hinder Trump’s intuitive fondness –perhaps “envy” is the right word — for dictators. This really would be something new in American life. Both the neocons who supported George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the advocates of Barack Obama’s far more chastened rhetoric of long-term institution-building have much more in common with one another than with the coldly transactional mentality that may guide the Trump administration. As Henry Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy, we are all (except perhaps Kissinger himself) children of Wilson. All but the most hardened realists accept the premise that it is in the interests of the United States to shape a better life for people in other countries, even if they disagree about which instruments to use and how effective they are likely to be.

Virtues of democracy

Some skeptics of America’s self-assigned global mission of reform, like the diplomat-scholar George Kennan, have argued that the United States will serve its interests better by practicing democracy at home than by promoting it abroad. That may be so; but it’s not a proposition that a President Trump — with his nonchalance toward the First Amendment and his newfound devotion to the Second, as well as his steady promotion of crackpot theories and outright lies on Twitter — is likely to test.

In all likelihood, the United States in years to come will neither seek to incarnate nor to inculcate the virtues of democracy. – Foreign Policy