U.S. Becomes the Epicenter of Global War Over Democracy
A country that was once the leading advocate of democracy is now the primary battleground in a global contest.
Highlights This Week – Scroll Down for:
America in the Global Democracy War
Venezuela’s Challenge for Biden
China Tests Its Muscle in Australia
Morocco and Israel Agree to Make Up
The US Is the Epicenter of the Global War Over Democracy
Long before Donald Trump glided down his golden escalator to enter the political fray, democracy was already in retreat around the world; the global battle for democracy was already raging. But until 2016, the United States was firmly, unquestionably, on the side of democracy.
Once Trump became president, the United States steadily drifted away from its position as the world’s leading advocate of what political scientists call liberal democracy, the system of government and ideology that maintains among other things that citizens should elect their leaders in periodic, free and fair elections; executive powers should be limited; nobody should be above the law, individuals should be treated with dignity and equality, the judiciary should be independent, and the press should be free from government interference.
Because the United States, despite its many flaws, is the world’s iconic democracy, the sudden reversal in its position sent ripples across the world. Pro-democracy activists everywhere looked on with anguish; authoritarian leaders were energized.
Trump’s unprecedented disparaging of the media was echoed by authoritarian leaders the world over, who undermined independent media as “fake news” whenever coverage was unfavorable. Washington’s ability and efforts to speak out against abuses were greeted with skepticism as the world watched children in cages after they were separated from their parents.
It quickly became apparent that Trump would not govern in the manner of presidents who respect democracy. That became even more visible after he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden and launched a frontal attack on America’s democracy.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Steve Schmidt, a former Republican campaign manager who led John McCain’s quest for the White House, described Trump in scathing terms.
Trump initially portrayed his efforts to overturn the election results as an attempt to defend democracy. It was a sham. When he went to Georgia, purportedly to campaign for Republican senatorial candidates, I noted in an article that
“Trump came down to Georgia…to pretend to care about democracy.”
We know he was pretending because only hours earlier he had asked Gov. Brian Kemp to ignore the results of the election and appoint electors who would vote for him in the Electoral College. The governor refused.
The anti-democratic character of his push to overturn the election became even more pronounced with a barrage of lawsuits, including a preposterous request that the Supreme Court overturn millions of legally-cast votes. At last count, he and his cartoonish legal team had lost 57 lawsuits. And they kept going.
Trump incessantly tweeted lies about corruption in the vote. Even if judges, even those appointed by him, laughed his claim out of court, a majority of Republican voters believe him.
Trump is inflicting lasting harm, I wrote, and the trouble won’t end with him.
“…this won't be the last time we see a charismatic politician with dictatorial tendencies attack the U.S. system of government.”
I proposed a number of ideas for strengthening American democracy before another would-be dictator makes his move.
Trump’s disdain for democracy was apparent long before the election. Instead of criticizing the world’s most brutal dictators, Trump seemed to genuinely admire all-powerful tyrants, offering praise for the likes of North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un and China’s Xi Jinping. And when it came to defending pro-democracy activists and human rights, Trump did it selectively, interested only when it had the potential to boost his domestic position, as in the case of Venezuela.
On a global scale, the battle between democracy and authoritarianism is the defining political contest of our time. Authoritarianism comes in many colors. It is not much of an ideology. Along with its populist mechanisms, it is above all a way for individuals or parties to hold power. That’s why we see it on the left –- as in Venezuela -– and on the right –- as in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines -– as well as in countries where it’s hard to even position a regime on the left-right continuum, as in Nicaragua.
Just as Trump’s 2016 election came as a blow to democrats (small d) around the world, his defeat felt like a major victory in that global battle.
The battle in the United States is not over. But if the U.S. can solidify and strengthen its democracy enough to withstand the forces attacking it from within, the world’s 14-year trend of democratic decline may just begin to reverse.
Venezuela, the Dictatorship, and Biden
How will the incoming Biden administration deal with the crisis that has plunged the Venezuelan people into poverty? I wrote about that in my World Politics Review column this week.
The Trump administration’s plan to dislodge what is by now a dictatorship in Venezuela has collapsed. That is a sad turn of events, because it was the best chance the pro-democracy opposition had of returning the country to a legitimate form of government and starting to reverse the country’s collapse.
This week, the plan unraveled. The strategy, supported by scores of democracies in Europe and Latin America, aimed to capitalize on the opposition’s control of the National Assembly. Opposition politicians had won an overwhelming majority during the last legislative elections, in 2015, which turned out to be Venezuela’s last legitimate election. But the country has just elected a new legislature in rigged elections.
How China is Blackmailing Australia
For a glimpse into some of what the future may hold as China grows mightier, keep a close eye on the growing tensions between Australia and China.
China is using its massive economic muscle to try to control Australia’s behavior, and it’s doing it more brazenly all the time.
The tensions started spiking when Australia sounded supportive of an investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and had spread before Beijing acknowledged its existence. China is also unhappy with Australia’s plans to enter a mutual defense treaty with Japan and its rejection of China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea.
To pressure Australia, China has started blocking imports of Australia products, including wine, beef and other goods, and imposing 200 percent import duties on others.
How intense is the pressure?
China hit Australia with a 14 point ultimatum reminiscent of the lead-up to World War One. The Chinese embassy in Canberra accompanied it with the vague warning “if you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”
Despite its remote location, Australia is culturally, politically and strategically positioned as a “Western” country. But its geographical closeness to China makes relations with Beijing more delicate than for other wealthy nations.
Morocco and Israel Make a Deal
The string of diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab countries is continuing in the final days of the Trump administration. The most recent announcement, made by Trump in a Tweet, promises to produce diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco.
Morocco, an Arab country located on African’s Mediterranean coast, is the ancestral home of about a million Israeli Jews. There was rejoicing in Israel at the news. Miri Regev, a cabinet minister whose parents were among the 250,000 Jews who fled Morocco after Israel’s founding, posted a Tweet of herself in exuberant celebrations, dancing to an Arab beat.
The move is a feather in Trump’s cap, and a boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces legal troubles and possibly another election in March 2021.
But not everyone was smiling. Most unhappy were the Sahrawis, the people of Western Sahara who have been fighting for independence from Morocco for decades, since Spain withdrew as a colonial power. Trump rewarded Morocco by granting U.S. recognition to its sovereignty over the disputed territory, previous administrations had refused to do for forty years.
That’s it for now. See you next time.
Until then —
Stay safe; stay informed; stay engaged.