Tia Dufour
Politics /21 Aug 2019
08.21.19

In Democracy Promotion, Democrats do not Outperform Trump

A criticism that is recurrently, and understandably, made of President Donald Trump relates to his unhidden reluctance to place the defense of human rights among the salient objectives of his administration’s foreign policy. His speech to the UN General Assembly, delivered last September, left no doubt about his views. Indeed, in addressing the countries of the world on that occasion, he unabashedly affirmed, “The United States will not tell you how to live, or work or worship. We ask only that you honor our sovereignty in return.” Said in other words: America will have no quarrel with what you do to your own people; we only ask you not to impinge on our core interests.

By taking that stance, President Trump broke away from a longstanding American tradition. Since the times of Woodrow Wilson, democracy promotion has figured among official U.S. foreign policy priorities. The advancement of democracy has been advocated, not for the sake of magnanimity, but on the grounds that the U.S. stands to gain, in terms of geopolitical weight, by making the camp of democracies as strong as possible vis-à-vis dictatorships.

True, that proclaimed defense of democracy has often remained dead. There have been circumstances under which the U.S. has supported dictatorships or turned a blind eye to human rights violations perpetrated by partners and foes. No U.S. president, however, had formally departed from that position in so an explicit manner as Donald Trump has done.

Trump’s attitude has opened a window of opportunity for Democratic presidential hopefuls to play the contrarian and blame him for “cozying up to dictators and casting aside democratic allies abroad,” a tack that The Atlantic’s staff writer Uri Friedman has qualified as the Democrats’ “battle cry” for 2020.

The problem is that neither in the light of past experience nor on the grounds of what they are proposing in the context of the 2020 presidential contest, can Democrats claim to have the moral high ground with this issue.

For starters, Trump’s policy moves, be they on Iran, Cuba, Russia or China, let alone Venezuela, have noticeably been tougher than those of his Democratic predecessor, that is, Barack Obama, as documented by Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen. As for North Korea, it is worthwhile to note that, for all the handshaking and the ensuing thaw in bilateral relations, the Trump administration has not reduced sanctions imposed on Kim Jong-Un’s regime.

A comparison between Obama’s Iran policy and Trump’s handling of the Hong Kong crisis is a case in point. While President Obama turned a deaf ear to the Green Movement protests that took place in the streets of Tehran, President Trump has recently warned that a violent assault against Hong Kong protestors on the part of China’s forces, similar to the crackdown that took place at Tiananmen Square in 1989, would put in jeopardy the ongoing trade talks between China and the U.S.

Trump’s assertiveness vis-à-vis dictators has led political analyst Walter Russell Mead, writing in the columns of the Wall Street Journal, to point out that “even under the ‘America First’ president, universal values play a role in [U.S.] foreign policy.”

Democratic presidential candidates, for their part, do not show an exhilarant enthusiasm for engaging in democracy promotion more than, or even as much as, President Trump has done.

Suffice it to look at what Joe Biden is proposing as a key feature of his democracy promotion policy if elected U.S. president in 2020, namely: to organize, during the first year of his mandate, a “global summit of democracies” that would bring together democratic governments, like-minded non-governmental organizations and the private sector with the purpose of ascertaining and deciding how to strengthen democratic institutions, fight corruption and advance human rights.

That kind of proposal is a perfect recipe for doing nothing. History has shown, and Biden cannot ignore, that this kind of caucus usually begets what is known in the diplomatic jargon as lowest-common-denominator positions – that is, watered-down, unobtrusive postures acceptable to all actors, but with no major impact on the real world.

On China, too, Biden’s position is quite vague. Asked what he, as Obama’s vice president, had done to confront China (on trade, human rights or what have you), Biden presented his supposedly main achievement by replying: “We did an awful lot with China. What we did with China, first of all, was we got them to join the Paris peace accord — the climate accord,” he told a reporter in Iowa.

That is no big deal. How would Beijing not have signed the Paris climate accord if that accord authorizes China (which is the main world polluter and currently sheds twice as much carbon emissions as the U.S.) to continue increasing its emissions until 2030, whereas the U.S. led by Obama and Biden constrained itself to reduce by 26 to 28 percent its carbon emissions by 2025? Having obtained such a waiver, China did not need any pressure (whether from the U.S. or from any other global power) to sign the Paris covenant.

It should not be forgotten either that the country that led the negotiations conducive to the signature of the Paris agreement was not the U.S., but the one that hosted the conference, that is, France. Thus, if there were any credit to be given for China’s joining the deal, that credit should go, not to Biden or Obama, but to France’s president, François Hollande.

And if that is what Biden can show as his major achievement on China as vice president of the U.S., the conclusion is clear: he has nothing to boast about.

Vagueness on China is not Biden’s exclusive turf. Political analyst Janan Ganesh asserts in the columns of the Financial Times that the aforementioned debates showed that Democratic presidential hopefuls don’t have anything meaningful to propose on how to tackle the geopolitical challenge that China’s rise poses to the U.S.

For Democrats, democracy promotion has ostensibly been relegated to the back burner. As pointed out in Uri Friedman’s article mentioned above, “the [Democratic] candidates’ policy prescriptions [on this issue] tend to pale in comparison with their diagnosis and the rhetoric they’re employing.”

Little wonder that Washington Post’s David Ignatius drew attention to the fact that, during the recent debates, Democratic presidential aspirants “eerily sounded like ‘America First’ Democrats.”

Yes, despite its assertiveness vis-à-vis dictatorial regimes on particular occasions, there still is much to say about the absence of a consistent human rights policy on the part of this administration. But no, in democracy promotion, Democrats – and for that matter Biden – do not outperform Trump.

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