Is the Democratic Order Doomed?

US President Donald Trump (R) speaks beside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the start of the NATO summit at their new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017. (REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

The order is holding for now, but the trends are worrisome

The state of the global order one year into Donald Trump’s presidency will be at the top of the agenda when global security experts meet in Munich from February 16-18.

The  outlook was bleak even before the 2016 US election. The rules-based, democratic order, led by the United States and its allies for the past seven decades, seemed daunted by hard challenges. The great power autocracies—China and Russia—were pushing back against its core principles, and US allies were losing confidence in America’s willingness to lead.  With his populist, anti-globalist campaign, Trump’s election magnified these concerns. While the democratic order appears to be holding—for now—the trend lines suggest a  difficult road ahead. 

The democratic order has had a spectacular run. For nearly seventy years, it has provided security, fostered freedom, and produced unprecedented levels of global prosperity.  But the order did not sustain itself.  It relied on powerful democratic states to advance and sustain it—and no state has been more critical to its success than the United States.

While the operational consequence of Trump’s “America First” worldview has not as yet emerged, it is an open question whether the United States still wants to lead and is willing to marshal the resources—hard and soft—that are necessary to project its power to advance the order.

Four key indicators reveal the state of the free world. 

Alliances.  A system of democratic alliances has been the defining feature of the liberal world order.  The United States has formed alliances and partnerships with nearly fifty democracies around the world—alliances that not only serve as a collective deterrent  in the event of an attack, but as importantly, as a force multiplier for American power to advance common interests.

Trump came into office dismissive of NATO. He saw no inherent benefits in the shared values that the Alliance represents and suggested that it was time to move on.  That outlook appears to have changed. One year into his presidency, NATO and the Alliance structure is holding—for now.  But if a new flashpoint should emerge—should Russia, for example, make an aggressive move in Eastern Europe or the Baltics—NATO will be sorely tested and, if it fails, the consequences for the democratic order will be devastating. 

Rise of the revisionists. Russia and China (with greater nuance) have made clear their opposition to the democratic order and have been acting to undermine it where they can. 

While it has benefitted from access to open markets, China is challenging freedom of navigation in the Pacific and using its economic muscle to create a network of dependent clients across Asia and Africa. Beijing is playing the long game, assuming a US withdrawal from global leadership and preparing to fill the vacuum. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it a priority (or obsession) to diminish American influence and reestablish Russia as a dominant and domineering power in its “near abroad” regardless of the wishes of the people living there.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its assault on Ukraine was a defining moment.  Russia has returned to the bad old Soviet practice of taking active measures to undermine Western democracies. Thanks to digital technology, it is enjoying new success.  With America preoccupied and Europe focused inward, China and Russia are making steady inroads as they seek to alter the global balance of power.

Democracy deficit. For the twelfth consecutive year, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains.  As Freedom House notes, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, a period characterized by “emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.”

We are seeing an erosion of democratic values in places that once seemed well on their way to becoming stable, free societies, including Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines.  Backed by Putin, Bashar al-Assad is winning the war in Syria, and with US sanctions lifted, Omar Bashir’s war crimes in Sudan seem largely forgotten.  The world is safer for autocracy than it has been in a long time.

Rules-based trade.  Support for free and open trade ordered by transparent rules has been a consistent feature of American global leadership.  Trump came to office promising to take the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and threaten a trade war with China.  

One year into the Trump administration, the United States is out of the TPP, having proposed nothing in its place, but the free and rules-based trade order remains largely in place—for now.  But here, too, the trend lines are worrisome. 

The Trump administration may be moving toward increasingly punitive measures against China, which, if not grounded in the World Trade Organization (WTO) framework, could lead to an escalating round of trade restrictions with troubling consequences for the global economy.  It is unclear whether Trump is serious about his on-again, off-again rhetoric on withdrawing from NAFTA, but that too remains an open and worrying prospect.   

The bottom line is that a little more than a year into Trump’s presidency, the democratic order remains intact—but it can at best be described as in stable but serious condition, one shock away from critical. In the near term, the survival of the order may hinge on what role the United States chooses to play if faced with a global crisis. 

In the longer term, its fate will depend on whether the American people will give their support to politicians that want the United States to reclaim its position as leader of the free world—or to those that want to turn away from it.    

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we have a democratic order—if we can keep it.

Ash Jain is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and Co-Director of the D-10 Strategy Forum. Follow him on Twitter @ashjain50.