We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.
U.S. President Donald Trump, in a speech to Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh on May 22.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, a steadfast critic of the President, called the speech “a terrible abdication of our global leadership when it comes to advocating for people who are the subject of persecution.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was similarly critical, saying, “It’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy, freedom and human rights.” And fellow Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told Fox News that, “America is the unique nation in history, with all of our errors and failings and mistakes we’ve made. … We have stood up for people. We have to stand up for what we believe in, or we’re no different.”
So, did Donald Trump, in his first major international tour since becoming America’s 45th President, proclaim the end of his country’s reign as global arbiter and enforcer of liberal values?
If so, it was a short reign.
Just 25 years ago, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in his book The End of History and the Last Man that the end of the Cold War marked “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama’s proclamation about the inevitable triumph of Western liberal democracy has been the subject of fierce debate since the day it was written. But it has never looked as naïve – and wrong – as it does today. Rather than witnessing an inexorable shift towards Western democratic ideals, major world powers such as China, Russia Turkey, India and Indonesia seem to be heading in a much different direction.
And now it appears they have the blessing of the sitting President of the United States.
At least since the end of the Cold War, and arguably long before that, exporting democracy and liberal values has been the hallmark foreign policy of all U.S. administrations – Democratic and Republican alike. In June 1991, with the Cold War winding down, Boris Yeltsin became the first directly elected President in Russian history. He instituted wide-ranging reforms, including privatization and broad market and trade liberalization, in accordance with the “shock therapy” that the United States and the International Monetary Fund were recommending.
In theory, these reforms would result in the Russian Federation becoming a Western-style liberal democracy. In reality, they led to a 50 percent decline in both GDP and industrial output between 1990 and 1995. An oligarchy largely composed of former Communist Party apparatchiks took control of the state’s industrial assets and became fabulously rich. But most Russians got a lot poorer; the poverty rate rose from just 1.5 percent in the late Soviet era to as high as 49 percent by 1993. Social services collapsed. The birth rate plummeted and the death rate skyrocketed.
To this day, many Russians associate democracy with crime, corruption, chaos, joblessness, impoverishment, and national humiliation. They often disparage democracy as ‘dermokratiya,’ which translates roughly as ‘the rule of excrement.’
Against this backdrop, the rise of Vladimir Putin and his autocratic regime – which is perceived as having restored Russia’s national honour – seems almost inevitable.
Russia is part of a growing trend. Liberalization in the People’s Republic of China took a U-turn last October when the government announced that President Xi Jinping would henceforth represent the “core leadership” of the Communist Party of China – a title with Maoist and decidedly authoritarian overtones. Xi has repeatedly rejected liberal democracy and western political thought, promoting in its place his own “Chinese Dream” ideology, which emphasizes collectivism, socialism, national glory, and a more influential role for China in global affairs.
Xi’s personal political brand is closely tied to a far-reaching campaign against corruption he undertook after taking office in 2012. The supposed anti-corruption efforts have led to the removal of many top associates and supporters of the rival political faction headed by former Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, leading Xi’s detractors to claim that his anti-corruption campaign amounts to little more than power consolidation.
Nevertheless, Trump has been touting the “great chemistry” he has with the Chinese dictator since their April meeting in Washington.
In April, Turkey voted by a narrow margin, in a constitutional referendum, to abolish the office of the Prime Minister and the existing parliamentary system. European election monitors said the vote did not meet international standards.
The constitutional amendments, along with legislation effectively making it illegal for the legislative branch to investigate the executive branch of government, has turned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into a modern-day sultan with all but unchecked executive power. Additionally, the Turkish ministry of education published a draft curriculum for the new school year in February that alarmed many secular-leaning Turks. The curriculum included a plan to remove classes on evolution and the country’s secular-democratic founding fathers, such as Atatürk, and emphasized “Turkishness” and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s brand of fundamentalist Sunni Islam.
President Trump, however, drew accusations that he was playing footsie with yet another authoritarian regime when he phoned Turkish President Erdoğan to congratulate him on his victory in the April constitutional referendum. This apparently disturbed the State Department, which put out a statement highlighting the concerns expressed by international observers and urging Turkey to respect the rights of its citizens.
Strongmen on the world stage are hardly a novel phenomenon, but the United States has long endeavoured to keep them in check as the “world’s policeman”, willing to oppose autocratic rule by military force if need be. Even nominally pacifist President Barack Obama was an occasional globocop, however clumsy his attempts to impose Washington’s will in places like Syria and Libya.
Donald Trump vowed a new approach in his successful campaign for the presidency. It seemed like business as usual earlier this year when the U.S. bombed Syria in response to the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons on its own people, and then dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Taliban forces in Afghanistan. But the Riyadh speech was very much in tune with Trump’s transformational campaign rhetoric: “For our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked – and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgement. We are adopting a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.”
The emphasis on “realism” is significant. For decades, American right-wing ‘realists’ have criticized U.S. foreign policy as being inordinately focused on spreading Western liberal democratic values, at enormous cost, to produce dubious outcomes that often prove detrimental to the nation’s interests. By and large, a realist is someone who wants to see less idealism and more realpolitik in the way a nation conducts its foreign policy. On the basis of its rhetoric, at least, the Trump administration intends to align more with this school of international relations than previous U.S. administrations have done. And it implies a more sanguine view of autocrats.
Trump is well known (perhaps too much so in light of the multiplying probes into alleged Trump-Kremlin relationships) for his oft-stated view that it would be “great” if the US “could get along with Russia.” The once-promising bromance between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has soured since the U.S. attack on the Russian-allied Assad regime in Syria, and Trump recently succumbed to pressure to support Article 5 of the NATO charter, which commits America to take action against any Russian military attack on any NATO partner, including Poland and the Baltic states who fear they are next in line after Ukraine for Russification.
Trump’s Riyadh speech sounded like traditional American preaching from the presidential bully pulpit in one respect: he told the Saudi princes he wanted them to do more to combat Islamist terrorism and specifically urged them to take action against states and groups allied with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The repercussions of his speech may already be making themselves felt. On June 7, five Islamic State terrorists carried out two unprecedented terrorist attacks in Tehran, the Iranian capital, leaving 17 civilians dead and 43 wounded. Did Sunni ISIS interpret Trump’s words as license to attack Shiite Iran? The Iranian regime certainly thinks so. Hours after the attacks took place, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps issued the following statement:
“The public opinion in the world, specially [sic] the Iranian nation [sic] sees this terrorist action that happened a week after the joint meeting of the U.S. president with the heads of one of the reactionary regional states that has constantly been supporting Takfiri terrorists as to be very meaningful, and believes that ISIL’s acknowledging the responsibility indicates their complicity in this wild move.”
And just days before the attacks in Iran, a number of Arab goverments including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives, and Bahrain announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar – some going so far as to impose trade and travel bans. A longstanding point of contention between Qatar and other Arab states is the comparatively close relationship that Qatar maintains with Iran. Is it possible that Trump, by publicly enlisting the Saudis as a leading partner in fighting terrorism and countering Iran’s influence, emboldened the Saudis and their allies to take action against Qatar? Maybe. And maybe Trump got a lesson in realpolitik too, because the Arab actions against Qatar weaken a U.S. ally that has provided a vital base for the American military in its campaign against the Islamic State.
Canada’s foreign policy under former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was guided more by realpolitik than idealism, to a greater degree than most of his recent predecessors. Indeed, Harper’s world was starkly defined between friends (Israel, Ukraine) and enemies (Iran, Russia). And he was not shy about expressing his contempt for liberal multilateralism as practiced by “despots and dictators” at the United Nations.
His successor has proved harder to nail down. Early on in his term, Justin Trudeau proclaimed Canada the world’s first “post-national” country – which sounded like global multilateralism on steroids. More recently, however, as the liberal order – the Pax Americana – begins to look progressively less and less robust, the Trudeau government has declared itself a fan of hard power and announced the biggest arms build-up since the Second World War. This suggests that somebody in Ottawa sees serious international trouble brewing.
Autocrats like Putin, Erdoğan, and Jinping view human nature much differently than liberals in the West. They think people are far more likely to enlist, endure, fight and die for their nation, their land, or their god than for cerebral constructs such as democratic freedoms and human rights. It is a gross exaggeration to suggest, as Trump’s liberal enemies do, that his worldview is cut from the same cloth. But it is clear enough that he does not see it as his role to scold those who trample those western ideals: As he told the Saudis: “We must seek partners, not perfection, and to make allies of all who share our goals.”
Trump appears to have calculated, on the basis of strong evidence, that it is self-defeating to pretend that nationalist strongmen are not a force to be reckoned with – now and for the foreseeable future. That could either put him, to steal a liberal wish, “on the right side of history”, or give new and ominous meaning to Fukuyama’s prediction of the arrival of “the end of history”.
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