U.S. presidential elections used to be about which candidate would best lead the free world. Now Democrats are advancing an unprecedented argument in modern American politics: Elect one of them to lead the free world; otherwise, Donald Trump will irreparably unravel it.
By cozying up to dictators and casting aside democratic allies abroad, and mimicking strongmen while undermining institutions at home, Trump is making the world safe for autocracy, the 2020 presidential candidates assert. The defining struggle of our time is between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, they say, and the leader of the land of the free has strayed into enemy territory.
This was a central theme of recent foreign-policy speeches by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, and the rationale Kamala Harris offered in describing Trump as the top threat to U.S. national security during the first Democratic presidential debate. Last Thursday it was the core message of Joe Biden’s inaugural speech on international affairs.
The world’s democracies are now under more pressure than they’ve faced since fascism arose in the 1930s, buffeted by the ascendance of China and Russia and illiberal movements in many democratic societies, Biden observed. But “Donald Trump seems to be on the other team” and doesn’t “uphold basic democratic principles.” (We’ve reached the point in our politics where the former vice president and current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is alleging that the U.S. president is in league with autocrats, and it barely registers in the news.)
As if on cue, the morning of Biden’s remarks, Trump “kidded” on Twitter about remaining in office well past his two terms and retweeted a far-right commentator praising the fact that Trump and like-minded strongmen such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán are now leading “proud nations.”
“You could never say in the last eight decades that an American president wasn’t standing up for the democratic world,” the former diplomat Nicholas Burns, who is currently serving as a member of Biden’s foreign-policy advisory team, told me shortly after Biden’s speech. Until now, that is.
For a party seeking a concise, coherent rebuttal to America First, the critique has surfaced as a kind of Theory of Everything: an organizing principle for conveying what’s wrong with Trump’s foreign policy, what to make of the world today, and what a Democratic president would do differently.
The challenge for Democrats will be in demonstrating to voters that the scourge they’ve singled out is real and really affecting Americans’ daily lives, as well as in fending off the inevitable counterargument from Trump and his supporters.
The claims made by Biden and others are “typical partisan cherry-picking,” James Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who is mostly supportive of the Trump administration’s foreign-policy record, told me. They “ignore things that countervail the narrative”—such as Barack Obama’s resistance to supporting pro-democracy protests in Iran as he pursued a nuclear deal with Tehran, or Trump’s efforts to push for a democratic transition in Venezuela.
Trump is not going to act like Ronald Reagan confronting the Evil Empire or Obama praising multilateralism, Carafano allowed. But Trump is trying to balance American interests and values in foreign policy more or less like his predecessors did, just through his “very unconventional” form of statecraft.
The president’s “great strength, as he sees it,” is “not painting the grand strategic narrative. It’s, like, How do I move the ball down the field?” Carafano said. Trump’s bet is that “at the end of the day, people will like the sausage. And they’re going to forgive me because they don’t like how the sausage gets made.” (Or, as Trump put it last week, “President Xi, Putin, all of these guys go to bed at night and they pray that Joe Biden or somebody like him becomes president so they can continue to rip off our country.”)
For the Democrats, spotlighting the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is a way of highlighting the links between domestic and foreign policy—as Trump did to powerful effect in 2016. It’s additional justification for their ambitious domestic agendas of reducing economic inequality, investing in education and infrastructure, reforming the campaign-finance system, and restoring voting rights. If the United States wants to spread freedom abroad and compete with authoritarian rivals such as China, they reason, that must start by strengthening democracy at home. Democrats’ denunciations of Trump’s attacks on the media and the rule of law, his refusal to take Russian interference in the 2016 election seriously, and his harsh immigration policies are all slotted under the rubric of ways in which the president is imperiling U.S. democracy.
As Warren told me by email, “Democracy is under assault in America and around the world … We need big, structural change to protect our democracy and refocus our foreign policy to benefit all Americans, not just wealthy elites.”
In regard to foreign policy, the Democratic candidates argue that Trump, with his foreign business dealings and conflicts of interest, is an avatar of the global plague of government corruption. As they tell it, his rough treatment of America’s Asian and European allies demonstrates his abandonment of fellow democrats and the values they share with the United States. His permissive attitude toward Russian challenges to U.S. interests and paltry results from nuclear negotiations with North Korea reveal how Trump’s sycophancy toward Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un endanger the United States.
Many Democrats actually agree with Trump about confronting China’s abusive economic practices, but they maintain that the most effective way to do that is by leveraging the economic heft of democratic allies rather than going it alone. Buttigieg has even tied promoting democracy to counteracting climate change, noting that he didn’t think it was coincidental “that extraction economies and polluting societies are often those with a tendency towards authoritarianism.”
There are, however, telling differences lurking behind this common narrative. Biden tends to describe Trump as an “anomaly” who must be overcome to “go back to normalcy,” whereas Sanders argues that the “status quo” internationally, especially when it comes to kleptocracy, “is part of what delivered Trump” and gave rise to authoritarianism, Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign-policy adviser, told me. (Biden has promised anti-corruption steps such as ending the practice of creating anonymous shell companies.)
Ned Price, a former national-security aide to Obama who is now with National Security Action, pointed to polling commissioned by the group that shows that nearly 60 percent of voters are concerned about Trump siding with dictators and neglecting American values. “We’ve been trying to make the case [to Democratic candidates] that this is smart policy and smart politics,” said Price, whose organization provides the Democratic presidential campaigns with strategy memos and messaging points.
Democracy and human rights, traditionally championed by both Democrats and Republicans, albeit in divergent ways, has thus become thoroughly bound up in America’s bitter political divides. And the focus on the contest between democracy and authoritarianism could determine the direction of the next Democratic administration, even if for the time being the candidates’ policy prescriptions tend to pale in comparison with their diagnosis and the rhetoric they’re employing.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, an expert on the interplay between authoritarianism and democracy at the Center for a New American Security, told me that the alarms Democrats are sounding could turn into concrete policies: from targeted infrastructure investments in countries with democratic potential to efforts to establish cyber, space, and artificial-intelligence norms before China does.
Still, Kendall-Taylor acknowledged that “we run the risk of just recommending what we used to do—like [if] we can rewind the clock to a pre-Trump time … that everything will be okay.” Given that voters tend to brush aside abstract concerns about “authoritarian resurgence” and the “liberal international order,” she said the candidates will need to relate the problem “back to the everyday lives of Americans” for their message to resonate.
Biden’s most novel proposal was convening a summit of the world’s democracies during his first year as president—a big idea that nevertheless seemed rather small relative to China’s enormous infrastructure projects around the world and Russia’s globe-spanning meddling in democratic elections. (A bureaucratic gathering of government officials and private-sector representatives is also unlikely to hold much appeal for the average voter.)
Warren’s suggestions include banning American lobbyists from serving as paid representatives of foreign governments and companies, and creating greater separation between the Defense Department and defense contractors as part of a broader effort to slash military spending.
Sanders has asserted that the competition between “authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and “democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice” has bearing on the “entire future of the planet.” He has called for constructing “a global democratic movement” to counter the former. When I asked Duss what that meant exactly, he said Sanders wasn’t necessarily urging the creation of some new international structure, but rather advocating for the United States to speak out consistently on human-rights issues involving adversaries and allies alike—criticizing China’s repression of its Uighur minority, for example, even as a President Sanders would partner with Beijing on combatting climate change. (Trump has set aside democracy and human-rights issues with China in his pursuit of a trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.)
Sanders “certainly wouldn’t be declaring his love for Kim Jong Un the way Trump has,” Duss noted, but “at some point, he definitely would be willing to meet with Kim.” (“I just can’t answer that because you don’t want to commit someone,” Burns said when I asked whether Biden would meet with Kim.)
Duss said Sanders would support talks between Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, whom the Trump administration has recognized as the country’s legitimate president, to bring about free and fair elections. Sanders, however, is critical of the manner in which Trump endorsed Guaidó and “put the U.S. at the head of this effort in a way that’s unhelpful” and has so far failed. When I asked whether a President Sanders would withdraw U.S. diplomatic recognition of Guaidó and his representatives in D.C., Duss didn’t rule that out. “We’d have to wait and see,” he responded.
When my colleague Yara Bayoumy and I investigated how the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia could change under a Democratic president, we similarly found that the relationship would likely be reset and downsized—no U.S. support for Riyadh’s military adventurism, restricted arms sales, a tendency to view Saudi Arabia as just as problematic as Iran—but not eliminated altogether.
Price told me that the mission now is to build a “community of democracies that would perhaps more closely resemble what we saw in the post–World War II era and the height of the Cold War than what we’ve seen more recently.”
Yet when we spoke about specific policies, his answers seemed to suggest more a reversion to the pre-Trump era than the dawn of a new one: striking a balance between advancing Americans interests and not forsaking American values in relations with Saudi Arabia; downplaying disputes with NATO members about their insufficient defense spending, since the alliance’s larger purpose is to check Russia; enabling nuclear negotiations with North Korea at lower levels of the U.S. government that could culminate in a meeting between the leaders of the two countries if there’s a real agreement to sign. “It wouldn’t be all that different from what previous presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have done,” Price said.
Carafano told me he doesn’t think the Democratic gambit will work. Voters, he argued, tend to choose their candidate based on the politician’s domestic-policy positions and then trust him or her to do the right thing on foreign policy. Those who like Trump will vote for him; those who don’t won’t; and those in the middle will make their decision based on whether they feel safe and economically better off, he said, not on whether or not the president is abetting authoritarianism.
When I asked Burns whether he was concerned about the issues of democracy and human rights getting politicized over the course of the 2020 campaign, he dismissed the point.
“You have an American president who is refusing to stand up for democracy, refuses to support our democratic allies in Europe … and coddles dictators,” he said. “This is not only fair game. It’s essential that people speak out about this.” Whether this will translate into votes at home is a different question.