Trump presidency could roll back global progress in democracy and governance

29 Nov 16

Hard-won gains in democracy and governance secured all over the world will be at risk when US president-elect Donald Trump takes office in January, experts at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute have predicted.

 

A panel debating Trump’s impact on American foreign policy at the ODI earlier today agreed that a Trump presidency likely spells an end to the US’ efforts to export democracy or even support democratic initiatives abroad.

A sense that Trump is not invested in spreading democracy like his predecessors, and any oppressive measures he takes at home, will give authoritarian leaders a carte blanche to crackdown in their own countries, panellists warned.

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, pointed to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Syria Bashar al-Assad and leaders of the Gulf countries, as regimes that will feel emboldened by a Trump presidency.

She noted crackdowns on NGOs in Egypt and Assad’s brutal attack on eastern Aleppo as two signs that Trump’s election is already having an impact.

Meanwhile, Susan Page, former US chargé d’affaires to the African Union, added that some of Africa’s more autocratic leaders have also welcomed Trump’s victory.

Where other states have sent the customary well wishes, she said figures like Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi and South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir, had all sent particularly “winsome and happy” letters of congratulations.

Both Page and Yahya said they expect diminishing US interest in democracy, human rights and governance in the Middle East and Africa, and subsequently a possible roll-back of achievements in these areas in both regions.

Progressive international initiatives including the Sustainable Development Goals and the global climate change agreement also “rest in part on US leadership” and could therefore be under threat, said Alex Thier, who was also on the panel and will take over as executive director of the ODI in 2017.

The future of the US’ role as the world’s largest aid donor, its aid agency USAID and continued strong bipartisan support for many aid initiatives is also uncertain, he added.

One potentially hopeful factor is that the Republican party has typically been stalwart in driving US efforts to spread freedom and democratic principles, he continued. Perhaps by continuing to champion the freedom agenda, Trump’s party could steer things in the right direction.

Reuben Brigety, dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs in the US, countered that representatives will be bound by the sentiment of their voter base, and may be reluctant to push agendas at odds with that of Trump or that may risk their seat.

Brigety did however say there are areas where Trump is unlikely to have a “free hand”, such as warming relations with Russia and plans to close down free trade, which a Republican congress is likely to resist.

For him, the biggest concern about a Trump presidency was that it seems to lack any “world view” or strategy of any sort, leaving observers with no sense of the parameters or priorities of his presidency and Trump to “make it up as he goes along”.

As Yahya pointed out, this incoherence has led to a number of inconsistencies in his announced foreign policies already. Amid a strong anti-Iranian rhetoric, Trump has also suggested a desire to work with Russia and Assad to end the Syrian crisis and fight terrorism – with both nations allies of Iran.

He has also signalled plans to become more interventionist in the war against ISIS. But, Yahya said, this would mean either US boots on the ground, which is unlikely, or require cooperation from Gulf countries. But this is “at odds” with his often vehement anti-Muslim rhetoric, which will make Gulf countries reluctant to work with Trump because it would undermine them domestically.

Trump has big challenges ahead in terms of squaring these circles, she concluded.

Malcom Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, also said he was concerned about Trump’s unpredictability.

He said he fears his approach to foreign policy will be “over-militarised” and asked how a man with a temperament like Trump’s will act when crises keep arising, problems can’t be solved or foreign leaders try to deceive or get the better of him.

“When his popularity starts to tank, and it will, for some issue or other, who will he blame?” Chalmers asked. “Will he lash out?”

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