Author: Daniel P. Ritter On the eve of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s contested referendum victory on April 16, he received an unlikely congratulatory call. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Donald J. Trump, and this is why we should be concerned about that phone conversation.
The end of communism in Europe was famously greeted by international relations scholar Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history.” According to Fukuyama, the end of the Soviet Union and its bloc of satellite states meant that in a matter of just over 50 years, Western liberalism had defeated both its only two viable rivals – fascism and communism. Consequently, there was now little standing in the way of a world order built on liberal democracy, respect for human rights, and free markets. In other words, liberalism had emerged as the only political game in town.
In the two and a half decades that have passed since Fukuyama published his treatise the planet has witnessed the rise, the peak, and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the liberal world order. While the current revitalization of authoritarianism may stem from a variety of reasons, important prestige losses suffered by both liberal politics and free market economics over the past ten years should probably not be ignored. Economically, the global recession, which did not spare the United States or Europe, suggested to its critics that unregulated (or at least poorly regulated) capitalism was as vulnerable to shocks as economic systems in which the state exercised more control. Relatedly, the consequences of the economic crisis, especially the imposition of austerity measures throughout southern Europe and bailouts for the rich and powerful on both sides of the Atlantic, gave rise to a political crisis in which protests in democratic countries could barely be distinguished from those in dictatorships. In short, the line that before 2008 quite clearly separated the West from the rest had become blurred, giving authoritarian-leaning leaders throughout the world a compelling narrative to cling to: democracy is a sham, stability and security is what counts.
The weakening of liberalism has hardly been helped by the introduction of an American president seemingly unwilling to embrace the West’s core values. While his predecessors would never be seen as compromising on democracy, freedom, or human rights, Trump displays few such tendencies. Instead, he actively seeks to undermine these values. The most glaring example of this is his repeated attempts to prevent citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, but other examples can be found as well. For instance, referring to federal judges as “so-called” does little to perpetuate a legal tradition based on the rule of law and the separation of powers. Like his counterparts in Russia, China, Turkey, and elsewhere, Trump’s principal political preoccupation appears to be economic growth and security. While all American presidents have had the economy and the safety of US citizens as their main priorities, few have been willing to pursue these goods at the expense of the individual’s rights and freedoms, something Trump seems prepared to do.
Equally importantly, few presidents have been eager to openly support authoritarian allies abroad when those leaders have acted in overtly anti-democratic ways. Here too Trump is different. While his admiration of strong leaders in general – and Vladimir Putin in particular – is hardly a secret, it is surprising that he called up Erdoğan to congratulate him on his referendum triumph. The vote, which has paved the way for the Turkish president to remain in power for another decade and with almost unlimited presidential powers, was criticized by international observers for being unfair and even fraudulent. It is inconceivable to think that Presidents Obama, Bush, or Clinton would have congratulated an ally in circumstances such as these since the domestic political costs would have been too high. However, in the current American political climate, Trump appears unmoved by concerns about democracy and human rights.
The more fundamental problem here is not Trump’s ill-placed support for authoritarian leaders. After all, Western governments have long supported strongmen elsewhere if it appeared to be in their interest to do so. The difference is that they have rarely been willing to do so openly. Instead, Western leaders have historically been careful to emphasize the importance of democratic progress and respect for human rights, even in countries ruled by important allies. The ambiguity displayed by the West often allowed pro-democracy forces in aligned countries to pressure their autocrats to heed international calls for democratization. By refusing to insist that democracy, freedom, and human rights are inviolable ideas that the West will not compromise on, there is therefore a risk that Trump and similar-minded politicians in other Western countries could help the cause of illiberal allies by discrediting core liberal values and thus those civil society groups struggling for their realization. After all, if not even the West cares about liberalism, then why would the likes of Erdoğan do so?