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As U.S. leadership dims, the world is drifting away from democracy

Statue of Liberty with torch replaced by matchstick
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios 

The news that China’s constitution will be amended to permit Xi Jinping to serve additional terms as president is only the most recent instance of a disturbing trend: Not just democracy but the rule of law and respect for civil society and individual liberty are in decline around the world. One reason is that the United States is failing to set an example that many wish to emulate.

The U.S. has removed the promotion of democracy and human rights from its foreign policy agenda. Its silence on these issues gives repressive regimes a free pass to crack down. But our increasingly divisive domestic politics are also part of the problem.

  • The left is put off by racism, hostility to immigrants and seeming indifference to gun violence, while the right delegitimizes the Mueller investigation, embraces America First and champions tax cuts to the exclusion of much else.
  • Attacks by the president on everyone from judges to journalists undermine trust in essential institutions.
  • The lack of civics education in our schools and the echo chambers of cable news and social media exact a steep toll.

Economic, social and physical insecurity have driven the global trend toward illiberalism. Understandably, those forces place greater emphasis on a government’s ability to deliver tangible goods than on its fealty to intangible ideals such as individual freedoms and human rights. We are seeing this in countries as diverse as Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Egypt and the Philippines.

A few exceptions stand out, offering hope that the anti-democratic trend may be cyclical rather than permanent. Argentina is experiencing a democratic revival following years of state populism that bankrupted the country. Western Europe, led by France’s President Macron and his promise of reform, has for now beaten back the populist and nationalist challenge. Iran has seen civil society endure in the face of decades of repression, corruption and expensive foreign forays.

What's next: The stakes are high. A world in which true democracies are rare will be one of not just reduced individual freedom but also heightened conflict. Congress can reintroduce a degree of democracy promotion into U.S. foreign policy, but it will take American citizens to elect representatives at every level who are prepared to compromise for the national good.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "A World in Disarray."

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