Since the end of the Second World War, every president of the United States has been the world’s leading advocate for the idealistic world order where countries are governed in a pluralist fashion where basic individual liberties like free speech and free press are respected, and nations bond themselves closer together with robust interdependency of trade in goods and services.
Such advocacy, while enshrined in principle with constancy, has often been erratic in practice and taken a decidedly second place to national strategic interests which have often resulted in American foreign policy being far more tolerant of dictatorships in the Arab Middle East and East Asia than of similar systems in Cuba or Iran.
But even through the twists and turns of Cold War politics, the most intense of the Cold War administrations had leaned on their autocratic allies in Latin America, South Africa, and Southeast Asia to nudge them towards more pluralism in their governance.
Outside of official bureaucracy, American NGOs, think tanks, and universities maintained a continuing “soft” pressure on the regimes of Pinochet, Marcos, and Botha while being protected by the flag of the United States against bullying by the autocracies supported by the Washington administration of the day.
Those days will end, at least temporarily, on January 21, 2017.
Not only has the incoming presidential administration dispensed with even lip-service to the principles of pluralism, free speech, and trade abroad, some of its leading advisers have openly doubted the very principles behind those lofty ideals per se while others have been candid in their admiration of some of the most totalitarian societies in the former Soviet Union.
The new administration is likely to withdraw from such advocacy globally, and it is quite probable that American professional, academic, and human rights organisations that engage in pro-democracy advocacy abroad will no longer enjoy the umbrella of protection by their government that they have been used to for the last 70 years.
Who then fills the gap for human rights defenders during this American exile from the front defending the liberal democratic world order?
A toothless United Nations where the most egregious violators of human rights sit on human rights panels is hardly the right candidate, even if it had the political will.
Not much better is the entity known as the European Union as it goes through crises that are turning out to be reaching into the existential zone.
That said, certain individual European countries with a long record of being vocal and a tradition of being active in promoting democratic governance, free trade, and pluralism may be able to step in the vacuum to a small extent, should there be the political wherewithal.
In this regard, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland come to mind immediately. They can and should be aided as equal partners by Australia and Canada; the latter is an especially good candidate for such moral leadership during its southern neighbor’s absence considering the mandate given by Canadians to their young prime minister who has made no secret of his idealism in seeing a world where a peaceful liberal democratic order is ascendant.
The world will change on January 21, 2017, and the change will unlikely to be for the better for those who champion democracy, free speech, and free markets outside of North America and Western Europe
The gap left by America’s temporary retreat from the championship of a freer world is too big, however, to be filled entirely by anyone, even if it is by a set of other democratic, First World governments. Think tanks, universities, professional organisations, and NGOs in these countries will need to step into the breach as well.
What Freedom House and the International Republican Institute in Washington DC may no longer be able to do easily may have to be done by similar organisations in London, Berlin, and Ottawa; at the very least, a much greater share of the burden has to be picked up by pro-democracy, pro-freedom, pro-trade organisations in the rest of the liberal democratic First World.
Finally, America’s major businesses, especially in the technology sector, can be incredible partners in this new coalition as well.
Silicon Valley has long shown a willingness to engage on behalf of pro-freedom policies domestically and globally. As game-changing platforms that are crucial to much of the communication that takes place in the world, socially conscious companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple, for example, can refuse to provide services to regimes and entities that suppress their own people, squelch dissent, and put obstacles to the development of free institutions and free trade.
The world will change on January 21, 2017, and the change will unlikely to be for the better for those who champion democracy, free speech, and free markets outside of North America and Western Europe.
That changed world needs a new set of defenders of those values, or the gains made in the last 30 years may disappear quickly.
Esam Sohail is an educational research analyst and college lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.