Instead of Democracy Promotion, Sell Trumpism to the World

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit to Florida International University in Miami, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Instead of Democracy Promotion, Sell Trumpism to the World

Here's a blueprint for how Donald Trump can better explain and use his national security strategy.

These efforts can be an “economy of force” tool, a primary means of affecting U.S. interests where great power competition is less intense. Countering Chinese influence in Latin America and Africa could be higher priorities. In addition, countering Russian influence in Central Europe could be a higher priority. Another area for increased efforts could be in the Pacific Islands region and South Asia.


Democracy promotion agendas from previous administrations have left a lot of baggage. This administration should formulate an agenda that focuses on governance (corruption), infrastructure and fundamental human rights. The emphasis will vary from country to country. In some cases, the priority might be religious liberty; in others, it might be economic freedom.

In particular, there needs to be better coordination and deconfliction, specifically where the strategy might be applied in these situations. See, for example, the report on fragile states prepared by a bipartisan task force assembled by the United States Institute of Peace.

There is little question that the president views strategic communications as an important tool. Yet, he has little interest in promoting a grand strategic narrative—something Reagan did so well in framing the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as a battle between good and evil.

Trump uses the presidency’s voice for near-term tactical purposes. Thus, top-down public diplomacy isn’t in the cards. Instead, the administration must develop an integrated public diplomacy effort. The State Department’s recent coordinated campaign on human rights/governance in Iran is a constructive example.

The by-words of a successful public diplomacy effort will be partnership, burden-sharing, and, ultimately, self-reliance. Latin America and Europe are nearby and vital to us. India, Japan, and Australia are key partners in the Indo-Pacific. There is, however, a lack of common vision on what needs to be done. More structured dialogues and initiatives will be needed to pull the team together. While the U.S. government should take the lead in this endeavor, our partners should help share the burden.

When it comes to implementation, there is less need for an overall, overarching worldwide approach than a plan to execute a nested series of specific, coordinated actions targeted to support national priorities. Action might be directed with an executive order rather than a strategy document.

Before crafting the plan, the administration should map a crosswalk between U.S. strategy and ongoing and planned activities to see what’s missing or what’s being done that’s not helpful. For example, do we still need to support the Community of Democracies? Or do we just keep participating on auto-pilot?

In some cases, instruments ought to be used to help civil society hold governments accountable. But, U.S. efforts here need to be more selective and effective. Constructive accountability works best in permissive environments where regimes tolerate the influence of civil society. That is not to preclude activities in less permissive environments, but it means the administration must smartly align expectations, investments, and interests.


A recent national survey found adequate public support for the public diplomacy efforts suggested here. And many of these programs enjoy strong bipartisan congressional support as well. That’s a good foundation to build on.

How resources are allocated is at least as important as how much are allocated. What matters is that spending fits in with the overall strategy. The ongoing U.S. foreign assistance review, if done right, could dovetail well with this effort.

Grassroots assistance and capacity building also have a place. Organizations like the International Republican Institute conduct grassroots programs that can be very effective. There is a case to be made for more, smaller, targeted grants that could be directed to local nonprofits. This could invigorate flexible, low-overhead programs currently hamstrung by burdensome oversight and compliance requirements.

Meanwhile, the larger programs should be scrutinized closely for how they spend U.S. taxpayer dollars. There is great potential here for finding significant savings.

Nontraditional NGOs—independent non-neutral humanitarian organizations that purposefully align their operations with U.S. policy—should also be part of the mix. Organizations like Spirit of America, which uses private donations to provide voluntary services to our soldiers and diplomats overseas, conduct the kinds of activity that would neatly fit into efforts to support the National Security Strategy.

There is also a question of whether we have adequate tools to evaluate freedom and democracy in its different contexts. Sadly, many U.S. government reports on human rights practices are not very helpful. Rather, they are overly complex, dedicated to meeting statutory requirements and not targeted for specific audiences. These reports should be overhauled, pared down, and tailored to provide actionable information that will help their audiences have a strategic effect.

Nongovernmental reports are a mixed bag. For example, there are several useful indices of economic freedom. On the other hand, there are real concerns about the legitimacy of Freedom House ratings and various measures of press freedom.

There are also concerns about the proliferation of “rights,” ongoing campaigns to expand or reshape what constitutes “freedom,” and demands to “re-baseline” the human freedoms discussion. This could open a place for a national commission to assess what freedom is and how to measure it—serving as a powerful driver for the domestic and global conversation.

What else must the plan include? A technology component, to be sure. The multi-stakeholder process of oversight for the Internet and cyber won’t work. China and Russia, through international forums or brute force, will balkanize the Internet to advance repression. America currently lacks an effective capacity to deal with this.

Further, America must develop the means to analyze and counter the range of cyber tools (AI) being used by Russia, China, and other authoritarian states to undermine others (such as election interference) and to expand their societal controls through monitoring behavior.

The U.S. government also must improve its dialogue and partnership with the private sector on the consequences of cooperation and exploitation by adversarial states. The recent example of the restricted Google search developed for China highlights this challenge.

Further, the government needs to engage with more than just the “tech community.” Mass media and institutions of higher learning could be valuable partners in the war against cyber-mischief and repression.

Finally, what’s needed most is leadership. Washington lacks an effective interagency capacity for granular coordination of specific programs. Rather than broad government reforms, we need solutions that work now for this government and this strategy.

The goal is not to gin up a whole-of-government approach, but to amass enough instruments of power to have a competitive advantage against a specific adversary for a specific mission or task. Part of that has to be getting more of the Trump team on board. As long as key appointive positions remain unfilled or occupied by uncooperative holdovers, efforts to implement a public diplomacy strategy that complements the National Security Strategy will be seriously—perhaps fatally—hamstrung.

A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on issues of national security and foreign policy.

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