The “end of history” celebration by Francis Fukuyama in his best-selling book of that title turned out to be premature. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of European Communism did not mean that the world was going to opt for liberal democracy as the ideal form of governance. Competing ideologies arrived such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and reformed authoritarianism in parts of East Asia. Governments in Africa continued to be dominated mostly by strong men. In Latin America elections brought populist governments to the fore. It was in South Asia, however, that liberal democracy advanced bringing into its domain countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan that had deviated for years from the democratic path. India served as an example for the rest of South Asia.
No matter which of the two principal candidates contesting the presidential election in the US makes it to office, it is unlikely that the country will be able — or willing — to project itself as the example of political development to the rest of the world should follow. This inclination for the US not to play that role on the global stage became the official policy during the Obama years. The president was more interested in promoting democracy and good governance at home than projecting America’s political values abroad. He was inclined not to get involved in nation-building as was done by George W. Bush, his immediate predecessor.
Did this detachment from world political development influence global trends? This is not an easy question to answer. Global trends rest on many factors, of which the priorities of the US leadership is only one. That said, the findings of the Freedom House, a non-government organisation, are worth noting. This international watchdog was founded, among others, by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, some 75 years ago. In its most recent report, Freedom in the World, 2016, the institution has some dismal numbers. Over the past decade, the level of political freedom has declined in 105 countries and advanced only in 61. The last year was the worst yet, with 72 nations losing ground. Around the world, “press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015.”
Also, in negotiations with China, Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, human rights were never a priority. Obama apologised to Argentinians for America’s Cold War acceptance of its ‘dirty war,’ but overlooked similar or worse abuses in anti-terror allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Were Trump to win, he would further set back the democratic experiment in several parts of the world. He would undermine democracy by showing disrespect for democratic norms at home. In his many pronouncements, he endorsed water-boarding, a recognised form of torture used by the Bush administration in its effort to obtain information from captured terrorists. He disparaged freedom of the press, expelling from his rallies journalists who were critical of him. He undermined a free judiciary by declaring that a judge of Mexican origin could not be expected to handle fairly the case against the Trump University. He made fun of the religion of Khizr Khan and his wife who had lost a son in Iraq while fighting for the US. The way he spoke about the Khans further showed his contempt for the followers of a faith whose entry into the US he said he would ban once he moved into the White House. He expressed open admiration for Russia’s increasingly authoritarian ruler, President Vladimir Putin. With Trump in the White House, it is safe to predict that the world’s political development would suffer.
With America no longer the beacon of democratic light, some of the authoritarian systems of East Asia seem attractive. China has made impressive strides in moving forward its economy, alleviating poverty and reducing regional and personal income inequality. Vietnam also under the rule of one authoritarian political party is making impressive economic and social progress. This may not be the end of history but the beginning of an entirely new chapter. It is not certain whether America, its political values and the political system it has created will continue to attract many followers across the globe.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 3rd, 2016.