If you look carefully and objectively at the world today, you may be able to perceive we are approaching a crossroad. Some will even say we are already in it. And just what is that? The people of this nation and the world are faced at this moment with a decision on what they want for the future. Do we want to continue our own fragile democracy, as well as supporting other democratic movements abroad, or are we in the process of giving up on that and seeing the world sink into nationalism and populism?
Much is made of the post-World War II period and the Cold War, when the two main competing ideologies were democracy and communism. Some saw it as horribly dangerous, particularly as they watched the hostile, nuclear-armed competitors trying to manipulate uncommitted countries to their sides. And it probably was, but our worst fears were never realized. We and the Soviets somehow blundered through without major conflict.
What the Cold War provided to the world was relative security. There always seemed to be one or more superpowers present when things got really dangerous. Those superpowers tended to avoid their own conflicts and to suppress those of their so-called allies. In the Middle East, for example, despite the fact that the Sunni-Shia split had existed since the 7th century, it did not turn into today’s bitter armed conflicts until the end of the 20th century, as the Cold War became history.
Further, since the end of the Cold War, much of the world has seemed to approve globalism, which is the idea freedom and human rights can be made available to all mankind. Proponents believe the problems of humanity can best be resolved with democratic globalism.
What you can say about life under globalization is it is likely to be less violent than life under populism, which is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. This is largely because globalization has tended to bring with it an increased respect among nations for the needs and goals of other countries, where populism and nationalism recognize the desires of individual countries and their citizens above those of the rest of the world.
Was it working? Perhaps, but what has happened is that elements around the world, both on the political right and left, have turned toward nationalism and populism. And this is not a phenomenon limited to the third world, It includes countries that until very recently have appeared to support global democratization, countries like Poland, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines, to name only a few. Some observers think it extends to North America and the British Isles, as well. How else do you explain Brexit, or America’s inclination to turn past friends and supporters into reluctant allies and critics?
President Trump has introduced us to what looks like the coming new political wave. He has identified, won over and is now supporting and supported by those 30 million Americans who really have not benefitted from our interest in, and support of, globalization. It is very clear from the ongoing political scene that they will support him in just about anything he wants to do. In effect, Trump is a strong opponent of globalization and even stronger supporter of nationalism and populism. He has overturned many of the existing policies of past American governments and essentially told the world the only thing that matters to him (and to America) is whether or not any given issue favors America.
You can’t really say Trump’s positions on these issues have actually directly caused other nations to follow his policies, but his policies and positions have created an environment in which it is easier for that to happen. Trump openly supports some of the worst, least democratic world leaders. This is true of Egypt, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia, China, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Libya and India, to name a few. He appears to love and respect authoritarian leaders who oppose or crush all opposition to their leadership. He has even gone so far as to praise some of the policies of Saddam Hussein and Benito Mussolini! What does that tell us about him and his hopes and goals for the future?
It is clear that millions of Americans have been short-changed under leaders pursuing globalization, and that Trump represents a desirable alternative to them. The problem, quite simply, is, even if that is true, Trump’s seeming preoccupation with authoritarian world leaders, their philosophies and policies, and his inclination to emulate them, pose a grave threat to our perpetually vulnerable democracy.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, and the Middle East working primarily against Soviet and East European targets. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to the deputy director of the CIA.