CNN | 9/23/2018 | Español | Listen

Trump presides over a global sunset to democracy

Updated 7:50 PM ET, Mon June 18, 2018

Editor's Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN where his columns won the 2017 Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today," he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) - Donald Trump is presiding over a sunset to democracy that is spreading across the world, eradicating much of the spirit of globalism that once was a beacon to freedom, free trade and democratic values.

The crest of this wave -- the battle over a nation's ability to choose who will be able to settle within its borders -- is also sweeping across traditional democracies as never before, with newly elected governments in such longstanding bulwarks of freedom as Germany and Italy suddenly poised on the brink of resistance to a continuing influx of immigrants, largely from the Middle East and Africa. This movement has gained power and affirmation by the Trump vision of preservation of frontiers and traditional domestic values.

As Trump told a White House gathering on Monday, the transformation of the American immigration system should be "something maybe even for the world to watch," adding that "The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. ... We want a safe country, and it starts with the borders. And that's the way it is. ... A country without borders is not a country at all."

The European Union, of course, is for the moment at least, a continent largely without borders, and indeed Trump pointed out that "if you look what's happening in Europe ... we can't allow that to happen to the United States."

The welcoming of others -- or, like Europe, maintaining a free flow of people -- is one key element of globalism. But nationalism is beginning to rear an ugly head in many of these regions that still espouse democracy, but are apparently seeking to move closer to a nationalist model.

The central question is how far down the road toward nationalism can a country go before it moves first out of a globalist model and then ultimately away from democratic values entirely. This seems to be the direction the watchdog group Freedom House is suggesting much of the world is moving. Just 39% of the world's population is living under freedom.

Clearly that message is beginning to resonate across traditional democracies, even among America's allies. Freedom House's latest report observed that in the past year, "71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains."

While Freedom House does not break down attitudes toward free movement of immigrants, it did point out that last year, "basic tenets — including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law — came under attack around the world." And it concluded that "the United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and exemplar of democracy."

None of this is to say, of course, that we are doomed. Nor that Donald Trump alone is entirely to blame for the sweep of the spiral away from democracy. This decline has been en route for a dozen years, according to the Freedom House monitors, and there have been moments of progression when some countries have seen their democratic forces return, at times potently.

In France, the arrival of Emmanuel Macron and his entirely new party named "La Republique en Marche!" with its trademark exclamation point, has been a rallying point for democratic forces even beyond his country's borders.

Still, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who two years ago threw open her country's borders as the first tsunami of refugees washed across Western Europe and has in total welcomed more than 1.4 million people since 2015, is facing a tough battle with her coalition partners.

On Monday, just as Trump was falsely holding her up as an example of a country riven by immigrant-related crime (Germany's crime rate last year was the lowest since 1992), she won a brief reprieve from a threat by her conservative coalition partner to begin turning back asylum-seekers at the German frontier.

In Italy, another NATO member, a democracy and a first-line destination for immigrants seeking to win admission to Europe from the Middle East or Africa, a new populist, euroskeptic government led by the hard-right League Party in coalition with the like-minded Five Star Movement is setting up to block all new ad hoc immigration.

This past weekend, Italy barred over 600 immigrants who ultimately won entrance to Spain, where they arrived late Sunday. "In the Mediterranean there are other countries that can intervene," said Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. "We cannot allow half of Africa to be brought to Italian soil."

What has brought many of these nations' rulers under the same umbrella as that carried by Donald Trump is a very different reality. In many of Europe's struggling economies, particularly Italy, with the highest youth unemployment in Europe, there are simply not enough jobs for young people who, fearful of being eternally dependent on their parents as new sources of labor to fill jobs at ever lower wages, have gravitated to nationalist parties prepared to take up their battle. In this case, nationalism and globalism are not so far removed.

As World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab warned in January, "Globalization has to be combined with social caution. Now what we see is that the people who have been left out and who have suffered more from globalization and not profited from it start to have thoughts of rebellion."

While many of these countries still hew to democratic norms, they are en route to displacing the globalism that has been so characteristic of the European Union with a nationalism that in the case of Italy is becoming, to an increasing degree, euroskeptic. In some respects, such forces are not dissimilar to the sentiments that impelled Britain to vote to remove itself from the European Union, which many there have since come to regret, but which Trump continues to support.

Right next door to the United States, ironically, Mexico is facing a similar conundrum. Its likely next president is a leftist populist with decidedly anti-globalist tendencies but who expects to win his mandate, it seems, by appealing to his nation's passion for up-from-nothing leaders. "I am just like you, I came from the bottom, and now I am here to represent you in this historic moment," Andrés Manuel López Obrador told a crowded campaign rally. Indeed, he sounds very much like Donald Trump, though their backgrounds are at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Of course, there are other aspects of globalism that Trump appears prepared to cast aside, swapping globalism for nationalism. He has little appetite for America's role as a global policeman, though other members of NATO would hate to see the United States depart. Equally, he has little patience for the international trading system that has sustained a global, reasonably democratic economy for at least the 23 years that the World Trade Organization has been in existence.

With numerous countries on four continents still adhering to the rule of democracy, populism is beginning to chip away increasingly at the fringes.

For much of the rest of the world, democracy continues its accelerating spiral downward. The role of America and Donald Trump's pivot inward is doing little to halt such a desperately fraught challenge.


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