Issue 2

Liberalization at the Margins in Hard Times

Bann Seng Tan

Trump’s America First doctrine is considered as an invalidation of the United States’ commitment to democracy promotion. However, Trump does not represent a fundamental break in US foreign policy. There is no Golden Age of democracy promotion to harken back to.

Observing a world where the global momentum towards democracy is stalling, I asked in my book what donors can do to nudge aid recipients towards democracy. The audacity of the question stems from the fact that we are living in an era characterized by feckless democracies and resurgent authoritarianism.  These are hard times. If we are not to despair, we should examine our political constraints realistically. 

In democracy promotion, I argue we should take both the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients seriously. Unlike other approaches to democracy promotion, I do not assume donors value democracy promotion as much as they say they do. Neither for that matter do I assume that authoritarian regimes will give up power voluntarily. The reforms that donors seek are painful for autocrats. Which self-respecting dictator will voluntarily give up power? Instead of democratization, our smart autocrat can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions in exchange for the desired aid. This means some recipients like Egypt, will have leverage against the West and are effectively immune to donor pressure to liberalize. I label such countries, “primary recipients” in my book. Primary recipients can push back and as such are not suitable targets for democracy promotion. It also implies that some recipients, like Fiji, will lack the attributes to make counteroffers attractive enough to the aid donors. I label this group the “secondary recipients” in my book.  Secondary recipients, precisely because they have little else to offer to donors, are more likely to liberalize in exchange for the needed aid. Notice what have been theoretically achieved, I just spelt out a path that works around both the disinterest by democratic donors and the resistance by authoritarian recipients for focusing on the leverage of recipients. If my theory is correct, it follows that a strategy of targeting secondary recipient is a way to promote democracy. 

A not uncommon response to this strategy is to assert that it has been invalidated by the Trump administration, with its lack of interest in democracy promotion. Behind this stance is a sense that Trump’s foreign policy is radically different from those held by previous American presidents.

When evaluating foreign policies of any country, it is important to go beyond their rhetoric and look at their actual behavior. A politician, a country or any actor can claim a commitment to a lofty goal. It does not mean they will allocate the resources necessary to realize such goals. The verbal commitment is cheap talk. The actual spending of resource is a costly signal. We focus on the later. It is true that Trump’s foreign policy does not follow traditional Republican principles such as the promotion of free-market capitalism, democracy and the liberal world order. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is an eclectic mix of realism, protectionism and personal expediency.  Under this approach, any deal is judged acceptable so long as the US or Trump himself personally benefits more than the other negotiating party. 

Trump’s approach is also distinctive in that he is indifferent to the identity (read regime-type) of his negotiating partners. Liberal democracies are treated no different from authoritarian regimes. Long standing NATO allies (such as Germany, France) and trade partners (Canada, Mexico) have to pay their share or they risk US tariffs. Trump demonstrated a personal affinity for populist leaders (including Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, and Hungary’s Orban) and found common course with authoritarian leaders (notably Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim and Saudi Arabia’s MBS). Authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that provide tangible benefits to the US (or to him personally) were given a free pass in human rights abuse and democratic backsliding.   

These imperatives of Trump do not consider the secondary consequences for the international order or the impact on the US credibility as an ally. The result is predictable. William Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer, and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made the following memorable observation: 

For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing (Foreign Affairs 2019). 

This verdict is devastating for US prestige, what does it imply for democracy promotion?  The key is to recognize Trump’s foreign policy is transactional. Under Trump, every relationship of the US, regardless of whether they are with democracies or autocracies, has to offer value to the US in direct monetizable terms. Primary recipients, by definition, have lots to offer to aid donors. They, by virtue of their policy concession to the US, remain unsuitable targets for democracy promotion – just as my theory predicts. More importantly, secondary recipients, who have less leverage because they have little to offer to donors, remain the group that is more suitable for democracy promotion.  

It is plausible that recipients who have no direct monetary value to the US might fall beneath the attention of the White House. This may allow for aid agencies such as the US Agency International Development (USAID) to work behind the scenes and quietly push for liberalization.   

If, by way of a counterfactual, I had argued that there was a time when the US values democracy promotion above all, then the current Trump administration would present a severe challenge since they prioritize interests that are immediately monetizable.

Instead, I observe that the US is not that invested in democracy promotion, if doing so entails the sacrifice of other strategic or commercial interests. The Trump administration, as negative as it has been for democracy promotion, does not represent a fundamental break with the past behavior of the US (recall the distinction on costly signals); there was simply no Golden Age of democracy promotion to harken back to. A transactional US does not fundamentally alter a strategy of liberalization at the margins. This holds true even if Trump wins a second presidential term

The bad news is that “we the people” do not care enough about international democracy promotion to prioritize it over other policy concessions we might get. We have to recognize the political limits, such as they are, and work around them. The good news is that there is a way forward.  We can filter recipients by their leverage. This suggests a focus on secondary recipients as the path to democracy promotion. Liberalization at the Margins, as it were. 

Bann Seng Tan is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His first book is on the strategic use of foreign aid in democracy promotion (

*The author retains copyright over this article

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