I think there are really three things that are happening that undermine the export of democracy. The first one – and the one that’s been particularly bad in 2016 and will probably become worse – is that western democracy is broken and there’s no longer a good advert for people that democracy should exist elsewhere.
There are a lot fewer people now who look up to the West. For example, a lot of people around the world see Brexit as a self-inflicted problem caused by democracy. It probably wouldn’t have occurred if there had been representative democracy instead of a referendum. And with Trump you know that no one really looked at that 18 month campaign of vitriol, division and falsehoods and thought 'Wow, I wish we had that'.
"I had a member of the Thai Junta tell me: If Donald Trump is democracy, please don't sign us up for it."
All this permits despots to hide behind these broken shards, using them as a pretext for why they don’t want to democratise. I had a member of the Thai Junta tell me 'If Donald Trump is democracy, please don’t sign us up for it'. That has two effects: one is that they may not believe in democracy anyway. But they also can sell that to their people by asking them if they really want this system of government.
There’s also what I call the Saudi Arabia effect: the West cosies up to bad regimes for its own interests. And then there’s the so-called curse of low expectations. Think about the West as a sort of a referee in a match or a game. The degree to which it insists what democracy is and how aggressively it enforces the rules can change the ways in which leaders around the world behave. For some time the referees have started to turn a blind eye because it’s easier to do that. When it comes to turning a blind eye, I think the bar is set really low. When I was an election observer in Madagascar, an EU Observer said to me: 'look, we’ve already allocated the aid money. If we say this election was not free and fair, it’s just going to sit in an account. So unless there’s violence, we’re going to say it was it was a good election.'
"Think about the West as a sort of a referee in a match or a game. The degree to which it insists what democracy is and how aggressively it enforces the rules can change the ways in which leaders around the world behave. For some time the referees have started to turn a blind eye because it’s easier to do that."
Another example is Syria. People have somehow come to the conclusion that the solution to Syria is Assad 2.0, while not acknowledging that Assad 1.0 is why we’re in this mess. They’re just doubling down on a strategy that is not stable and not reliable because despotism doesn’t have any sort of safety valve for different views. And Syria’s not just simply going to be held together by a strong man. It might for two or three years, and then it will just be back to square one and we’ll have another civil war. That type of thinking was not popular in the West even 10 years ago, and now it is because of quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Ukraine.
Trump is going to be even more like that. We’ve seen signs just in the last few weeks in his phone calls. He called the dictator of Kazakhstan and told him what he had done was a miracle and said he was doing a great job with his country. We’re talking about one of the most ruthless dictators on the planet. It sends a really bad signal to countries that are wondering what consequences they might suffer from the West if they don’t democratise. With Trump, it seems like there won’t be any consequences at all. When those consequences are taken away, those nations start to think they can get away with much more.
Brian Klass is the author of The Despot’s Accomplice: How The West Is Aiding And Abetting The Decline Of Democracy