A protester carries an American flag during a march in Hong Kong. Photo by: REUTERS / Kim Kyung-Hoon

WASHINGTON — On Oct. 14, protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets, not only to demand democratic concessions from the Chinese government, but also to appeal to American politicians for support. To drive home their message — and their intended audience — thousands waved American flags. One poster reportedly read, “Make Hong Kong Great Again.”

The protests in Hong Kong are playing out against an alarming backdrop. Political rights and civil liberties around the world have declined for 13 consecutive years, according to watchdog organization Freedom House, whose “Freedom in the World 2019” report paints a grim picture of a world in democratic retreat.

“Every president, up until President Trump, has at least rhetorically positioned himself, his administration, and the United States of America broadly in support of our own democratic principles and values.”

— Larry Diamond, Stanford University professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow

For protesters in Hong Kong, the American flags appear, in part, to be a desperate plea to the U.S. government to live up to its global democratic values and support their cause.

“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” a protester named Edward Fong told Reuters.

U.S. lawmakers from both parties have endorsed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which could impose sanctions for human rights abuses. The bill was approved by the House of Representatives and awaits a vote in the Senate. The White House has not confirmed whether the president would sign the bill or veto it if it passes, but Trump has been hesitant to offend Chinese President Xi Jinping in the middle of trade negotiations.

Trump’s mixed messages about democracy in Hong Kong are part of a larger pattern. At a time when democracies around the world are threatened and authoritarians are ascendent, Trump has offered little evidence to suggest that he stands on the side of democracy.

The president has voiced support for oppressive political regimes, branded America’s free press “the enemy of the people,” and sought deep cuts — which the U.S. Congress has repeatedly rejected — to U.S. democracy-assistance funds. He now faces an impeachment inquiry based on allegations that he sought to undermine America’s upcoming presidential election by coercing a foreign government into investigating one of his political opponents.

“Every president, up until President Trump, has at least rhetorically positioned himself, his administration, and the United States of America broadly in support of our own democratic principles and values, and has made clear that we see these as universal values,” said Larry Diamond, a professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the school’s Hoover Institution.

“In this respect, I think President Trump has been different from all of the presidents of both parties of the last 40 years,” he said.

The president’s departure from these norms presents a particular challenge to U.S. government-funded organizations tasked with promoting democracy around the world. While these groups operate independently from the government, they represent a long-held bipartisan commitment to supporting democratic institutions and civil society through election observation, funding, and technical expertise. As American politics descend into a bitter partisan battle over some of the very issues these groups seek to address, their ability to remain united above the political fray faces an unprecedented test.

Trump is not making it any easier.

In September, The Washington Post reported that during a 2017 meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told Russian officials he was not worried about Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election — which he won — because the U.S. government did the same in other countries. The Kremlin has frequently suggested that America’s democracy-promotion programs — and the organizations that lead them — are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts at political manipulation.

So far, the leaders of U.S.-based organizations that promote democracy and governance insist that neither the division that has roiled Washington nor Trump’s reported undercutting of their work has damaged their international programs.

“I’ve seen no impact on the work that we do or the support that we get around the world for doing it,” said Derek Mitchell, president of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

“People recognize that after 35 years of our doing this, that we have a track record, that we go in according to context, and we’re not looking to interfere, we’re looking to support,” he said.

The International Republican Institute, NDI’s sister organization across the political aisle, has remained similarly insulated from Washington’s turmoil, said Daniel Twining, IRI’s president.

“You go to Nigeria, and they don't want to talk about American politics. They want to talk about how we can help them in Nigeria to have a stronger democracy,” Twining said.

“I started this job just over two years ago, and I thought we'd grapple with this much more directly in the world. We actually grapple with it much less than I expected,” he said.

Working in these organizations’ favor is the fact that when they were created during the Reagan administration, there was a concerted effort to separate America’s support for international democracy from the U.S. government itself.

The network of organizations that includes the National Endowment for Democracy, IRI, NDI, and others has since evolved into “a huge apparatus” with its own strong norms and operational principles, said Sarah Mendelson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who previously led the U.S. Agency for International Development’s democracy programs during the Obama administration.

“People who know what they’re talking about understand that these organizations are distinct, have distinct reputations, have long histories of working on these issues,” Mendelson said.

That independence leaves them less vulnerable to a particular politician’s outlook or behavior, and Trump is not the first to paint a complicated picture of America’s commitment to democracy, Twining said.

“I could throw 10 Obama quotes at you that were actively harmful to the plight of democracy in the world,” he said, citing the former president’s “abandonment of Iranians protesting in the streets during the Green Revolution” and his “very muddled approach to the Arab Spring.”

Despite Trump’s proposed budget cuts and his general skepticism of foreign assistance, the U.S. Congress has maintained its support for international democracy-promotion programs. Funding for these efforts has actually increased during the Trump administration, after falling during the Obama administration, Twining noted.

“We have a democracy, which means that in America, the opinion of lots of politicians matter, not just the president’s,” Twining said.

“Congress funds work that, as the elected body closest to the American public, the Congress deems important to the American public, and democracy is one of those,” he said.

For others, a broader concern is that a Republican Party that once played a key role in creating these organizations to advance democratic principles today appears unwilling to challenge a president who is undermining them. The party lost one of its strongest advocates for democracy and human rights when John McCain, who chaired IRI’s board for 25 years, died in 2018.

“I'm very proud of where most Republicans are in terms of their support for American leadership to advance democracy in the world.”

— Daniel Twining, IRI president

McCain “represented a very specific kind of Republican that is rare and fleeting,” said Mendelson, who is a Democrat. “There’s not the kind of castigation of President Trump that you’d expect from Republicans who champion the rule of law and democracy,” she said.

Twining disagreed with any suggestion that the Republican Party’s support for Trump has eroded its credibility on issues of global democracy, reiterating that Republicans in the Senate increased support for democracy programs in the fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill.

“The Republican Party, to me, is still the party of Ronald Reagan and John McCain and all these wonderful people,” Twining said.

“I'm very proud of where most Republicans are in terms of their support for American leadership to advance democracy in the world,” he said.

Both NDI’s and IRI’s boards are chaired by prominent members of their respective parties — at NDI, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton; and at IRI, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan. The two organizations work in close cooperation, a fact that their current presidents are quick to highlight when they have the opportunity.

“We do things together overseas to show a bipartisan face, which I think sends quite a remarkable signal to countries that we do that. Because they read the headlines. They watch CNN,” Mitchell said.

“People will remark on it and say, ‘It’s wonderful to see that the parties can come together on something.’ I think it’s a powerful signal of overcoming whatever divisions we have at home to promote this value that we both support,” he said.

According to Mitchell, America’s pro-democracy organizations need to do a better job of communicating what exactly it is that they do — even if they are better understood in the countries where they operate than they are by the president of the United States.

“We are thinking about that more systematically nowadays, and we’ll just see whether we can bring that to a kind of scale where people can actually learn about what we do, and then in that way separate ourselves from the narrative that somehow there’s an equivalence between what we’re doing and what Russia and China and others are doing,” he said.

For Twining, the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting democracy remains a core part of the country’s national identity. To see that, one need only look at the flags flying on the streets of Hong Kong, he said.

“As long as Americans continue to be Americans, I think the U.S. government is going to support these kinds of efforts, because this is an American thing to do, and the world looks to us and expects us to lead on it,” Twining said.

“And when we don't,” he added, “they're disappointed.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.