Of principle and interests

The hearing in a courtroom in Manhattan against former US President Donald Trump and other cases against him are illustrating one of the great struggles of human development in the past 250 years.

The contest, of course, is between the rule of law, liberal democracy, and human rights, on one hand, and nationalist autocracy, on the other.

Too often around the world autocrats plead that liberal democracy (and for the rest of this article assume this covers the rule of law and human rights) is just a Christian western construct which western nations want to impose on other countries in furtherance of their, particularly US, interests. 

“You should stop imposing your culture on us”, they argue – as if “western” liberal democracy is just another form of government that nations could pick from among a range that includes theocratic and ethnic-based regimes, or the new Chinese model where everyone will “co-operate” for the good and prosperity of all.

The pushiness of democracies trying to impose their western “culture” on the rest of the world, is unacceptable and unreasonable, they argue. Everyone should be able to carry on their own culture’s form of politics. All are equally valid, they argue, and the US and Europe should just butt out.

The arguments are flawed. True, the ideas of liberal democracy first emerged in Western Europe during the Enlightenment and were first put into practice (by and large) in the United States. But that does not mean that it is a cultural construct of those geographical areas with no claim to universality.

Rather liberal democracy has arisen concomitantly with general human economic development from around the 1830s on, particularly the rise of free markets; property rights; the expectation that law will guide conduct; the growing organisation of labour; the rise of charitable and reform organisations; and ultimately the recognition that the only legitimate form of government is government with the consent of the governed.

As stated in the Declaration of Independence, the fundamental tenet of liberal democracy is that it is self-evident that people are created equal with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And to secure those rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed – not from the divine right of kings and not from force.

Those truths are not peculiarly American. To the contrary. Throughout American history many people and movements have been vociferous in opposing those truths. Trump and Trumpism are just the most recent examples.

Before that, slavery; Jim Crow; the whites-first movement in the 19030s led by Charles Lindbergh; McCarthyism in the 1950s; the CIA-backed coups in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba and elsewhere; invasions of Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; the repression of women; and the Christian right’s incessant aim to instill Christian dogma into the polity all illustrate a profound American disrespect for human rights, the rule of law, and the need for the consent of the governed. 

The Christian right’s claim that America must be a white Christian nation (embraced by Trump) is no better than the claims over government by the mullahs in Iran or the Saudi royal family.

That 250-year anti-liberal American history shows that liberal democracy is decidedly not a purely American cultural construct. The 250 years of the adherents of a universally applicable human philosophy fighting successive generations of atavistic anti-liberal forces in the US is just part of a worldwide phenomenon.

There is no American exceptionalism here. America, like everywhere else, throws up autocrats who prefer to pick on a “them” in favour of an “us”, in denial of human equality.

Trump, of course, is right now getting all the benefits of the rule of law and the opportunity to seek the consent of the governed to choose him to govern them. It makes the contest more difficult, but the victory more enduring – provided there is a victory and the juries and voters are not duped by misguided loyalty or adherence to the Trump cult.

It is, indeed, an existential struggle for liberal democratic America. But we should not conflate America’s struggle for liberal democracy against a demagogue with the universal struggle. If Trump wins it will not mean that government by the people, for the people and of the people will perish from the earth, because liberal democracy is a universal value that transcends America.

Indeed, the universality of those values is devalued whenever US leaders (or the leaders of their allies) talk about “our” shared values when they should be described as universal values. When they are described as “our” values, it gives ammunition to the world’s autocrats to dismiss them as an American construct being used to pursue American selfish interests.

Those autocrats then demand “non-interference in internal affairs” so they can continue repression of their people contrary to the universal principles of human rights and the rule of law.

But they have a point, up to a point.

Whenever the US has pursued foreign policy or armed intervention in pursuit of the principles of liberal democracy, the outcome has been beneficial: the Marshall Plan, Kosovo, Rwanda (if a bit late), Timor-Leste.

But when it just mouths those ideals in cases when its real aim is self interest in pursuit of power or money (oil and bananas) or action arising from misguided paranoia against communism or terrorism (Vietnam and Iraq), the results are horrendous and reverberate in waves of violence through the decades.

The universality of liberal democratic values can be seen in the way they have developed in Japan, South Korea, Singapore (goodbye Lee Kwan Yew’s Asian values), and Indonesia (goodbye Suharto’s New Order), to name just a few places.

If you doubt that universality and its desirability, ask a Uyghur in China, a woman who wants to drive in Saudi Arabia or a girl who wants to be educated in Afghanistan whether they would like it in their countries.

Alas, the attempt to enforce that universality by the UN, as described in its charter, has at best been patchy. Perhaps it is time for a new international organisation of only democratic, rule-of-law nations (which would use rules to determine eligibility) to act against international criminality.

If Trump wins in November, however, the US, most likely, would not make the cut, because post-Trump litigants and election contestants would not get the rights being afforded to him now.

Better, of course, if jurors and voters in the US see the danger and defeat the obviously looming autocracy.

Crispin Hull 

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 30 April 2024.

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