The absence of a delegation from the U.S. at the World Economic Forum in Davos late last month was striking. But, sadly, it was also predictable. It reflected what has become America’s abandonment of its role as a world leader and champion of liberty.
The U.S. retrenchment under President Trump is understandable, coming at a time when many Americans believe Washington should focus on domestic challenges instead of continuing to shower foreign nations with billions of dollars for defense, roads, health care, education, and other essentials.
Indeed, President Trump used part of his State of the Union address earlier this week to highlight the fact that NATO allies increased their defense spending under his watch since he began admonishing them to pay their fair share since his 2016 presidential campaign.
But there is a dark consequence to a hasty American withdrawal from the world: a rise of authoritarian violence around the world. The brazenness of the world’s thugs was even on display in Davos. Even as there were calls for yet another investigation into Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey, the Saudi delegation hobnobbed with an air of impunity, hosting as a gaggle of enthusiastic Western investors.
Trump’s own executive branch continues to sound louder alarms on how emboldened the enemies of democracy are becoming in America’s absence. The Director of National Intelligence last week released an unclassified report citing “the weakening of the post-WWII international order” and “increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West” as strengthening traditional adversaries of the U.S.
That international order — of U.S.-led alliances enforcing norms of civility — was roundly successful at keeping authoritarianism inside certain countries and restricted to those citizens. As Trump weakens those forces, authoritarianism is filling the void.
Russia continues to slaughter thousands of people in eastern Ukrainian and bomb rebels in Northern Syria. In March 2018, the Kremlin deployed a team to the U.K. to murder former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal.
Beijing is currently holding an American family hostage to coax a Chinese businessman back to China. Beijing has also sent numerous death threats to Chinese activists living in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.
Smaller powers are also pushing their authoritarian tendencies beyond their borders and citizenries. In February 2017, Trump’s new ally, Kim Jong Un sent a team to Malaysia to assassinate his own half-brother and continues to keep at least four South Korean citizens detained in its prisons.
Three months after Jamal Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia, Kuwait convicted and sentenced a foreign businesswoman, Marsha Lazareva, to 10 years hard labor — based on the testimony of a single witness who has since been indicted for forging the documents used to convict her. Lazareva maintains these trumped-up charges were part of an attempt by government officials and business competitors to improperly confiscate nearly a half-billion dollars that her Kuwait-based company had generated.
Lazareva, who does not speak Arabic, was convicted without even allowing her to present a defense. While she is appealing her conviction, she has been imprisoned for nearly a year and separated from her five-year-old son, who is an American citizen. And the Kuwait government has since recovered the money that Marsha was accused of stealing, eliminating any rationale for her continued incarceration on the trumped-up charges.
Trump’s continued strongman style is a large part of what is inspiring state leaders — including U.S. allies — to adopt harder lines against their enemies. The Washington Post last week reported on a spate of such instances, including the Nigerian army invoking Trump condoning attacks on migrants at the border to justify killing more than 40 traffic-blocking protesters in Abuja.
This surge in authoritarian creep coincides with a phase of globalization — more movement of people across borders and Internet connectivity — giving upstart leaders the power to pursue their opponents almost anywhere in the world. Trump’s hands-off stance, however, portends a new generation of unbridled international brinksmanship that could destabilize security we have all taken for granted.
Political dissidents, like Jamal Khashoggi, may not be the only ones in future danger. Those related to, or in contact with, a state enemy will be vulnerable to oppression, shown by China’s use of its controversial “exit ban” currently used to detain innocent Americans. Popular vacation destinations may no longer be safe for Western tourists, shown by Turkey’s arrest and two-year detention of a North Carolina pastor.
Technological advancements may pack the most chilling fallouts from authoritarian creep. We may not be far from the day a private citizen criticizes China or Russia online and sustains a cyber-attack or a visit by an agent of Beijing or Moscow.
Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the international stage has threatened the security that westerners depended on to travel and do business abroad. Authoritarian powers are testing their new boundaries in the face of U.S. absence. The norms of the old liberal order — cooperation, diplomacy, and violence as a last resort — will not return unless the U.S. re-initiates enforcement. Trump does not change course soon, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder may have been just the beginning.
John Burnett is the Founder and CEO of 1 Empire Group consulting firm and a business executive with over 20 years of experience in the financial services and energy pricing industries. A veteran of politics, John is an official with the New York State Republican Party and ran for New York City Comptroller in 2013. An adjunct professor at Hampton University and New York University, John’s editorials on business, the economy, policy, and politics have appeared in HuffPost, U.S. News and World Report, and Washington Examiner. He is also a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, Fox Business News, New York 1, and PIX 11 News. John holds a B.S. with honors from New York University and an MBA from The Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.