During my career as an operations officer in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, I was fortunate to have served in a number of out-of-the-way places. Where I lived and worked—the Balkans, Latin America and Eurasia—the term “developing world” did not just refer to economics. It also accurately described the political circumstances of these nations. Too much of what I saw there is echoing across the years to the U.S. of today.
In the Balkans, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, I witnessed the birth of several new nations: Bosnia; Serbia; Macedonia; Kosovo; Slovenia; Montenegro. All of these became new countries, complete with their own young versions of democracy. Starting even earlier, in the mid-1980s, Latin America was pushing ahead in its efforts to grow its democracies. And then there is Russia, which had a fleeting chance at forging its own democracy in the 1990s; historians and Russia experts still argue about why it did not work.
A 30-year career watching politics in the developing world (or the “Third World,” as many called it in the 1980s) provides some lessons about new, underdeveloped democracies. To start, the rule of law is much weaker than in more developed countries. Judiciaries can be intensely politicized. Politicians with serious moral and legal flaws (at times rising to the level of war crimes) are sometimes elected by constituents who can relate emotionally to them, often along ethnic or tribal lines. The idea of a loyal opposition—of political parties who disagree vehemently on policy but nevertheless want to improve the country—barely exists, and brutal politics are conducted on a zero-sum basis.
The security services—both intelligence and law enforcement—often are staffed with political hacks far down the chain of command, and are essentially immunized by the head of state against prosecution. Predictably, the situation is flipped after an election brings the opposition to power; typically, the new guard moves in, replaces all the old functionaries, and usually throws several of them in jail for illegal spying or corruption. This does not, of course, keep the newly elected government from complaining that remnants of the previous administration continue to work behind the scenes, undermining the new President or Prime Minister.
Sound eerily familiar? How much of what I just wrote now applies to America? Analogies are rarely perfect, but there are enough similarities here to constitute a concerning pattern.
Looking at just a smattering of the statements made by President Donald Trump and his administration—as of this writing still less than a year old—one might be forgiven for confusing official U.S. comments with those of a brand-new democracy, rather than the oldest one in the world. Just last month, Trump has indicated that the FBI, the most powerful law enforcement organization in the country, is “in tatters.” Some Republican lawmakers have agreed, recognizing that such a claim weakens ongoing investigations of the Trump administration.
Logically, this would seem to presage significant change ahead for the bureau, given that it would be obviously irresponsible to allow such disarray to continue unabated in such a critical organization. This is a classic technique often used by Third World dictators: When you are investigated, attack those doing the investigating.
In another example, Trump excoriated the CIA as unreliable (“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the Trump transition team said in a December statement.) Then, in a tweet, Trump compared the organization to Nazis. Can the CIA be left to its own devices should these criticisms be accurate? Surely not. Changes must be implemented. Heads must roll. Again, undermining intelligence organizations when they get a little too close to the truth is a tactic I have seen authoritarian strongmen use time and time again in the developing world.
Even in more developed Western democracies, politics certainly can be a contact sport. But generally there are accepted norms of behavior, as well as structural limits that even the strongest-willed leaders dare not violate. Political parties attack each other’s positions and, certainly, opposition politicians. But the Trump team has gone after its various enemies in a way that echoes some of the worst ethnic rivalries I witnessed in the Balkan wars.
Some of the fiercest Trump rhetoric has been directed, naturally, at the Democratic Party, but it also has targeted some inside the Republican Party, despite the fact that Trump is the ostensible leader of the GOP. In June 2017, Eric Trump called Democrats “not even people” and denounced the head of the Democratic Party as “a total whack job.” During the campaign, Trump made the now-infamous comment about John McCain not being a war hero, sniping, “I like people who weren’t captured.” The common defense that all this is no different than Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables” strengthens rather than weakens the point that American democracy is being degraded. These are the kinds of comments I can imagine being uttered by Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic, or former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
And then there is the press. The Western democratic tradition carves out a special place for a free press, and it is commonly viewed as a key, indispensable part of a healthy democracy. Leaders of Russia and several other countries in the former Soviet Union take a different approach, viewing news media as targets to be taken over and used for propaganda (think RT and Sputnik). When journalists in non-democratic countries go off script and criticize the government, they are imprisoned or simply killed.
Trump has not gone that far, but the rhetoric is not comforting. Trump recently tweeted, “Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up – FAKE!” Another tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” The “enemy of the people” line easily could have been lifted from Russia, China or any other authoritarian regime, and it is, of course, compelling because of the necessary conclusion that must be drawn. What must be done to the enemies of the American people? They must be destroyed. Common sense.
How did it come to pass that we now regularly see the ugly hallmarks of immature democracies in America? How did the United States, arguably the world’s oldest democracy, so quickly get to the point where our political discourse can reasonably be compared to that of Macedonia or Serbia or Venezuela or even Russia? How did we seemingly roll back our political system, over 200 years in the making, so suddenly?
It is an interesting irony of open societies that the very elements that make them so—free press, fair and open elections, a developed economy that allows for near-universal access to the internet and social media—are the same traits that can be manipulated to bring about significant political and social regression. Despite all of their advantages, modern open societies also can enable fringe elements that never would have gone mainstream only a few years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, America’s adversaries such as Russia have taken full advantage of Western freedoms, turning some of our strengths into vulnerabilities.
This is not to imply that less free speech and a more closed society would solve America’s political woes. That would be to follow the Russian model, where the government controls most of the media, and where opposition figures and journalists critical of Vladimir Putin are murdered.
What is required is leadership of a type currently lacking in the U.S.: politicians who are willing to define principled boundaries, who are—to use a popular phrase—willing to put country above party. The U.S. needs leaders who are willing to sacrifice professionally, and personally if need be, to stop the full tribalization of American politics and American society. It’s not about a politician’s views on abortion or LGBT issues or foreign affairs; it’s a much bigger, overarching issue: how to be a principled leader, how to disagree and then compromise … in short, how to act like a civilized, experienced statesman, and not like an adolescent.
In light of the firing of FBI Director James Comey, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden wrote, “It’s beginning to feel a little bit like Nicaragua around here.” Given his background, Hayden has seen his share of undemocratic regimes and their leaders. Hayden also reminded us that Americans cannot take the democratic freedoms we have enjoyed for so long for granted. He noted that democracy was not an end state that is achieved, but rather something requiring nurturing and feeding, lest it erode. He also opined that American democratic institutions are under attack from the Trump administration.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, another longtime intelligence officer, has echoed these concerns. I’m not sure whether Clapper’s own career in intelligence, and the exposure it gave him to less-developed democracies across the world, influences his views and his concerns, but I bet it does, just as it does Hayden’s. I don’t want to see America revert into the kind of places where I served most of my career, and while I won’t speak for them, I have a hunch Mike Hayden and Jim Clapper have similar feelings.
In the Balkans, as in other trouble spots around the world, you can find true tribalism: Serbs versus Bosniaks; ethnic Slavs versus Albanians; Rohingya versus Buddhists in Myanmar. One of the founding tenets of the American system of democracy is that we should minimize such differences in our own country, by attempting to integrate various minority groups, trying to level the playing field. We have had successes and failures in this struggle. We do not need leaders who seek to exacerbate differences among Americans; we need unifiers. Otherwise, we will continue the rollback of American democracy. This is not a Republican problem, or a Democratic problem. This is an American problem.
Donald Trump once memorably declared that some American airports look like they belong in the Third World. Our airports are the least of our worries. American democracy is what is now looking more and more Third World.