By Fareed Zakaria
At first glance, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump might seem to be a specifically and narrowly American matter. But if you look around the world, you see that it is part of a deeply worrying global trend. In country after country, we are witnessing an unprecedented wave of attacks on the constitutions, institutions, norms and values that have given democracy strength and meaning.
Consider what happened in a recent week around the world as Congress debated charges against President Trump. In India, the world’s largest democracy, the ruling party passed an unprecedented citizenship bill that privileges certain religions over others, namely Islam, a move that has been widely criticized by human rights groups and described by one Indian intellectual as “a giant step to officially convert a constitutional democracy into a[n] unconstitutional ethnocracy.”
This follows on the heels of an initiative by the same Hindu nationalist movement in one Indian state, seemingly aimed at Muslims, that stripped 2 million residents of citizenship on the grounds that they didn’t have sufficient documentary proof — in a country where most people have few written records. The government has begun building prisons in which to incarcerate these dispossessed people.
Israel, which boasts of being a stable democracy in a sea of dictatorships, appears paralyzed and polarized as it heads into its third election in a year. More disturbing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his party have launched an extraordinarily vicious attack on the Israeli justice system, which they claim has been plotting against him. In fact, Netanyahu faces indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust because the attorney general, who is from Netanyahu’s party and was chosen by Netanyahu, was following existing laws and procedures. Yet the prime minister and his followers accuse prosecutors and police of engineering an “attempted coup” against him.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has spoken openly about building an “illiberal democracy,” has pushed for laws to make it harder for opposition lawmakers to band together and to protest legislation. He has also moved to curtail the power of local governments after his party suffered a severe setback in municipal elections.
At the International Court of Justice, nearly 30 years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a pro-democracy dissident, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi staunchly defended her government against charges of genocide against its Muslim minority, the Rohingya. In 2017, a military crackdown against the Rohingya led 700,000 of them to flee for their lives into bordering Bangladesh. United Nations investigators found evidence of mass murder, gang rape and arson, with “genocidal intent.” The U.S. has since slapped sanctions on several of Myanmar’s senior military leaders.
And this is all just in one week! If you broaden the lens, we are living through what Stanford’s Larry Diamond has called a “democratic recession.” Except it might be turning into a depression. For 13 consecutive years now, the international human rights watchdog group Freedom House has registered a decline in global freedom — fair elections, free press, individual and minority rights, etc. Freedom House has long monitored democracy in far-flung places, so one of its key findings in 2018 was unusual: “The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.”
This is the context in which to consider America’s impeachment crisis. The facts of the case are blindingly clear. Trump pressured the new Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, as described in sworn testimony by 17 witnesses, many of them sitting senior government officials, with each person’s account confirming the others’ — and emails, texts and the call transcript further documenting it all. The Republicans’ defense is that this elaborate campaign to help Trump’s reelection was actually a big misunderstanding. Trump had never asked for it; these officials, working feverishly for months across continents, were all simultaneously deluded. Call it the Walter Mitty defense.
In fact, the real defense is offense. Last week the president called members of the FBI “scum” and Attorney General William Barr dismissed the conclusions of the Justice Department’s own inspector general. The president and his followers now routinely attack the Foreign Service, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. The White House has refused to honor congressional subpoenas or document requests to an extent unprecedented in American history.
Across the democratic world, the institutions of liberty and law are under attack. If they give way, the fraying democratic fabric of our societies will ultimately tear apart.
Fareed Zakaria’s email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group