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Democracy is in retreat in the U.S. and around the world, report finds. What happened?

The United States is becoming less engaged in the world in order to focus on fixing problems at home, but that shift is creating a power vacuum that will be filled by countries that don’t share U.S. values, according to Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

Kasich and Albright talked to the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff about a report released Tuesday by democracy advocacy group Freedom House, which says democracy worldwide today “finds itself battered and weakened,” a trend it has reported for the past 12 years. It noted this year a “striking” withdrawal by the United States due to the Trump administration’s “America First” stance.

(Read the full report here.)

“When we withdraw from trade agreements in the Pacific, the Chinese have an advantage. When we insult people in Africa, it means the Chinese have more ability to have sway [decisions]. When we are not working with our allies and making unilateral decisions, it begins to undermine the strength of NATO,” Kasich said.

“These are things that are very, very concerning not just to me, but to people around the world,” he added.

“America is better off and Americans are better off if other countries are democracies,” Albright said, because countries with crumbling governments can be petri dishes for terrorism and instability.

Other highlights from the conversation:

On “America First”:

“I think that’s very short sighted,” Kaisch said of the desire to “withdraw, take care of ourselves.” “I don’t think that’s the fundamental problem,” he added. “But I think that was the reaction here. And the danger is, when the United States of America withdraws, it creates a vacuum, and the vacuum today is not being filled by people that we share our values with.”

On Russian interference in the 2016 elections:

“The thing that troubles me is [Russia] did get involved in our election process and it’s gotten so personal here that we have not really been investigating enough what they’ve been doing in Europe,” Albright said.

On the immigration debate:

“I know people want strong borders. I know they want immigration reform. I am for strong borders and immigration, but we cannot project an image that we don’t love our friends and our neighbors who are part of our culture. It’s just not right,” Kasich said, adding he hoped Congress could reach an agreement on immigration this week.

Watch the full interview in the player above.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017. That is the stark verdict of an annual report from Freedom House, a Washington-based democracy promotion and human rights organization.

    The report charts a 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, analyzing whether countries hold free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law.

    The freest nations on Earth, according to the analysis, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The least free? Syria and South Sudan.

    The report says the United States remains a vibrant democracy, and free. But if — there was a further erosion of American political institutions, continuing a seven-year trend.

    To discuss the findings, I spoke earlier today with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton, and with Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich.

    I asked him what has happened in this country that has led it, according to the report, to retreat from being a champion of democracy.

  • Gov. John Kasich:

    Well, I think, Judy, that people are thinking about the problems inside of our country.

    To me, that’s part of the reason why President Trump was elected. People were saying, look, I don’t have much income. My kid graduated from college. They have debt. They can’t get a job. And it’s somebody else’s fault out there in the world, so, therefore, we need to withdraw, take care of ourselves.

    I think that’s very shortsighted. I don’t think that’s the fundamental problem. But I think that was the reaction here. And the danger is, when the United States of America withdraws, it creates a vacuum, and the vacuum today is not being filled by people that we share our values with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     But I think, Secretary Albright, it’s hard for people to believe that the United States, which was the beacon of democracy around the world, is now described as a place in retreat when it comes to democracy. What are the specifics that’s led to this?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    I think that the problem is that — just as the governor said, is that people say, why should we worry about other countries, we need to worry about America.

    And that whole America-first stuff, I think, has made that a more likely policy to follow, when, in fact, what we have to show is that America is better off and Americans are better off if other countries are democracies, because those other countries that are in decline are basically petri dishes for those people that hate us and terrorism and various problems that come from just people being on the move.

    So, I think we have come to this because — and I hate to say this — is because there has been leadership that has exacerbated divisions,and not those where we’re trying to find common ground.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Divisions.

    And, Governor Kasich, I mean, the report refers to violations of ethical standards at the highest levels in the U.S. government.

  • Gov. John Kasich:

    Yes, I mean, there’s parts of that report I think are really kind of silly, Judy.

    To say that we have lost our freedom because the president didn’t release his taxes, but yet he complied with the law, to me is really silly. Look, we’re all concerned about the attacks on the press, but the press is resilient.

    Frankly, the press is more aggressive today than I can remember it in a long time. I’m not worried about the United States in terms of our basic freedoms.

    What I am worried is, when we withdraw from trade agreements in the Pacific, the Chinese have an advantage. When we insult people in Africa, it means the Chinese have more ability to have sway. When we are not working with our allies and making unilateral decisions, it begins to undermine the strength of NATO.

    These are things that are very, very concerning, not just to me, but to people around the world. Now, again, I think these institutions are pretty darn strong, but you can’t take anything for granted here in the 21st century.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Secretary Albright, you were telling me earlier your main concern is when it looks at what the Russians are doing.

  • Madeleine Albright:

     The thing that troubles me is, they did get involved in our election process, and it’s gotten so personal here that we have not really been investigating enough what they have been doing in Europe and what their plans might be for 2018 in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, at a time when we’re…

  • Gov. John Kasich:

    Hey, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, go ahead, Governor.

  • Gov. John Kasich:

    Secretary Albright made a point here about a week ago that I thought was spot on, and that is this reinforcing of polarization, the breakdown of our political leaders able to reach any consensus on anything is — you know, it’s just — it’s destroying people’s confidence in the ability of our government to make decisions that are in the best interests of the public, and not in the best interests of political parties.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to pick up on what you said, Governor, about polarization, because what we’re seeing is a divide not just between the two parties, but right now within your party, the Republican Party, over immigration.

    How do you see that divide getting resolved in your own party?

  • Gov. John Kasich:

    Well, Judy, look, we — everybody, every American believes we have to protect our borders. That’s a given.

    But to take 800,000 people who were brought here as kids and to say that we’re going to systematically engage in an effort to ship them out of the country, or even the El Salvadorans, where that country is not ready to accept these people.

    You have President Bush and President Obama both saying they gave waivers, so those people could stay. And when you study this, you see that many of those folks are terrorized about the notion if they go home. Many of them fear for their lives.

    We need to have a policy that goes through the windshield, not through the rear-view mirror, and begin to punish people, and maybe that’s a strong word, but to do things to disrupt them once they are fully integrated in our society, and they have been, you know, law-abiding people.

    Judy, there is one other element of this that I thought about over the last few days. You know, the Republican Party says it’s a party of the family. But we need to strengthen all families. I also think that we’re all made in the image of the lord. And when we treat these people as somehow numbers or goals, without thinking of them as people, we fall short as a nation.

    And I know people want strong borders. I know they want immigration reform. I’m for — I am for strong borders and immigration, but we cannot project an image that we don’t love our friends and our neighbors who are part of our culture. It’s just not right.

    And I hope they will resolve this here in the next week or so. I don’t understand the holdup. Think about the way you want your family to be treated. And if they think that way, we maybe get a better result.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary Albright, as somebody who has looked at not only global issues, but knows how the United States is seen around the rest of the world, how much difference does it make in the United States’ ability to get done what it wants to get done how it resolves an issue like immigration?

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Well, I think that people know and they have seen the United States as a country that is welcoming, that understands diversity, that has the Statue of Liberty, and that really we are the kind of country that understands that we have to be diverse. That’s the strength of America.

    And I think that when the president makes statements that basically makes a whole set of people feel inferior, it undermines our policy. And what’s been so interesting is to watch stories about how our ambassadors now have to try to explain what is going on. And it undermines America’s image.

    And let me just say there are people who say, who cares about our image? What we care about — and I think is right — it’s the job of every president to protect our people and our territory and our way of life. And that can only happen if we have good relationships with other countries, because we can’t do everything alone.

    So, it undermines America’s strength and it makes it more difficult for our people to be protected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Governor Kasich, last night on the program, I interviewed Peter Wehner, a longtime conservative, a longtime Republican, who said, to him, it’s extremely painful to watch what’s happened, what the president has said in the last few days.

    What about you, as a lifelong Republican, to watch this?

  • Gov. John Kasich:

    I have already said that he should apologize. It was outrageous.

    And Peter Wehner, it’s interesting, because he’s talked about the war inside of people of faith, particularly in the Christian movement, a war within — I mean a war, but maybe a debate is a better term — about what evangelicals are all about, what Christians are all about.

    And, to me, as a person of faith — and, look, I fail all the time, but I will tell you what it’s about. It’s about love. It’s about caring. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about compassion. And that’s America. And when we lose that, we could lose our soul. I don’t believe we will.

    Finally, how about Secretary Albright? She’s iconic. She’s contributed a great amount to this country, and I am privileged to always spend time with her. She’s terrific.

  • Madeleine Albright:

    Thank you, Governor.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And on that note, we thank both of you.

    Secretary Madeleine Albright, Governor John Kasich, thank you both.

  • Madeleine Albright:

    You bet. Thank you.

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