“See how futile and disastrous American democracy is,” Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, told a TV audience in Lebanon the other day. “It lacks the necessary checks, and this is how people like Trump get to power… This exposes the truth about American democracy, which they have tried to spread all over the world.”
From Beijing to Moscow, Tehran to Ankara, state autocrats and non-state terrorists will revel in America’s disarray in the aftermath of last week’s ugly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, denouncing American democracy and promoting their own government systems as better alternatives.
Making matters worse was that last week’s mayhem (and prospects of more to come in Washington and at state capitals in the coming days) was the culmination of a presidency that cozied up to dictators abroad while threatening, and at times violating, democratic norms at home.
But those who believe that the United States suffered an indelible black eye that should undermine all pretensions to promote freedom and democracy for the foreseeable future are wrong. In fact – now more than ever – with democracy on its heels around the world and a new U.S. president about to take office, America should reclaim its moral voice on the world stage.
It is both doable and necessary.
As many have noted, last week’s mayhem marked the first physical attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812. But that misses the far larger and more important picture: that the messiness of America’s ongoing quest to create a “more perfect union” has often provided fodder for our global adversaries.
Throughout the post-war period, when America assumed its role in leading the free world, presidents and diplomats have struggled to defend the nation at times of racial and anti-war protest that turned bloody, raging crime that turned cities into war zones, poverty and homelessness in the midst of unprecedented plenty, and other social maladies that were easy to see.
Rather than downplay such problems, America’s leaders acknowledged them, stressed the nation’s efforts to address them, and used those efforts as a springboard to promote American freedom and democracy.
As President Kennedy put it as he stood before the Berlin Wall, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
For President-elect Biden, the task ahead is two-fold:
First, he must restore democracy promotion as a central element of U.S. foreign policy, which it has been for most presidents of the post-war period. On this front, he’s making a noticeably good start.
Biden has promised to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world” and to “organize and host” a global Summit for Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose” of the free world. Since his electoral victory, he has talked often about America leading “not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Moreover, Biden’s team revealed, he plans to create a new senior position at his National Security Council to focus on democracy and human rights – which means that someone will have day-to-day responsibility to ensure that those issues are considered when Biden is making decisions on foreign policy.
Second, Biden must take steps to strengthen American democracy at home, both to address the legitimate concerns of millions and remind the world that a free and democratic America remains a work in progress.
All-too-many African Americans believe that, with the death of George Floyd and others in confrontations with police, the justice system remains stacked against them. All-too-many rural Americans believe that the incoming Democratic majority neither understands nor cares about their concerns.
Meanwhile, conservatives fear that rather than merely restricting voices that incite violence, Facebook and other technology giants are shuttering social media platforms explicitly because they air conservative views. Rather than cleanse the public square of ugly rhetoric, that will inflame passions on the right.
All told, the future of U.S. democracy promotion can be bright if Biden turns the events of recent days to his advantage. That might even prove an effort around which both parties can come together.
As Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, put it, “America’s great-power competitors and assorted petty tyrants would like nothing more than for the United States to step back from international leadership because U.S. foreign policy elites are preoccupied with their country’s deficiencies. President-elect Biden will have Republican support for a foreign policy that confronts authoritarians abroad and rallies the world’s great democracies for the contest of systems that lies ahead.”
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.