On September 23, the US State Department announced that the US would no longer recognize Aleksandr Lukashenko as the legitimate President of Belarus after he refused to hand over power to his opponent after a fraudulent election. On the same day, US President Donald Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition after the November 3rd US presidential election.
The timing was more than awkward, as was the apparent double standard. In a world already characterized by competition between political models, dictators and autocrats feel the wind in their backs. Dysfunctional US domestic democracy makes it less credible to support liberalism abroad – at a time when freedom continues on more than a decade of retreat around the world. If the world needs the United States to support democracy, the country is deeply divided over its own strength. Without a quick fix, this points to problems for what has long been a core element of US foreign policy.
And it remains a core element despite Trump's statements and behavior. Take a look at almost every week of diplomatic activity in the US and you will see the democracy promotion thread run through them. For example, on October 6, officials from the Foreign Ministry held a human rights dialogue with Vietnam, in which they emphasized the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion. Two days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement on the upcoming elections in several African countries, noting that "there is no place for (r) oppression and intimidation in democracies". On October 9, the United States sanctioned Nicaragua's attorney general for setting up cases against political prisoners, while the State Department pledged to "reserve and on the achievements of democratization and human rights in Afghanistan as a necessary condition for a sustainable stance." build "peace."
These diplomatic efforts – and many others like them – run parallel to similar efforts by democracy-promoting organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy. With budgets well funded by a supporting US Congress, the efforts of these local organizations to monitor elections, conduct elections, help build political parties, and strengthen the democratic process remain vital. Even in a Trump administration, support for overseas democracy remains a hallmark of US foreign policy.
Quite a few foreign observers, however, might ask Americans to pull out the plank in their own eye before attempting to remove the stain in another. Trump has not only refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, but has repeatedly stated that the elections themselves will be fraudulent. He has insisted that the Attorney General indict Trump's political opponents, tweeted that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was "not allowed to walk," and argued that former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton "should be in jail." This is not exactly a firm embrace of the democratic process.
It is also not new and follows years of undemocratic statements and behavior. Trump has denounced the free press as an "enemy of the people", claims the US Constitution gives him "the right to do what I want as President," and made many other statements showing a disdain for democratic norms. The gaps in the democratic armament of the United States go well beyond the rhetoric of the President: the government has closed twice in the past three years; Politicians now not only disagree on the candidates for the Supreme Court, but also on the right number of judges in the court. As the nation is hit by the coronavirus pandemic, its chief infectious disease expert is under protection from death threats. A militia was caught kidnapping the governor of Michigan, and this year's protests against Black Lives Matter show once again that the country has fallen far short of its founding ideals. With this in mind, one might wonder what rights the United States has in demanding democracy and freedom in other countries.
However, a sense of perspective is appropriate. For all its shortcomings, the US system of government is very different from that of the world's autocracies and other illiberal regimes. The US president may denounce the press, but the press gives back as good as it gets. Millions of Americans already vote freely. Protests against police violence could not have taken place in China, Iran or Venezuela. With luck, there will be a peaceful change of power after the elections. There are always inconsistencies in American democracy – but it always remains far better than non-democratic alternatives. The key is to fix the bugs and not lose confidence in the project.
Some actually lose confidence in the democratic project. Freedom House recently found that the global pandemic had fueled a so-called "democracy crisis" and found that conditions for democracy and human rights have deteriorated in 80 countries. COVID-19 has led to abuse of power and an excuse for governments to silence critics, weaken institutions and undermine systems of accountability. After 14 years of consecutive decline in global freedom, as measured by Freedom House, democracy must be strengthened today.
The Trump administration's own national defense strategy rightly states that China and Russia are working to shape the world on their authoritarian model. By undermining democratic alliances and meddling in the domestic politics of major democracies, Beijing and Moscow seek not only to defend their political systems, but also to gain a strategic advantage in their rivalry with the United States. To withstand these efforts, the United States must protect its own democracy and support it abroad – for example in Belarus, Ethiopia and Hong Kong.
Americans have long debated whether to try to influence the internal affairs of other countries. As Secretary of State 200 years ago, John Quincy Adams was known for the fact that the United States should not offer active support for liberal ends but should lead with "the benevolent sympathy of its example". On the other hand, former President George W. Bush pledged the United States to support the growth of democratic movements “in every nation and culture”.
Despite all the differences, both approaches – the United States as a model for democracy or as a maid for it – rely on a healthy democracy at home that is now in balance. Political dysfunction casts doubt on Washington's ability to run the free world, undermines US credibility in supporting liberal institutions abroad, and makes the democratic model less attractive. It also lends ammunition to those promoting autocratic alternatives, such as Moscow and Beijing.
Today, US politicians and foreign policy experts increasingly hear from their international counterparts that, instead of trying to teach the world about democracy, the United States would do well to learn from others: from Estonia about protecting its democracy; from the Russian disinformation; from Taiwan on addressing a public health crisis without totalitarian controls; or from South Korea about holding elections during the pandemic. It is good to learn these lessons – but US foreign policy is strongest when the nation's democracy works well enough to teach its own positive lessons.
Even if the United States sees a drama-free election and a smooth transition in power, and Trump gives way to the more democratic Biden, the country will still have a lot to do to cement its political, economic, and political goals on social foundations. However, the world will not wait for the US to perfect itself. Washington must now stand up again to defend liberalism and freedom.
Of course, as IRI President Daniel Twining puts it, activists seeking rights and freedoms in places like Hong Kong and Belarus do so for their own reasons – not all of them are about the fate of the United States. Still, US support has been shown to have made a difference in the past and will continue to make a difference in the future, especially once the credibility of US democracy is restored.
If 2020 did not mark the peak of democratic practice in the US, there is no reason to lose confidence in promoting democracy as a core element of US foreign policy. On the contrary, recent experiences should be a spur: for both itself and the world, the United States should prefer to support democracy abroad rather than shake its foundations domestically.