- By Reuben BrigetyReuben Brigety is dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2013 to 2015, he served as the U.S. ambassador to the African Union and U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. Previously he served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and also for population, refugees, and migration. He is the author of "Ethics, Technology, and the American Way of War."
South African police officer: “Where are you from?”
Me: “The United States.”
Police officer: “How is your president doing?”
Me: “About as good as yours.”
Police officer: [Laughs and gives a knowing nod]
Such was a conversation I had in Durban, South Africa, last week on the margins of the World Economic Forum. The country is in political turmoil, and arguably on the brink of a constitutional crisis, due to the multiple corruption scandals surrounding President Jacob Zuma and the competition to succeed him as leader of the African National Congress.
That the president of the United States could so easily become the punchline of a joke by effectively equating him with the embattled president of South Africa — a country that is still in the early stages of its democratic experience — is a damning indictment of the current respect for American democracy abroad.
And that was before Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
American democracy is facing its greatest threat in at least a generation. The possibility of Russian collusion with Trump’s team to undermine the 2016 presidential campaign is deeply troubling and must be thoroughly explored. If such illicit links exist between the Trump White House and the government of Russia, it would suggest much more than the undermining of the American democratic process. It would mean that the president of the United States himself could be compromised by a foreign power, a situation that is intolerable for our country. The only way to get to the bottom of this situation is for Congress to pass legislation with a veto-proof majority to authorize a special prosecutor forthwith to investigate the matter thoroughly.
The basis for an independent investigation by a special prosecutor are plain for all to see. All 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have unanimously agreed that the Kremlin sought to influence the 2016 presidential elections for the purpose of hurting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Michael Flynn has set the record for shortest tenure of any national security advisor for his failure to disclose contacts with Russian officials, as well as for his failure to be transparent about payments he received from the government of Russia to deliver a speech. Trump has steadfastly refused to release his tax returns, preventing the public from knowing if there are any financial linkages between his business interests and any Russian business people. The need for an independent investigation is now made all the more urgent by the dismissal of FBI Director Comey, who is the third senior justice department official (including former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara) to be fired who also happened to be involved in investigating the president.
If a similar pattern of events had occurred in an African or Latin American country, the U.S. government would rightly raise concerns about the integrity of its democratic elections and the strength of its rule of law. That these events are playing out in the United States, while the whole world watches aghast, is doing enormous damage to our reputation abroad, to the detriment of our ability to shape world events according to our interests and our values.
I have spent my professional life working on matters of governance, human rights, and conflict resolution around the world. Accordingly, I am certain that the greatest weapon in America’s arsenal in its global fight against tyranny and oppression is not the size of its economy or the might of its military. It is the power of its example. When I was an American diplomat urging African interlocutors to respect the provisions of their constitutions, my position was strengthened by the international respect for our own constitutional order. As a human rights worker, I saw fellow activists in Central Asia and Eastern Europe take extraordinary risks to demand respect for the rule of law in their own countries in part because they saw the impact of the rule of law in America.
Without the powerful example of our democratic ideals in practice, the United States would be just another country, with an economy and a military that happened to be larger than most. It would not be, as Ronald Reagan famously said, a “shining city on a hill” whose commitment to freedom and democracy inspired allies and aspirants around the world. Conversely, the failure to adhere to our democratic values at home comes at tangible cost to our ability to advance our interests abroad. It is emboldening some African political elites, for example, to openly question whether or not democracy is just a “Western import” that is incompatible with “African culture.” It weakens our ability to persuade hostile factions in Libya or Venezuela to make governing concessions to each other. Our ability to help negotiate peace and to support the rule of law abroad is directly tied to our commitment to good governance and the rule of law at home. We cannot “help make the world safe for democracy,” in the immortal words of President Woodrow Wilson, if we do not first ensure the credibility of democracy in the United States.
The essential step to restoring faith in American democracy is authorizing an independent investigation into the president’s ties to the government of Russia. For that to happen, members of Congress must put aside their partisan differences and insist that such an investigation proceed where the facts may lead. In the current environment, cynical Americans doubt that such bipartisan cooperation is possible on even the most mundane of issues, let alone on a matter as sensitive as this. Yet putting the good of the nation above factional interests is precisely what we have asked of countries around the world to do time and again.
From the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the genocidal conflict in Bosnia to the Naivasha Agreement that stopped the Second Sudanese Civil War, the United States has appealed to hostile parties to put the good of their people ahead of their other differences. If war-torn countries can bridge the divides that led to the death of so many of their citizens, then surely our leaders can put aside partisan advantage for the sake of ensuring the integrity of our democracy. Conversely, if our leaders cannot rise to the significance of this historical moment, then we will be ill-positioned to ask leaders in other countries to do the same.
When I became a United States ambassador, I swore an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” It is the same oath that members of Congress take upon assuming office. If ever there were a time for them to fulfill their obligation to protect the Constitution against a foreign enemy, that time is now. Whether or not they do so will have profound implications not only for the state of our democracy, but also for our standing in the world.
Photo credit: MARK WILSOM/Getty Images