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The Mueller Report Is a Test for the United States

As the world looks on, it’s up to Washington to demonstrate the strength of its institutions.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Photographers outside the U.S. Justice Department in Washington on March 22, after special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Photographers outside the U.S. Justice Department in Washington on March 22, after special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

There’s no question that the primary audience for U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report, which he delivered to the Justice Department on Friday, is a domestic one. But around the world, foreign ministries and intelligence services will be watching how the United States responds to the findings for clues about the country’s strength.

While Russia’s successful intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior and manifest ignorance have already diminished any sense that the United States was immune to the vulnerabilities associated with demagogic populism that have strained other countries, the institutions of U.S. democracy have nonetheless held up reasonably well—so far. The reception of the Mueller report will be a test of those institutions and Americans’ level of faith in and commitment to them.

Let us acknowledge at the outset: In most other countries, the very idea of creating a genuinely independent special counsel would be as preposterous as the idea of riding a unicorn. In most places, the rule of law and independent institutions are not strong enough to withstand the political pressure of a leader attempting to avoid investigation. On this count, Mueller’s apparently diligent and professional handling of the process has likely impressed adversaries and reassured allies.

There’s no question that the primary audience for U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report, which he delivered to the Justice Department on Friday, is a domestic one. But around the world, foreign ministries and intelligence services will be watching how the United States responds to the findings for clues about the country’s strength.

While Russia’s successful intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior and manifest ignorance have already diminished any sense that the United States was immune to the vulnerabilities associated with demagogic populism that have strained other countries, the institutions of U.S. democracy have nonetheless held up reasonably well—so far. The reception of the Mueller report will be a test of those institutions and Americans’ level of faith in and commitment to them.

Let us acknowledge at the outset: In most other countries, the very idea of creating a genuinely independent special counsel would be as preposterous as the idea of riding a unicorn. In most places, the rule of law and independent institutions are not strong enough to withstand the political pressure of a leader attempting to avoid investigation. On this count, Mueller’s apparently diligent and professional handling of the process has likely impressed adversaries and reassured allies.

Now that his report has been delivered, it’s up to the United States to demonstrate strength on two main measures.

First, the domestic challenge: The attorney general and Congress should proceed according to U.S. laws and the Constitution (and their sworn duty to uphold it) in dealing with Mueller’s conclusions. The institutions of justice must follow the findings of Mueller’s report, not the president’s Twitter feed. Members of Congress should focus their efforts to examine the report’s findings and their implications through formal proceedings rather than through cable news appearances.

This is not to say that there should not be public discussion of the report: It will almost surely be released or leaked, and there will be a public debate about its findings. And the report is not the final word on these matters; other investigations continue and Congress has an ongoing oversight responsibility. But in response to Mueller’s findings, U.S. institutions must do their work and must be allowed to do so.

The eyes of the world will focus on whether Washington has kept to a rule of law process in addition to the inevitable political one. Furthermore, many observers may ultimately find themselves disappointed by the outcome of such a process. The world will judge them by whether they can separate that disappointment from their commitment to uphold the function of the institutions themselves.

Second, the foreign-policy challenge: To the extent that Mueller’s report adds new information to the already overwhelming and conclusive evidence of foreign intervention in the 2016 election, there must be additional consequences for implicated actors. Beijing will be watching. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be watching from Pyongyang. The failure to mete out consequences will invite further foreign intervention. In addition, the United States must take purposeful, strategic action, some of it visible to would-be adversaries, to counter the threat of intervention in the 2020 elections. Mueller’s report may give Americans additional information on how foreign powers were able to sabotage a U.S. election. This may help supplement the good ideas that have already been put forward about how to protect the next one.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime will be watching this process especially closely. While on the one hand Putin and his cronies may be most concerned with findings that implicate them and could bring further consequences, the Russian leader will be watching the U.S. domestic process closely, too. And he will be looking to have his cynicism confirmed.

Even after years of working with Russian officials—when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, I may have been the only U.S. official to have a standing weekly meeting with my Russian counterpart—I still found myself taken aback at the depth and consistency of the cynicism that Russian officials would express in private. “None of this matters—it’s all theater that doesn’t matter,” one of them once told me; he was referring to diplomacy. He thought those of us trying to solve problems were cute (and not in a good way). Those officials never believed that we really believed in concepts like human rights or the rule of law. They thought that because they had a dark and zero-sum outlook on human relations, everyone else did, too. A commitment to institutions and universal principles was, in their view, all theater.

Cynics purport to look down on idealists. They derive self-satisfaction from the hypocrisy of others. But when U.S. institutions work as they are intended to work and defend the rule of law—that unnerves the cynics. It reminds them that their mediocrity and moral cowardice is a trap in which they are caught. The world is watching how the United States responds to the Mueller report. Let’s give the cynics reason for self-doubt.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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