Argument

America Can’t Promote Democracy Abroad. It Can’t Even Protect It at Home.

Wednesday’s failed insurrection shows how the global ambitions of foreign-policy elites are divorced from reality—and undermined by domestic dysfunction.

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen through a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen through a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The jokes were funny, until they weren’t.

“What if journalists wrote about U.S. politics the way they wrote about other countries?” asked a dozen tongue-in-cheek articles since 2016. Twitter users joked about the embattled president of a former British colony, huddling in his palace, refusing to concede the election. But all of that ended Wednesday afternoon, when a violent mob rushed past U.S. Capitol Police and invaded Congress, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and ending with tear gas, gunfire, and at least four deaths. The pictures called to mind Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank, the Arab Spring, or the streets of Venezuela. For those watching around the world, the United States had become what American leaders so often decried: a weak democracy unable to prevent violence and bloodshed from marring the transition of power from one leader to the next.

It’s a sign of how broken U.S. foreign-policy debates are that the primary reaction from many commentators was to worry about America’s moral authority and global leadership. There were comments about how happy China’s Xi Jinping must be and worries that this would undermine U.S. democracy promotion abroad. Michael McFaul, a former Obama-era ambassador to Moscow, tweeted that “Trump today delivered his latest, but hopefully his last gift to Putin.” Meanwhile, a group of NGOs, including the National Endowment for Democracy, issued a statement reaffirming its “commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values.” In short: in the middle of a literal coup attempt aimed at halting the certification of a democratic election, with insurrectionists storming the Capitol, many foreign-policy hands were fretting about whether the United States could continue to spread democracy and human rights abroad and whether it might impact America’s ability to engage in great-power competition with China.

The United States has bigger problems than an inability to promote democracy around the world.To call these reactions out of touch would be an understatement. At this point, the United States has bigger problems than an inability to promote democracy around the world or worrying about an ambitious global competition with China. U.S. domestic politics are staggering under the weight of decades of partisan abuse, and while most institutions have so far proved resilient, there is no guarantee they’ll stand up to the next autocratic wannabe. Almost the only institution that retains the trust of the American people is the military, a distinction that carries its own worrying implications.

Wednesday’s violence will certainly impact the United States’ global image, although the last four years under Donald Trump have done plenty of damage already. And while it is certainly true that the political turmoil that has engulfed the country since November will make it harder for the United States to build an international coalition against China, it’s hard to see why U.S. policymakers are prioritizing rallying an ambitious and poorly defined “alliance of democracies” to push back against China, rather than trying to stop the bleeding at home.

To be clear, this is not a call for America to retreat from the world; the United States benefits hugely from global engagement. But Wednesday’s crisis lays bare a central flaw with U.S. foreign policy today: Ambitious foreign-policy goals are completely out of step with the realities of the country’s domestic political and economic dysfunction.

[To read FP’s ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, click here.]

How can anyone expect—as Joe Biden’s campaign promised—to “restore responsible American leadership on the world stage” if Americans cannot even govern themselves at home? How can the United States spread democracy or act as an example for others if it barely has a functioning democracy at home? Washington’s foreign-policy elites remain committed to the preservation of a three-decade foreign policy aimed at reshaping the world in America’s image. They are far too blasé about what that image has become in 2020.

Even the projects that have been undertaken since 2016 focusing on the intersection between domestic and foreign politics—such as this recent Carnegie Endowment project—have mostly focused on ways to either sell the country’s existing foreign policy to the American people or fix trade and investment policies so that the middle class benefits more. In reality, what is needed is a wholesale rethinking of foreign policy, a more modest and humble approach to the world, and an attempt to address the real problems created by domestic dysfunction.

Wednesday’s insurrection increases the likelihood that other countries will start to see the United States as a risk factor in the international system.Wednesday’s insurrection worsens two concrete foreign-policy problems for the United States. First, it will increase the likelihood that other governments will be wary of any binding commitments or in-depth cooperation with the United States. Four years of Trump have already convinced countries in Europe and Asia that U.S. commitments may not be worth the paper they are written on, particularly in an increasingly partisan environment. The Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Paris climate accords were all victims of a shift to a more partisan, seesaw form of foreign policy. This week’s violence in Washington and the broader political turmoil since the November election have added to those concerns that future U.S. elections may not even be free and fair.

Second, it increases the likelihood that other countries will start to see the United States as a risk factor in the international system rather than a stabilizer. There is something to this fear: U.S. actions in the Middle East since 2001 helped to destabilize it, contributing to Europe’s refugee crises. U.S. sanctions policy has often been costly and unpopular with other countries. And the Trump administration’s brinkmanship over the last few years—with Iran, North Korea, and even with China—has been far more destabilizing than stabilizing. The risk of a U.S. leadership untethered from public scrutiny, or a nation that retains a massively powerful military while its domestic politics become ever more erratic and undemocratic, is one that other countries cannot take lightly.

It has been clear for months that the United States is reeling from a bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic; a flailing, bifurcating economy; and a deeply divisive form of partisan politics. Still, Wednesday’s violence was a shock. An insurrection at the heart of the U.S. government, even if unsuccessful, will leave lasting scars. But Washington’s foreign-policy community is doing itself no favors by responding to a presidentially sanctioned coup attempt with a panic about moral authority and great-power competition, particularly when the real foreign-policy implications are bigger and more dangerous than the question of whether Washington will be able to stage a successful summit of democracies this spring.

A more modest, realistic set of foreign-policy goals would better reflect our troubled times and would allow Americans to redirect their energy at home. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, when it comes to foreign policy, Washington’s elites need to stop asking themselves whether their pet projects will be undermined by this week’s crises. They should instead be asking themselves whether it’s time to change those priorities.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

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