A Chastened America Will Be Better at Preaching Abroad
There’s never been a better time for the United States to promote democracy around the world.
It’s known as Bloody Thursday. As with last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol, it was sparked by a last-ditch attempt to subvert an election, this time in North Macedonia. Fearing prosecution should he lose power, an unscrupulous autocrat, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, urged his supporters to stop parliamentarians from “stealing their country.” As demonstrators grew in number and anger, Gruevski’s elected loyalists impeded the opposition leader, Zoran Zaev, from forming a government. When Zaev finally surmounted the last obstacles to ousting Gruevski, a mob of self-described patriots stormed Parliament, brandishing flags, wreaking havoc, and attacking Zaev and other so-called traitors. Blood spilled from Zaev’s face as he was repeatedly struck. Belatedly riot police expelled the mob.
The comparison between the April 27, 2017 assault on the Macedonian Parliament and last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol is as fair as it is humbling. One of the oldest and definitely the most powerful republic now shares the ignominy of a violent, failed putsch with a small Balkans country. But there is one important difference between the two incidents. No Macedonian officials will come to Washington (as American officials successfully did in Skopje) to advise them on how to pick up the pieces and move forward with their democracy.
Instead, the United States is offered worried encouragement from allies, and schadenfraude from Russia and China. Reveling in the Capitol Hill chaos, Moscow and Beijing have asked how the United States can support so-called color revolutions or protesters in Hong Kong when it repudiates anti-government “protesters” who attack the Capitol. People of goodwill in the Balkans and around the world, including in America, are also asking whether the United States has standing to preach democracy anymore. Can America promote democracy if the Capitol, the symbol of its democracy, is in tatters?
The answer is yes. Washington can and must continue to promote democracy, even as it rebuilds its own badly fraying model. The United States cannot afford to give up its role as a leader and proponent of democracy out of an exaggerated—and spurious—sense of humility. Outgoing President Donald Trump has weakened its democracy and, paradoxically, revealed some surprising strengths. These examples of resilience are what distinguish it from the likes of North Macedonia and its neighbors in the Balkans and across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, as well as in Africa and Asia. A closer examination shows that the United States, chastened by its brush with democratic disaster, is better poised to advocate for reform around the globe.
First, in 2020, the American people voted in record numbers not just to defeat the illiberal candidate, but to endorse the pro-democracy candidate. It’s critical to remember that President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, from its first day, was framed as a stark choice of values—not just of policies, prosperity or competence. Consistently rebuffing Democrats who urged him to reprise the winning 2018 congressional campaign formula of pocketbook issues and health care, Biden resolutely stuck with “fight for the soul of the nation” as his cri de coeur.
COVID, health care, racial and economic equality figured prominently in his appeal, but Biden framed them all in the essential task for any democracy: overcoming division. Just a month before the election, Biden went to Gettysburg to give the biggest speech of his campaign. Using the iconic Lincolnesque backdrop, Biden returned to the same example that launched his pursuit of the presidency: the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Eighty-one million votes later, Biden—and the country—can claim a mandate to repudiate authoritarianism, division, and bigotry, and to affirm core democratic values.
Second, the belated revulsion among Trump’s own supporters over his conduct and the assault on the Capitol bolsters the Biden democracy mandate, and it spoils the claim that his seven million vote victory fell short of a rebuke of Trump.
In the wake of the rioting, several (far from all) Republican members of Congress reversed course and dropped their unlawful objections to the electoral college tally. The senators who initiated and stuck with the reckless scheme have felt a backlash, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who had already warned that overruling the electors and the courts would spark a “death spiral” in U.S. democracy. A number of senior administration officials, including cabinet members, have resigned in protest of Trump’s actions and the assault of the Capitol. A few Republicans in Congress have joined with Democrats in calling for Trump to leave office before his term is up. One Republican senator has stated that Trump’s actions were “impeachable.”
In short, the attack on the Capitol, the first institution of U.S. democracy, has become an incipient reaffirmation of American democracy. That many Trump supporters cling to their views, and even support the assault, is secondary. The majority of the American people has spoken, and now Republicans and Democrats in Congress have affirmed the Biden pro-democracy victory.
Going forward, it is critical to hold Trump accountable—not just to deny him the possibility of holding office, but to reaffirm the norm against using political violence, or parliamentary maneuvering to overturn election results as McConnell had warned. The Senate majority leader is right to sense disaster for his party if Republicans fail to hold their colleagues accountable. Last week’s spectacle in Washington has triggered traumatic memories in North Macedonia from the 2017 attack on Parliament. Members of the guilty political party, including its leader, are now trading recriminations and denials over the unforgettable and unresolved incident. Republicans who deny Trump’s and their own culpability for the Capitol siege should rue the remark of former member of Parliament Gordana Jankulovska: “April 27 left traces in all of us.”
Third, the Biden administration has every right to humbly preach because Biden aims to practice what he’s preaching. Already one year ago, in his call for a global Summit for Democracy, Biden pointed the finger homeward, at the United States, underscoring the work that Americans would have to do first to fix our own failings. For example, the United States has slipped to its lowest rankings on corruption in nearly a decade, in part due to the widespread belief that “rich people can buy elections.” Biden has zeroed in on the fight against corruption, promising to make it a “core national security interest.” There is no hypocrisy in urging other countries to strengthen their democracies when your president’s sleeves are rolled up to tackle the same deficiencies at home.
Fourth, U.S. institutions and democratic norms have taken a battering under Trump, yet the judiciary still shows the type of independence often absent internationally. Judge Stephanos Bibas, one of Trump’s many judicial appointees, dismissed baseless election claims made by the Trump legal team with this blunt declaration: “Calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.” Such robust defiance of political authority is exceedingly rare in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. Judges in Lebanon, for example, were apparently cowed into allowing powerful explosives to be stored unlawfully in a populated port area, leading to the massive, deadly explosion in August.
Republican officials in the state of Georgia braved public attacks, harassment, and humiliation from the president, as well as death threats from other sources. These normally obscure officials chose to carry out their duties. Compare their fortitude to the corruption and diffidence of weak functionaries in poorly performing democracies around the world.
Fifth, Trump’s chronic polarization, particularly his populist appeals grounded in dramatized fears (like the “invasion” of the Central American migrant caravan), can inform better domestic and foreign policy. Those so-called ancient tribal hatreds of the Balkans no longer seem so particular and foreign now that we have seen how easy it is in the United States to summon hate, fear, and bigotry against “the other.” In both cases, the antidote lies in understanding the grievance and challenging the purveyors of hate, a task that may actually be easier in the Balkans—where the proponents of bigoted and paranoid narratives are known—than in the United States, where they are diffuse and not so prominent, other than Trump himself.
The last and best reason for the Biden administration to avidly promote democracy is that there is simply no alternative. In the end, all governing authority must be accountable to the governed.
The answer to Russian and Chinese charges of hypocrisy after the Capitol assault is not embarrassed silence but determined counterattack. Americans must reject any parallel between color revolutions—uprisings of citizens animated by abuse at the hands of their leaders—and the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol—an uprising animated by the lies of the leader himself. Our place is to stand with citizens who are willing to stand up for their rights. Indeed, after four years of open admiration for dictators like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and highly selective interest in human rights, activists around the globe are thirsting for a vigorous, principled American voice to back their demands for rule of law and respect.
Now that Americans can see the consequences of open disinformation in the United States, they must work with democratic partners around the globe to combat the subtle and sophisticated efforts of Moscow, Beijing, and their allies to sow confusion, incite division, and corrupt democracies. Electronically fueled disinformation is a global threat to democracy—precisely the type of issue that justifies the Summit for Democracy that Biden has proposed.
In sum, the United States can still lead by “the power of its example,” as Biden has urged, as long as it acts with both the confidence and humility that his Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken has also urged. The Trump era has indeed humbled us. But like a biblical parable, the experience has ripped away our pretenses, teaching us to pay attention to what is precious, lest we lose it. That means grasping that in an age of polarization and disinformation, the bar for legitimacy is even higher. Elected and appointed officials, civil servants, and even ordinary citizens who want to preserve democracy have to be scrupulously fair in their conduct and their comments.
Americans have lost their naivete about their democracy under Trump. That makes them all the more qualified to lead on democracy under Biden.
Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served on the ground for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the US Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.