During the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the beginning of Donald Trump’s, Frances Brown served as the director for democracy on the staff of the National Security Council. It was her job to help coordinate administration efforts to support democracy, encourage free and fair elections, and oppose authoritarianism abroad.
Among America’s most important tools in this regard, she told me, are statements from its political leaders and high-level diplomats backing democratic moves in other countries and speaking out against autocratic ones. Obviously, American denunciation was not enough to arrest authoritarianism, but it wasn’t meaningless, either.
“The idea of closer relations to the U.S. and Oval Office visits, a photo-op — that still matters to many leaders around the world,” said Brown. Besides, for better or worse, America would sometimes pair its rhetoric with economic pressure or limits on arms sales. “Those kinds of policies often do accompany public condemnation,” she said, though they tend to be “more under the radar.”
These days, Brown, who left the government in the summer of 2017, often thinks about the memos she’d have written if she’d seen Trump’s actions in another country: “Leader uses security services to ‘dominate’ peaceful protesters. Leader refuses to pledge a peaceful transition of power if he loses upcoming election. Leader threatens extrajudicial imprisonment of political opponents. Leader threatens members of press. Leader encourages violent nonstate militia that targets minority population.”
It’s possible, even likely, that America will jettison that leader after next week’s election. But if we do, a President Joe Biden won’t be able to simply pick up America’s role in the world where it left off four years ago. The country has been brought too low, its example — always imperfect and often hypocritical, but inspiring to many nonetheless — too tarnished. It will take time before the United States is in a position to criticize democratic backsliding anywhere else.
Biden wants to withdraw America from the informal axis of authoritarians that Trump has joined, to re-establish it as a democratic beacon. “The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world,” Biden wrote in a Foreign Affairs essay in January titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” “But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.”
America, however, has to be a functioning democracy before it can be an exemplary one. Biden acknowledged as much in Foreign Affairs; his piece has a long section on “Renewing Democracy at Home.” American leaders once realized that segregation discredited them in the ideological struggle of the Cold War. Today deep injustices — some created by Trump and some merely exacerbated by him — discredit America again.
That means that fighting voter suppression, racist policing practices and kleptocratic corruption, as well as ending Trump’s barbaric treatment of migrants, aren’t just domestic priorities. They are preconditions for a successful Democratic foreign policy.
George W. Bush’s foreign policy was undoubtedly more catastrophic than Trump’s. The carnage he instigated still rages, and because he cloaked his war-making in the high-flown language of promoting democracy, he made a mockery of America’s messianic pretensions. Yet Trump’s brutishly transactional presidency has somehow done even more than Bush’s to erode American influence.
Matt Duss, chief foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, told me that in conversations with colleagues abroad, there was a sense that America lost its mind after 9/11 but then regained its footing with Obama. “Trump’s presidency has made clear to a lot of our partners, as I think it’s made clear to a lot of Americans, that these problems are much more deep-seated,” said Duss. “Because an America that elects a Trump can elect another Trump.”
In his first year in office, Obama was able to travel around the world repairing America’s global reputation — trips Republicans derided as part of an “apology tour.” But even if Biden were an Obama-like orator, neither speeches nor foreign visits would be enough to reverse the damage Trump has done to the idea of America.
As a senior national security adviser to Obama, Ben Rhodes helped plan the trips and write the speeches Obama used to reset America’s international relationships. Back then, he said, “Even if the Iraq war and the financial crisis had been body blows to American hegemony, I think there was still an underlying sense that the United States was at the center of a recognized international order, and that the United States stood for a set of values even if we betrayed them.”
Biden, said Rhodes, “is going to inherit a very different reality. Because the United States is no longer at the center of any international order, and the world no longer has any implicit trust that we stand for a set of values.”
So if America aspires to be an example to the world again, it will have to be a very different, humbler sort. The United States can’t go around lecturing anyone else about the inviolable importance of democratic norms and institutions. But in the best-case scenario, it might be able to show other countries how to come back from the brink of autocracy.
“America is now kind of a normal country like everybody else,” said Rhodes. We “can have the corrupt autocrat, with the son-in-law down the hall, in the highest office,” he said. “But if America can fix that, that’s both a model for other countries and a way for America to restore its standing.”
Trump has ended the illusion of American exceptionalism. If Biden wins, he might at least demonstrate that democracy still makes progress possible.
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