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IRI President Examines Foreign Policy Implications of Capitol Siege for Foreign Affairs

January 8, 2021

The U.S. Struggle Proves That Democracy Is Priceless

Foreign Affairs

Daniel Twining 

Autocrats around the world reveled in the mayhem that broke out in the U.S. Capitol on January 6: an incompetently governed United States, at odds with itself, would surely be at pains to assert its leadership of a free and open international order. On closer inspection, however, authoritarians have little to celebrate. The events in the United States demonstrated that democracies are self-correcting and resilient because they vest power in institutions, not in rulers. Rather than yield to the political violence of a fringe minority, representative institutions upheld the will of a majority of American voters.

The failure to subvert constitutional order in the United States, the congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, and the coming transfer of power from Republicans to Democrats in both the White House and the Senate on January 20 demonstrate not that democratic institutions are worthless but that they are priceless—and that they in fact sharpen U.S. strategic competitiveness. The foreign policy implications of the United States’ democratic renewal should make authoritarians abroad less confident than nervous.

Democracy does not cure all evils, but its institutions are a bulwark against mob rule, civil war, and tyranny. It is troubling and alarming that a group of violent protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol because their candidate lost a free and fair election. But it is also telling that Congress reconvened within hours to certify Biden’s victory with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority.

U.S. democratic institutions work. The most powerful man in the world will relinquish power on January 20 and cede to new leadership chosen by the American people. President Donald Trump still controls the U.S. security forces, Treasury, and other instruments of power that in China or Russia would allow him to rule indefinitely. Under the U.S. system of constitutional order, checks and balances, and the rule of law, there is nothing he can do to remain in office. His presidency is a lesson in the limits of strongman rule. Chinese and Russian observers might well wonder: If Americans can choose new leaders to chart a more constructive course, why can’t they?

In the United States, a free press, independent courts, civic activism, congressional oversight, and states’ rights have been instrumental in upholding the law. The experience has proved that democracy consists not primarily of the maneuverings of political elites but of the functioning of an entire system—one that places citizens at its center. Oppressed people around the world, from Venezuela to Iran to Belarus, only wish for such a system.

Some will argue that after the events of this week, the United States cannot credibly promote democracy and the rule of law abroad. And to be sure, Americans have been struggling to improve their democracy for 244 years. That work will never be done. But the United States’ credibility in providing democracy assistance overseas stems directly from its own struggles— many of which have given rise to tremendous progress, such as the enfranchisement of women, the civil rights acts, and growing equality for LGBTQ citizens.

 The U.S. support for democracy abroad is a natural extension of Americans’ belief in freedom and justice at home. Americans understand that universal values apply to all peoples, not just themselves, which is why polls show that supermajorities of Americans believe their country should peacefully support human rights and democracy overseas.

Those who believe that the United States “exports” or “imposes” democracy abroad have it backward: democratic political parties, civic activists, and independent media abroad demand more U.S. technical support and training than the National Endowment for Democracy and other groups can supply.  Small-d democrats around the world want American help not because they wish to import an American agenda but because they want to advance their own citizens’ rights and freedoms.

People across the globe yearn for responsive and accountable governments. Before COVID-19 lockdowns, more people were protesting in more places than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Citizens crave the dignity that stems from having political leaders who answer to them, rather than corrupt elites who pursue public office for private gain. Political and economic openness, effective institutions, and the rule of law create opportunity as well.

The democracy assistance the United States provides focuses not on imposing American ideology but on sharing international best practices in order to make governance responsive to and inclusive of all citizens. Lessons learned from Indonesia, for example, may be more relevant to women and youth empowerment in the Middle East than those from the United States; democratic practice in Lithuania may be particularly instructive to Belarusians who want to break from Moscow’s tutelage. 

American democracy-assistance organizations work with humility, using the United States’ shortcomings as well as its successes as sources of instruction. Partners abroad learn from the course of the United States’ democratic development, including its current struggles with polarization and racial justice, and from how Americans have shaped their republican institutions to ensure that political violence, mob tactics, and authoritarian abuses cannot succeed.

America’s great-power competitors and assorted petty tyrants would like nothing more than for the United States to step back from international leadership because U.S. foreign policy elites are preoccupied with their country’s deficiencies. President-elect Biden will have Republican support for a foreign policy that confronts authoritarians abroad and rallies the world’s great democracies for the contest of systems that lies ahead.