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The Chastened Power

How a Post-Trump America Can Support Democracy Abroad

Thomas Carothers, Frances Z. Brown

As President Joe Biden and his team seek to revitalize U.S. support for democracy globally, they face an ugly reality: the image of U.S. democracy has been profoundly tarnished in the eyes of the world. Of course, for years the United States was hardly an unblemished democratic exemplar, whether because of dark money in U.S. politics, legislative gridlock, or weak election administration—not to mention deeper sociopolitical deficits like racial injustice, mass incarceration, and acute economic inequality. But the political horror shows of the last four years—culminating in the riotous January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, incited by an American President trying to subvert a legitimate election—drove America’s democratic standing to a new low.

The damage undercuts the power of the American example at a moment when global debates are surging over the relative merits of democracy versus alternative political models. It weakens appeals from U.S. officials to foreign counterparts to respect democratic norms. It burdens U.S. democracy engagement with doubts from many prospective partners about both America’s basic democratic capability and legitimacy.

How should the Biden Administration take account of this marred domestic political reality as it sets out to renew U.S. international democracy support? A common refrain among commentators is that before supporting democracy internationally, the United States must first get its own democratic house in order. That’s an appealing idea, but not very useful advice. To be sure, the United States must engage—as the new administration has promised to do—in serious domestic political reform. But in areas like election administration, campaign financing, and gerrymandering, the problems to be addressed will be with us for many years. Are we supposed to simply stop supporting democracy worldwide in the meantime?

The global condition of democracy is too dire for that. The Biden Administration can and should move forward with an active democracy support policy. But it should eschew any temptation to sugarcoat our damaged reality and instead face it head on, emphasizing that democracy requires constant tending and self-correction, both at home and overseas. Doing so will require a three-part approach.

Partnerships for Real

First, the United States needs to emphasize partnerships with other democracies in its efforts to upgrade democracy support—but not attempt to build a U.S.-led global democratic alliance. It is time to jettison the almost reflexive idea that the United States is the natural leader of global democracy. Those days are gone. Washington still has a vital role to play, and in some domains—like responding to the rise of China—U.S. leadership or convening power will be essential. In other cases, however, partner countries will play the leading role; the United States should fit in alongside or behind them. Especially because America’s own workforce of democracy and governance experts has been depleted over the past four years, the new administration will need to make complementing partners’ efforts integral to its re-engagement strategy.

While the United States was absent for many global democracy challenges of the past four years, some partner governments stepped up. Canada and Sweden increased their human rights advocacy, especially on women’s rights. Sweden made women’s rights part of a broader “Drive for Democracy” at the center of its foreign policy. The United Kingdom pushed forward important initiatives on media freedom and anti-corruption. The European Union played a key role in civil society support.

In countries like Armenia, Tunisia, and Lebanon, other democracies besides ours are playing more significant roles on democratic reform and assistance. Though American officials have signaled support for the opposition movement in Belarus, concrete U.S. support and diplomatic action have lagged behind those by European democracies. Some regional organizations have also played noteworthy roles, especially in thorny political transitions. For example, the Economic Community of West African States has played a significant mediation role in political dialogues about Mali and refereed other contested issues in Africa.

The administration should look closely at this changed landscape, seeking to understand where other democracies are forging useful efforts and how Washington can support them. In every major area where the Biden team may want to make a push, other governments are probably engaged and open to exploring how the United States can help.

Washington has pursued successful democratic partnerships in the past. The Obama Administration was central to establishing the Open Government Partnership (OGP), now an effective coalition of more than seventy-five countries, scores of local governments, and civil society groups dedicated to strengthening government transparency and accountability. OGP has grown and deepened over the past four years even as the United States became largely dormant in it under the Trump administration. This illustrates another benefit to partnerships: They enable initiatives to withstand changes of political headwinds within sponsoring countries. It is time to revive Washington’s acumen for innovative partnerships and move it to center stage.

Accordingly, collaboration should figure prominently in the planning for the Summit for Democracy that President Biden proposed during his presidential campaign. The administration can certainly play the convening role, but it should build key partners into the process at every step, from elaborating the agenda and setting goals to post-summit follow-up and implementation. The summit will succeed only if it celebrates mutual accountability and partnership, rather than trying to resurrect the idea of America as the sun at the center of democracy’s solar system.

End of the Export Model

Second, we need to replace the outdated idea of democracy support as an export business, in which America, alone or alongside other “established” democracies, extends aid to “struggling” democracies. Instead, U.S. democracy support should be reconceived as a mutual-learning endeavor connecting efforts to address democratic challenges at home with those efforts abroad. The United States brings significant financial and experiential resources to that undertaking, but the learning must flow in all directions.

How to make mutual learning operational? To start, the administration could pinpoint several signature issues for its democracy agenda that are problems faced by both the United States and many other democracies. Establishing effective election administration and bolstering safeguards against leaders who refuse to accept defeat could be one area. Finding ways to manage severe political polarization, within political institutions and society more broadly, could be another, as could countering externally sponsored political disinformation.

Once priority topics are identified, support could be given to U.S. institutions interested in convening dialogues on them within the United States that bring in significant numbers of people from other countries to share experiences and ideas. At the same time, democracy organizations could support Americans who are working on these issues at home to exchange ideas with counterparts in other countries, in person or online. In formulating such initiatives, they could leverage their deep experience in supporting exchanges aimed at diffusing democratic ideas and tactics across borders. Just as one example, U.S. democracy-support groups helped to bring regional activists with experience in democratic breakthroughs to Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Croatia to share lessons with counterparts in post-Cold War Serbia.

Going forward, in contrast to the past, exchanges on reform topics could include American attendees as participants on equal footing with participants from other countries. Indeed, such exchanges could also be sponsored by other democracy-promoting governments or civic groups rather than solely the “usual suspects” of U.S. democracy support. The Open Government Partnership has already pioneered the concept of peer-to-peer learning among governments and civil society groups about transparency and accountability reform. Successful ongoing U.S. exchange initiatives, such as the Young African Leaders Initiative, International Visitor Leadership Program, and National Endowment for Democracy fellowships could also potentially incorporate this mutual-learning component.

As another part of a mutual-learning approach, the U.S. democracy-support community could build a component of “take-home learning” into democracy-assistance programs. Program staff working to help foster change overseas would be asked to extract from the experience some lessons relevant to U.S. domestic challenges. Of course, efforts to develop “take-home learning” would face the perennial challenge of applying knowledge generated in one context to a different setting; local context matters. An effective approach to mitigating severe polarization in Georgia would not be transposed wholesale to mitigate severe polarization in (the other) Georgia. Still, the time is long overdue to dispense with American exceptionalism in the realm of democracy building and connect U.S. democratic challenges to those overseas.

Creating effective mutual-learning exchanges requires connecting the U.S. democracy-promotion community to the diverse and dispersed array of American actors engaged in political activism and reform at home. Building these new bridges would be sensitive and time-consuming, but stimulating for all involved. For example, groups working to combat racial injustice within the United States have in recent years had little connection to U.S. efforts to reduce sociopolitical marginalization and discrimination abroad. Forging ties across this gap could yield significant benefits—American activists working to combat police violence at home might benefit from hearing from activists in other countries, like Nigeria, who have faced similar problems. And it would build upon a longer lineage of such ties, such as when Martin Luther King traveled to Ghana and India in the late 1950s to learn from Ghana’s struggle for independence and from India’s experience with nonviolent resistance.

Mutual approaches could start small and grow as fresh venues and modes of collaboration emerge to bridge the traditional domestic-international divide on democratic reform. Broader institutional innovations could help grow these seeds by providing flexible funding to democracy groups that work abroad to allow them to add a domestic focus, and by assisting U.S. organizations that work on reform at home to connect with people abroad doing similar work.

Embracing the spirit and practice of democracy support as a mutual-learning effort would represent a concrete way for the Biden Administration to operationalize its oft-stated assertion that “foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.”

Tailor the Message

Finally, the shift toward a strategy of partnership and mutual learning should be accompanied by an adept messaging strategy: clear statements by U.S. officials—not occasional oblique references—of chastened experience and humility. These messages must publicly and repeatedly acknowledge that the United States has stumbled in recent years with basic democratic functions. They must underscore that even before the recent political upheaval, the United States was far from a perfect democracy, with vast swathes of the population denied civil rights and the vote, among other problems. They should argue that these realities help us appreciate how achieving or maintaining democratic progress requires constant struggle and inspire us to redouble our commitment to core democratic principles at home and abroad.

After the events of January 6, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, career diplomat Natalie E. Brown, released this statement that perfectly hit the mark:

After Wednesday’s events, many people may question America’s right to speak out on issues of democracy around the world, and they are entitled to their perspective. As we know well, America’s democracy is not perfect, and the United States is not without fault. As protests across America this past summer demonstrated, much work remains to align our ideals with the everyday reality of many Americans. But when we speak out against human rights abuses, we do so not because such abuses do not occur in America.… On the contrary, we do so because we are mindful of the work still to be done in the American experiment with democracy and because our history has taught us that democracy must be defended if it is to endure. While our work begins at home, we will continue to share the lessons we have learned from our own experience as we look outward toward the world around us.

Some American politicians and political commentators will inevitably characterize such language as part of an “apology tour.” It will be necessary to explain repeatedly to such critics that this new approach aims not to lower America’s reputation in the world but to find smart ways to rebuild it.

Historical Resonance

The past four years of democratic dysfunction have gravely undermined the American ability to champion democracy overseas. Even as President Biden has signaled his eagerness to turn the page from his predecessor, the rest of the world may—understandably—view U.S. democracy support in the wake of Trump as a punch line.

But this is just the latest chapter in a long story. Throughout the 20th century, the United States repeatedly sought to advance freedom in the world while contending with profound domestic political flaws. In the mid-1940s for example, as the United States led efforts to create an international legal framework for universal human rights, W.E.B. Du Bois asked, “How could the leaders of the United States seek to lead the free world while refusing to confront the injustices of racism in every American town and city?”

While this dissonance has long historic echoes, a key difference today is the new President’s stated ambition to face the dilemma head-on. The Biden Administration has staked its agenda on the conviction that American foreign and domestic priorities are deeply interlinked and that U.S. renewal at home would allow it to project strength abroad. Its challenge now is to turn rhetoric into reality. In the realm of democracy support, the three-part strategy outlined above—an upgraded commitment to partnership, reframing democracy support as a mutual-learning project, and adept messaging—would not resolve all problems overnight. But by transforming conviction into concrete policy, the approach would enable the United States to begin charting a path suited to the troubled democratic landscape it faces, both overseas and closer to home.

Thomas Carothers is senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Frances Z. Brown is senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former director for democracy on the National Security Council staff.

U.S. Foreign PolicyDemocracy

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