Is 2021 America in Any Position to Pontificate to Other Countries on Democracy?

The America-loving world may struggle to suppress a smirk over such a loftily titled event as the Summit for Democracy when the screen is split with the events of January 6

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Jacob Anthony Chansley, aka Jake Angeli. in Washington on January 6, and U.S. President Joe Biden during the Summit for Democracy.
Jacob Anthony Chansley, aka Jake Angeli. in Washington on January 6, and U.S. President Joe Biden during the Summit for Democracy.Credit: Stephanie Keith/Reuters, Saul Leob/AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

You may not have noticed, but late last week the United States hosted its two-day Summit for Democracy.

As you may have noticed, the U.S. House of Representatives is holding hearings of its Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.

Can the two events be reconciled?

The summit, a virtual conference of 111 countries, not all democracies as you might have guessed, was pretentiously described as an event designed to “renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.”

What exactly was this “summit,” and what did it really hope to achieve? Is 2021 America in any position to pontificate to other countries on democracy, let alone set an example for them?

U.S. President Joe Biden and other attendees at the virtual Summit for Democracy last week.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS

Every few years, America comes up with a grand mission statement that defines it. This improves its self-image and self-ordained place in history with a catchphrase that it projects to the wider world.

In the 19th century, it was mostly domestic. There was the Monroe Doctrine drawing a clear distinction between the old (European) world and the new American one, and a division into spheres of influence. But America back then was in the process of being built and defining itself.

The zeitgeist concept in pre-Civil War America was Manifest Destiny, lending a form of theological credence to the “inevitability” of America’s territorial expansion west to the Pacific.

By the 20th century, particularly after World War II with the United States’ emergence as a global superpower, these phrases were all about American democracy as the model the world should emulate to prosper.

First there was “a City upon a Hill,” a phrase derived from the Salt and Light teaching in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, endorsed by Puritan John Winthrop before embarking for Massachusetts on a ship moored in Southampton, England. He used the phrase to describe the idea of the New World.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan embellished the term; in his sunny speeches America was “a shining city on a hill,” a “beacon of hope” for the world. It made sense. After all, protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 built cardboard replicas of the Statue of Liberty. Despite Vietnam and other military escapades, America was widely seen as a beacon of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Then came “indispensable nation.” In 1996, trying to invent a phrase that would embody America’s post-Cold War place, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright endorsed an idea from journalist and adviser Sidney Blumenthal. In a post-Soviet world, the United States was indispensable, plain and simple.

“Only the United States had the power to guarantee global security: without our presence or support, multilateral endeavors would fail,” Blumenthal explained. After leaving office, Albright initiated – with Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek – their Community of Democracies, kind of a conceptual precursor to Joe Biden’s summit.

Activists from Fair Elections for New York, Black Voters Matter and Workers Circle marching for voting rights, outside the United States Mission to the United Nations, last week.Credit: Andrew Kelly/AP

Pure hypocrisy

All these phrases had one ironclad foundation: “American exceptionalism.” America is different, America is superior, America is on a mission to transform the world and make it better. Slavery and mass killings of Native Americans and expropriation of their lands were conveniently, though uncomfortably, dismissed as the sins of the political circumstances and growing pains of the unique experiment called America.

Biden’s summit, which conspicuously excluded China and Russia, but equally conspicuously included liberal democratic powerhouses like Brazil, the Philippines, Malawi and Iraq, purported to exchange ideas and cooperate on “defending against authoritarianism … addressing and fighting corruption and advancing respect for human rights.” That’s quite an ambitious undertaking by America, one the world seems skeptical about.

As both a candidate and a president, Biden expressed his view of contemporary geopolitics as a struggle between democracies and autocracies or backsliding illiberal democracies.

The idea has been high on Biden’s agenda since the start of his presidency; both he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have spoken frequently about a foreign policy based on domestic strength and fixing the republic. The idea is to provide a tangible antidote to the quasi-authoritarianism that Donald Trump tried to install, for Americans and the world to see.

Ahead of the summit, Biden declared that renewing democracy “is the defining challenge of our time.” The State Department said the summit aimed to “provide a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.”

America’s detractors were quick to describe this as pure hypocrisy, typical American patronizing and grandstanding. That was expected and perhaps uncalled for hyperbole, but there’s no concealing that however lofty, ambitious and righteous the marketing pitch was, it came across as detached while the January 6 commission was hearing testimonies and reviewing evidence on how tragically close America came to a full coup, staged, directly or indirectly, by Donald Trump and his cronies in an effort to steal the 2020 election.

A mob of pro-Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington on January 6.Credit: Leah Millis/REUTERS

Golden years

We get the idea. But here’s a food-for-thought question: Is America still a liberal democracy? The real life span of America’s liberal democracy was between 1965 and 2017.

The United States was essentially a liberal democracy only after 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. This shouldn’t diminish America’s grand accomplishments, accumulation of vast power and idealistic principles until then, but let’s be honest. The 14th Amendment of 1868 that guarantees citizens’ rights and equal protection, and the 15th Amendment of 1870 that prohibits the federal government and states from abridging the right to vote weren’t really in effect until 1965, thanks to Lyndon Johnson. Trump’s election and the transformation of the Republican Party into a minority, quasi-authoritarian party have reversed the trend.

Several recent studies on global perceptions of the United States portray a grim picture of American democracy, by extension eroding America’s ability to lead from a position of moral or political high ground. These opinions were obviously formed during the Trump presidency and the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, and once Biden was elected America’s image improved. But the general picture remains dismal.

In November, the Pew Research Center published a major survey on attitudes toward America in 16 countries defined as advanced economies, and added U.S. public opinion on the United States as the 17th country. The headline is predictable: America is seen positively for its technology, entertainment industry, universities and military power, but as regressive regarding its health care system and democracy.

The survey, conducted during the spring, was published before the astonishing data that was just released: over 800,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, over half of them once vaccinations were readily available. This is unfathomable.

The world’s most powerful country, arguably the most powerful in history and an uncontested leader in science, technology and medicine, allowed this to happen in the 21st century. An abject failure of leadership, anti-science sentiments nurtured by toxic politics, and a health care system driven by profit and greed created a public health and economic catastrophe. The world watched in horror.

In the Pew survey, just 17 percent said democracy in America is “a good example to follow,” while 57 percent thought “it used to be a good example.” In the United States itself, the numbers were quite similar: 19 percent and 72 percent, respectively. A full 42 percent of Americans also said that racial or ethnic discrimination is “a very serious problem.”

A decade ago, the pro-democracy group Freedom House gave the United States a score of 94 out of 100 on its Freedom in the World scale of democracies. Today, Freedom House has America at 83 percent, saying “ its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.” This is what is commonly referred to as America’s profound and broad inequality.

Pew’s Global Attitudes survey had a question on whether the United States is currently a good model for democracy. Only 15 percent of Germans and Japanese, 14 percent of Canadians, 18 percent of French, 21 percent of Britons and a meager 19 percent of Americans said yes. Sizable majorities in those countries (73 percent in the United States, for example) believed it once was.

U.S. President Joe Biden during the Summit for Democracy last week.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS

The Summit for Democracy came and went. There is no question that Biden diagnosed America’s problem accurately and honestly. He’s part of the generation that made America great, was present at the creation of an American empire and a witness to its domestic decline. The question is whether the prognosis, the summit, was right.

Biden was elected to fix the republic. He’s the first to acknowledge this, and there is no other priority. Yes, America has global stature and responsibility, and yes, it can be a force for good. And no, it should not abdicate this. But what is the America-loving world expected to think of such a loftily titled summit when the screen is split with January 6 hearings?

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