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Commentary | 7 January 2021

Democracy promotion begins at home

The events of the last 24 hours have underscored the profound challenges that the US faces, with wide-ranging implications for a country whose national narrative is firmly rooted in a sense of American democratic “exceptionalism”.

The incoming president has promised to renew and strengthen democracy at home and abroad. He intends to hold an international Summit for Democracy to raise the issue of democracy up the world’s political agenda in a year where most leaders are likely to be otherwise engaged with the pandemic and global recession. But the new US leader cannot revert to the customary narrative in which the US takes a unique – exceptional – position atop the moral high ground when it comes to democratic values. Democracy promotion may now need to begin at home.

European leaders generally view the incoming administration with great relief. They will want to support Biden’s efforts to stand up for democracy. The UK, for instance, has mooted the idea of using its 2021 presidency of the G7 to convene a “D10” – democratic ten – group of the G7 countries plus India, Australia and South Korea. But in the meantime European leaders currently find themselves in the extraordinary position of calling for a peaceful transition in the US itself, with some issuing statements overnight in terms more familiar from diplomatic protests to authoritarian regimes.

For obvious reasons, autocrats do not share this enthusiasm – although some have no doubt enjoyed issuing calls for the US to find a peaceful way to resolve its challenges. There will be a fine line to tread between standing up for democracy and needing to find ways to deal with major powers ruled by authoritarian leaders, especially China and Russia, on issues from pandemic response to nuclear arms control. A variety of US politicians have expressed concern that America’s adversaries will find ways to capitalise on its current internal divisions.

Nonetheless, the most fundamental threat to US democracy promotion comes from within the US itself. The sitting president’s extraordinary attacks on the system, which have materialised into a physical mob attack that temporarily – if briefly – managed to disrupt the transition process, have immense and long-term implications for a polarised US polity. They also undermine the US’s ability to speak up for democracy around the world, including the post-Soviet space.

The attacks on the democratic process have not managed to overturn the election results. The evacuation of Congress to a secure location, complete with gas masks, only strengthened the resolve of its members to complete the election certification on the allotted day. Several of those who had sought to block certification lost their stomach for it after seeing neo-Nazis and QAnon conspiracy theorists gloating in the corridors of power. A few days ago, all ten surviving defence secretaries came together across party lines to insist on a peaceful transfer of power and the sacrosanct nature of civilian rule. For those watching these events from an authoritarian country, the strength of the US constitution’s checks and balances on executive power is being tested in a dramatic and visible fashion. So far, it is holding.

But this was a close call, and large swathes of both the political elite and the public now question their system at a fundamental level. Opinion polls suggest many people believe the president’s unfounded assertions of voter fraud; one post-election poll found only one-quarter of Republican voters believed he should concede. As senior Republicans in Congress have often backed the president’s wild claims, and many more have declined to call them out, profound, extensive and long-term damage is being done to the credibility of American democracy and leadership around the world.

Ironically, some of the senior American policymakers who regularly criticise Russia, China, Belarus or Venezuela as autocratic are, at the same time, undermining the credibility of the US’s own political system by denying the democratic election result in the US. They are helping to enable those authoritarian rulers to say that the US is in no position to lecture them. When the US narrative on democracy is inconsistent or short on credibility, the countries that the US criticises are more likely to see themselves as being singled out unfairly, for geopolitical reasons compared to which (they think) values are mere window-dressing.

This matters for the state of democracy globally. In the past four years, democracy has been retreating around the world, in part because of an international system where the US appears to have de-prioritised democracy while Russia and China have provided alternative sources of military and economic support, respectively, for non-democratic governments. At the same time, there has been a surge in popular protest, which has been only temporarily dampened by the pandemic, and which have involved a mix of pro-democracy protests and protests over problems that established democratic systems are failing to resolve within their existing institutions. In the post-Soviet space, there have been extensive pro-democracy protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, raising risks that Western support for democracy will get caught up in the geopolitics of confrontation with Russia.

Elsewhere, a growing number of African leaders are evading their constitutional term limits –most recently in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in October 2020. In the Middle East, the wave of popular uprisings that took place a decade ago showed the limitations of Western support for democracy in the region; Gulf autocracies were willing to bankroll governments with much larger sums than EU assistance plans offered to fledgeling democrats, and Russia was willing to put its military behind the government in Syria while Western powers would not go to war for the sake of the opposition there.

The US’s democracy promotion efforts have always had their problems; they’re inconsistently applied, seen as inadequate by many democracy activists and viewed with paranoia by authoritarian rivals and allies alike, and have been compromised by the cynical use of “democracy” as a justification for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. US democracy promotion has also tended to be very US-centric, insisting liberal democracy is inextricably intertwined with liberal economics.

But the greatest strength of US and European democracy promotion comes when they are able to model a way of life that others aspire to. As an old adage says, example is the best sermon. That normative power has been massively undermined.

This has already been evident with the upsurge in violence against protestors and journalists in 2020, particularly around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, themselves triggered by racism and violence by police. US diplomats tasked with reprimanding other governments for their abuses face a more complicated task when their host countries can ask them about police violence and election disputes. In one striking and nuanced example last year, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe issued an impassioned statement that denounced both the killing of George Floyd and the violence against protestors in Zimbabwe. He wrote both about the racism he himself had experienced in the US, and about the mechanisms that the US had to make itself better.

As the EU considers its future relations with the Eastern Neighbourhood, it will need to plan for a situation where the US may have renewed aspirations for democracy promotion but will continue to face challenges to its credibility. Such challenges will go far beyond the usual predictable and rhetorical pushback from authoritarians, to more fundamental questions about how to renew a thriving, trusted liberal democracy in the face of disinformation and distrust. These problems are hampering everything from politics to pandemic response; in the most developed and educated countries on earth, at least some of those privileged enough to access Covid-19 vaccines will refuse them, because they think they’re part of a conspiracy by billionaires to insert 5G microchips in their arms.

European policies and programmes will need to emphasise the pillars of democracy beyond the ballot box – the rule of law, the effective functioning of independent institutions, respect for norms and standards in public life, and other checks and balances on power – and tackling the problems of polarisation, misinformation and hate speech. These are not only messages for foreign policy, but necessary for revival and recovery at home.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network (ELN) or any of the ELN’s members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.

Image: US Capitol at dusk as seen from the eastern side, Wikimedia commons