“Do as I say, not as I do.”
With the decline of US global hegemony, this is no longer a viable approach to American foreign policy. The gap between what it claims to espouse — freedom, democracy, human rights — and what it has unapologetically done around the world — support dictatorships, help overthrow democratically-elected leaders, abuse and torture prisoners — is wide and visible. Last year, former US diplomat Nicholas Burns observed that the world has become “ever more complex and dangerous.” Yet, this happened under America’s watch, and the disconnect between what its leaders say and do is surely part of the explanation.
The Trump administration’s response to this was to try to abandon the values altogether. The Biden administration has promised a different approach, one that involves leading with the “power of our example.” What does that mean, and how can it be done?
THE PROBLEMS WITH US DIPLOMACY
Leading by the “power of example” means being the change one wishes to see in the world. It is about modeling the behavior deemed necessary for global prosperity and peace — or, at this point, just plain survival of the human species.
To do this, the United States must first recognize the strong link between its domestic and foreign policy. It is still the world’s most powerful country, and so the world is naturally paying close attention to what’s happening inside (and on) its borders. This means prioritizing the problems at home, while engaging in global affairs selectively and democratically, with the Congress and public playing a greater role. By prioritizing domestic problems like the pandemic response, child poverty, and infrastructure, the Biden administration is already taking important steps in this direction. President Biden’s over three decades of experience as senator — including as member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — also likely instilled in him an appreciation of the Congress’ role in foreign policy.
Secondly, the United States needs to let go of its didactic impulse: The urge to instruct other countries about what they should be doing. Underlying this impulse is the assumption that to do “the right thing” others just need the knowledge or awareness, which the United States incidentally possesses in abundance. This didactic impulse is omnipresent, making Washington appear patronizing, hypocritical, and/or naïve. It has also largely been ineffective, if not counterproductive. Rather than thanking Washington for the wisdom it imparted on Russia in the 1990s, President Vladimir Putin — who was incidentally a protégé of one of Russia’s early and earnest democrats — bemoaned in his famous Munich speech: “Russia — we — are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.”
Only when it actively tries to solve its problems at home will Washington be a credible voice for human rights, democracy, and freedom abroad.
The Biden administration’s approach toward China is a good example because, once again, the United States is tempted to teach. The aim of a recent Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force report was to consider how Washington could counter Beijing’s global infrastructure development strategy, the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The report recommends that US embassies be:
… tasked with helping governments in BRI countries understand that, though China could offer faster or cheaper infrastructure projects, factors such as environmental impact mitigation, the transfer of skills and knowledge to local workforces, and transparency in terms, financial sustainability, product quality, and longevity are far more important in the long run and that US firms could be better partners.
In other words, American diplomats are to educate leaders of BRI countries about corruption and low construction standards. It is worth noting that there is plenty of empirical evidence to back this idea. It is not that BRI is entirely a benign project, but it is unlikely that the BRI countries’ leaders are naïve to this and require Americans to explain to them what corruption and poor-quality standards look like.
American diplomats are also tasked with helping BRI countries realize that the United States would make for a better infrastructure development partner. Never mind that, as one Task Force member admitted, the United States “has really gotten out of the infrastructure provision business,” and that Chinese construction companies can build efficiently and effectively. The American diplomats are also to offer “technical support” to help “vet prospective projects” for any problems. It is hard to see why anyone would find such an approach anything but gracious.
Other countries, however, are no longer interested in America’s didactic diplomacy — a lesson some in US diplomatic circles are already learning. An American diplomat stationed in an Asian country recently shared a story with me, showcasing this very point. She had been working on organizing an informal lecture series on a variety of human rights-related topics at the local universities. Only one school, however, expressed interest in the lectures, but it requested that a specific topic be covered: Anti-Asian violence in the United States. This caught the diplomat off guard. How could it be that people in another country are worried about the state of human rights in the United States?
LEADING BY EXAMPLE ISN’T EASY
The actions of powerful countries delineate the boundaries of acceptable behavior at a global level, and this is surely the case with the most powerful among them. The world is watching. And there has been much to see lately, from racialized police violence that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement last summer to the siege on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The United States is facing serious domestic problems.
How the United States deals with issues like racial inequality, criminal justice reform, rising white supremacy, and many more, will shape the power of its example. Only when it actively tries to solve its problems at home will Washington be a credible voice for human rights, democracy, and freedom abroad. In other words, diplomacy that acknowledges and prioritizes the problems at home would help rebuild US soft power at a time when it is just about the only thing that still gives Washington an edge over Beijing.
Yelena Biberman is an associate professor of political science at Skidmore College, a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center in Washington, DC. Her book, Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. You can email her here: firstname.lastname@example.org.