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adults in a room, democracy, norms

The US’ Democracy Problem

The latest from our “Adults in a Room" series.

Words: Stephen Wertheim, Alex Stark, Lucas Robinson, and James Siebens
Pictures: Roberto Nickson

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. This series aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

The Biden administration has attempted to define its foreign policy as leading democratic nations against authoritarian countries. Last year’s Summit for Democracy was intended to show a united front of countries committed to democratic governance. But much of the response from around the world centered on the perceived hypocrisy of the United States attempting to champion democracy to others when its own system was in such dire straits.

Beyond the horrors of the Jan. 6 insurrection, political scientists have raised warnings that US democracy is backsliding, leading many to question whether the democracy versus authoritarianism framework is really a demonstrated commitment to democracy or rather an attempt to build a coalition to oppose US rivals, namely China and Russia.

The Reimagining US Grand Strategy program’s September 2022 roundtable brought experts together to discuss the state of US institutions and how they are perceived around the world. The conversation focused on whether the United States could effectively conduct a practical foreign policy with the diminished state of its democracy.

Four experts expanded on the relationship between the domestic situation in the United States and its foreign policy below.

Stephen Wertheim, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Every so often, it becomes fashionable for foreign policy experts to talk up the importance of getting America’s own house in order. “We need to break down the silos between foreign policy and domestic policy,” they say, no doubt sincerely. But then reality sets in. As individuals who define themselves as foreign policy experts and work in institutions of foreign policy experts, they are not trained, socialized, or incentivized to act other than as foreign policy experts. So they continue to do what they do — foreign policy — until the cycle repeats and the next bout of rhetorical silo-breaking begins.

In 2022 it might be more important to ask: What kind of foreign policy is most conducive to domestic peace and well-being?

Given the enormity of the internal problems of the United States, however, it is high time to break the cycle and engage with domestic politics as though foreign policy is supposed to serve the American polity and not the other way around. Let me make one practical proposal for doing so. When the national security community addresses foreign and domestic connections, it often dwells upon what kind of internal reforms can maximize the United States’ strength and competitiveness abroad. That is a worthy question. But in 2022 it might be more important to reverse the causal arrow and ask: What kind of foreign policy is most conducive to domestic peace and well-being?

For example, is intense strategic competition with China and Russia more likely to bring Americans together against common enemies or amplify fear and factionalism that will drive them apart? If the early Cold War proved conducive to certain domestic achievements — such as wage compression, civil rights, and disciplined political parties — do the same conditions exist that would replicate those benefits today? Or would the nativism and sense of purposelessness that marked the post-9/11 wars carry over to an era of higher-stakes great-power confrontation?

These are large questions that defy simple answers. They deserve sustained research, accompanied by a recognition that different views of domestic politics will produce different preferences for foreign policy. What should be less debatable is the legitimacy of balancing domestic and foreign policy considerations, rather than trying to lead the “international order” only to be consumed by disorder at home.

Alex Stark, Senior Researcher, New America

Americans’ views of what security means, and what the United States’ role in the world should be, are changing. Strikingly, Americans’ views on foreign policy are just as polarized as they are on so many other policy questions. Working with data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs annual survey, a New America report last year found that Americans are increasingly divided along partisan lines on several security issues.

Take the question of whether “immigrants and refugees coming into the US” pose a “critical threat to the vital interests of the United States.” In 1998, similar proportions of Democrats (58%) and Republicans (56%) identified this as a critical threat. But over the past decade or so, views have started to significantly diverge. In the summer 2022 iteration of the Chicago Council’s survey, 70% of Republicans, compared to just 18% of Democrats, identified this as a “critical threat.” Overall, Americans see immigration as less threatening today than they did in the 1990s: 55% identified immigrants as a critical threat in 1998, compared with 39% in 2022.

The fact that Americans’ views are changing is not itself a problem, of course. Indeed, as the great-grandchild of immigrants and refugees, I’m thrilled that Americans are less likely overall to see this as a security problem. But if, as RAND’s research finds, a unified national identity is a key source of societal competitiveness, then such sharp divergence does pose a problem.

Polarization is tearing at our social fabric and accelerating a number of the challenges that we face at home, from disinformation to right-wing violent extremism, while posing a barrier to addressing other key challenges such as climate change and the spread of infectious disease. In this way, polarization is already posing an enormous threat to the foundations of US power and influence in the world. But in addition to that, fundamental disagreements about the critical threats that we face today challenge a shared security narrative and will impede our ability to develop a shared approach to these security challenges.

Lucas Robinson, External Relations Associate, Eurasia Group Foundation

The United States hasn’t avoided the international democracy recession. Despite this, the Biden administration has sought to arrest democratic backsliding in other countries through the power of the democratic example of the United States. But the power of this example could be undermined by Washington’s competition with illiberal adversaries.

The Eurasia Group Foundation released an international poll last summer that found that most survey takers across nine countries hold positive views of US democracy. Among people with favorable views, one in three selected the United States’ protection of civil liberties as the reason why.

Polarization is already posing an enormous threat to the foundations of US power and influence in the world.

Moreover, the survey found those who’ve lived in, traveled to, and have connections to their country’s diaspora in the United States hold more favorable views than those without such cross-border connections. And when asked what would make the US form of government more attractive, people ranked better treatment of minorities, and a more permissive immigration and refugee system among the top three improvements the United States should make (alongside reduced economic disparity).

If previous eras of conflict are any indication, however, the United States might actually behave in ways antithetical to these more liberal values. One can look back at attacks on freedom of speech in the early Cold War, or more recently at what’s transpired in the United States during the Global War on Terror. Islamophobia, infringements on civil liberties, and travel bans are hallmarks of post-9/11 America. Tensions with Russia and China more recently coincide with visa restrictions on Chinese students, calls to expel Russian students from US universities, and a rise in domestic hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans.

If the United States is set on winning the contest against autocracy, it must take care that its strategy doesn’t undermine the principles it seeks to preserve at home and the factors that contribute to positive perceptions of US democracy abroad.

James Siebens, Fellow, Stimson Center

President Joe Biden ran for office on a promise to “restore dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage,” pledging that under his administration, “America will lead by example and rally the world to meet our common challenges… from great power aggression to transnational terrorism…”

When Biden addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2022, he seemed to make good on this promise when he rightly declared that Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has “shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter.” These core tenets include imperatives to “maintain international peace and security” and to “refrain…from the threat or use of force.”

Ironically, however, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin leveled similar accusations at the United States and NATO, citing NATO’s 1999 intervention in the former Yugoslavia, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003, and subsequent military interventions in support of insurgents seeking to overthrow the governments of Libya and Syria. Putin called these “the most glaring but far from only examples of disregard for international law.” With the possible exception of Libya, Biden supported all of these interventions as senator or as vice president.

Clearly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be compared to US efforts to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Libya, and Syria, or to support separatists and insurgents in Syria and the former Yugoslavia. However, the juxtaposition reminds us of both countries’ records of repeated military interventions abroad, sometimes in violation of international law and the UN Charter. This uncomfortable reality highlights the fact that the UN system — or the “rules-based international order,” if you prefer — has a problem with “great power exceptionalism.”

Biden is right to reaffirm the US commitment to tenets of the UN Charter, including the inviolable sovereignty of UN members. The question now is whether the Biden administration is genuinely prepared to fulfill its campaign promise to the American people to use force only as a last resort and “only to defend our vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.” This means that the United States will have to eschew international aggression and live within the confines of international law if it is to retain this moral high ground in the future.

Stephen Wertheim, Alex Stark, Lucas Robinson, and James Siebens

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