“I would say the basic notion of democratic reform and voting rights in the United States is a national security issue,” Sullivan said. “We are in a competition of models with autocracies, and we are trying to show the world that American democracy and democracy writ large can work.”
By implicitly suggesting that a pro-democracy foreign policy would be undercut if Congress fails to pass the For the People Act and a new voting rights bill, Sullivan was not politicizing diplomacy. On the contrary, he was operating in a venerable post-World War II tradition.
Our country’s wisest leaders have understood that if we ignore our grand principles at home, they look like hypocrites, and it’s our adversaries who profit.
Just imagine the glee of autocrats in China, Russia and elsewhere when U.S. states passed laws that, among other things, allow election results to be cast aside by political bodies, stop volunteers from delivering food and water to voters in long lines, or make such lines more likely by sharply curtailing opportunities to vote early.
Imagine how democracy’s foes will use it against us that many of these provisions are tailored to make it harder for Black Americans to cast ballots.
We’ve been here before, during the fierce Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of neutral nations in Africa and Asia. President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights faced the issue plainly in 1947.
“We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world’s press and radio are full of it,” the report said. “A lynching in a rural American community is not a challenge to that community’s conscience alone. The repercussions of such a crime are heard not only in the locality, or indeed only in our own nation. They echo from one end of the globe to the other.”
And that echo reverberated back home. “The Cold War created support for civil rights among politicians who were not part of the movement,” says Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton historian and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” “The embarrassment of Soviet propaganda using racial turmoil in the U.S. … to build support in non-aligned nations was a huge problem. The need to support civil rights as a way to strengthen the image of the U.S. all over the globe in the fight against communism was pivotal to the passage of legislation.”
Now the trumpet summons us again to secure both civil and voting rights. To gauge how important this might be to Biden’s democratic mission, I contacted two former diplomats — and old friends — who have deep affection for the United States.
Both are worried about the conflict between U.S. words and deeds.
“America’s Greatest Generation was decisive in freedom’s survival in World War II,” said Kim Beazley, a former ambassador to the United States who is now governor of Western Australia. “They also faced the flaws in American democracy with civil rights and voting rights laws so they could offer a genuine light on the hill for democracy.”
“As those of us from afar look at efforts now in U.S. legislatures to deprive Americans of an effective capacity to vote and to permit partisan interference with, and suppression of, honest electoral outcomes,” he added, “the light on the hill flickers and dims.”
Bobby McDonagh, one of Ireland’s top diplomats until he retired in 2018, thinks the United States has “a unique window of opportunity as well as a historic responsibility to work with its natural partner, the European Union, and other like-minded countries, in defense of democracy, multilateralism and the rule of law.”
But he added: “It will only have the credibility and influence to do that to the extent that it continues to defend those values at home.”
I suspect that Manchin wouldn’t mind being called a Truman Democrat. So I hope Manchin consults that old Truman civil rights report and ponders how our witness for democracy around the world is undercut by voter suppression. If amplifying our nation’s ability to promote democratic self-rule isn’t reason enough to abandon the filibuster, I don’t know what is.