The numbers are depressing. Just 14 percent of Germans see American democracy as a desirable model for other countries, while 54 percent say that it “used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years.” Public opinion in France, Britain, South Korea, Japan and Australia is similarly bleak. In New Zealand, fewer than 1 in 10 citizens sees American democracy as a desirable model.
It turns out the rest of the democratic world wasn’t particularly impressed by the United States’ former authoritarian president, who spread conspiracy theories, tweeted narcissistic absurdities while 400,000 people died of covid-19, and incited a deadly insurrection. Go figure.
But these numbers coming out of our allies aren’t just depressing bits of polling trivia. They have real-world consequences. And they highlight a disturbing, inescapable dilemma that the Biden administration must confront: Until the United States fixes its broken democracy at home, it will be unable to effectively fight authoritarianism abroad.
Put bluntly: The United States’ authoritarian slide isn’t just a domestic policy issue. It’s a foreign policy disaster, too.
Ever since Donald Trump emerged as the Republican front-runner in 2016, China has been exploiting the unhinged turmoil he ushered in as evidence that democracy is a bad joke rather than a serious way of governing a society. As the Trump years descended into mayhem, China ramped up its rhetoric. And when Trump’s failures to contain the covid-19 pandemic became plain for the world to see, Beijing cited it as further evidence that democracy was a failed experiment.
Needless to say, China is no model for the rest of the world; it’s a brutal authoritarian regime that stays in power by committing genocide against ethnic and religious minorities while silencing its critics. But the Trump years were a gift-wrapped propaganda coup for the Chinese in their ongoing battle to challenge the West’s ideological primacy on the global stage.
This matters because emerging economies are slowly getting pulled into China’s orbit as they seek a viable blueprint for their own development. In Afrobarometer surveys of public opinion across Africa, China has pulled even with the United States. Six in 10 Africans have a favorable view of China’s role in their country. And while the United States is still seen as offering the best development model, China isn’t far behind. This is a drastic shift in just a few decades — and it will play an increasingly important role in U.S. foreign policy as some of these developing countries decide whether to follow Washington or Beijing.
The United States has lost the moral high ground. The world might have always been wary of lectures from the United States about the virtues of democracy and freedom, but at least those on the receiving end of those lectures often believed that the country giving the lecture knew how to build a successful democracy. That’s no longer true.
At a time of authoritarian resurgence, we need the words of the U.S. president to pack a democratic punch. Instead, they ring hollow. After all, due to ongoing Republican machinations, American voters can’t even be sure that their right to vote will be protected in the years to come. What can the United States teach the world about democracy when the country is continuing its steady slide toward authoritarian politics?
This won’t just hamper President Biden’s foreign policy; it will also make the world safer for authoritarianism. Although there are still plenty of desirable democratic models around the world (I’m looking at you, Norway), none of them has the power to take meaningful action when a dictator rigs an election or imprisons an opposition leader. Worse, now that the world doesn’t respect or admireU.S. democracy, dictators have a rhetorical trump card. They can point to the fact that Trump (falsely) claimed the U.S. election was rigged; that Republicans are actually trying to rig elections with voter suppression and worsened partisan gerrymandering; and that the former president repeatedly called to jail his political opponents. Our hypocrisy will enhance dictators’ impunity.
Comparisons between the United States’ malfunctioning politics and genuine dictatorships are, of course, hyperbolic. But dictators will nonetheless get plenty of rhetorical mileage out of making them, pointing to Washington’s failures to justify or excuse their own authoritarian plots.
As Biden and Senate Democrats grapple with how aggressively to protect democracy in the United States, this should be a wake-up call. Until the United States yet again becomes more of an example to be emulated, it — and the world — will remain a dark and dangerous place for democracy.