The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. can’t wait to perfect its democracy at home before championing democracy abroad

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally in D.C. on Nov. 14, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden is convening a virtual Summit for Democracy on Thursday and Friday — and it’s none too soon. Democracy has had a rough few decades.

Freedom House reports that 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of freedom declining around the world. “Nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year,” the organization found. This year — with Tunisia, Myanmar, Sudan and, of course, Afghanistan all becoming more tyrannical — is no better. And, with Russia threatening to invade Ukraine and China to invade Taiwan, the situation could soon get a whole lot worse. As Anne Applebaum recently wrote in the Atlantic, “The Bad Guys Are Winning.”

The most depressing development has been the steady erosion of freedom in once-democratic countries such as Hungary and Turkey (which weren’t invited to the summit) and Poland and India (which were). Even the United States has seen its freedom score from Freedom House decline by 11 points from 2010 to 2020.

America’s recent history has left many understandably uncertain whether we have the standing or ability to champion freedom in other countries. Democracy promotion has become unfairly equated with failed military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, democracy at home has been tarnished by President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election and his incitement of a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol.

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It’s not just that we are backsliding in our own democracy. It’s that we so often look inept these days — which makes democracy itself look dysfunctional. The United States has more covid-19 deaths than any other country in the world — nearly 800,000. Even though the disease originated in China, the country has reported fewer than 5,000 covid-19 deaths. (The real figure may be higher but still not nearly as high as ours.)

A year ago, I hoped that U.S. leadership in developing and deploying coronavirus vaccines could rehabilitate our international image. But we lag dozens of other countries in the percentage of our population that has been fully vaccinated. Seventy-nine percent of mainland Chinese are fully vaccinated compared with just 60 percent of Americans.

No wonder that, in a Pew Research Center poll this year, only 17 percent of the people in 16 democratic countries expressed confidence in the United States as a role model for democracy.

Given these dispiriting developments, it is understandable if many wonder why Biden is bothering to host the democracy summit in the first place. Shouldn’t we get our own house in order before telling others what to do? We should definitely work to strengthen our democracy — it’s imperative for Congress to pass voting rights legislation — but we cannot afford to abdicate international leadership until we perfectly practice all that we preach.

In the early years of the Cold War, after all, the United States defended freedom in Europe and Asia even while Southern states enforced segregation at home. The hypocrisy was jarring, but the proper response was to improve human rights at home rather than refuse to defend human rights abroad.

One of many failures of the Trump years — and one of the reasons that global democracy has eroded in recent years — was that the U.S. government lost interest in promoting freedom. Trump wanted to emulate dictators such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and even China’s Xi Jinping rather than insist that their countries emulate our democratic example. It is hugely important to once again have a president who is taking the lead in calling out dictators (e.g., with the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics), even if Biden will never go far enough — especially in dealing with problematic allies such as Saudi Arabia — to satisfy human rights advocates.

The best, backhanded compliment that the Summit for Democracy has received came in an article jointly authored by the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to Washington. Writing in the National Interest, they made a tortuous case that their dictatorships are actually democracies. China has “an extensive, whole-process socialist democracy,” they wrote, while “Russia is a democratic federative law-governed state with a republican form of government.”

This is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. With their doublespeak, these autocracies inadvertently acknowledge that the consent of the governed is the only true source of legitimacy in the 21st century. And despite their claims to reflect “the people’s will,” they know the reality is otherwise. That’s why they demand that other countries “stop using ‘value-based diplomacy’ to provoke division and confrontation.”

If these anti-American dictatorships don’t want the United States to practice “value-based diplomacy,” that is precisely what we should do. No one is arguing that we should use force to spread democracy, but we should definitely use every other instrument at our disposal, including public diplomacy and economic sanctions.

That is precisely what Biden is doing. He understands that there is a worldwide battle between democracy and dictatorship — and that democracy is losing. This week’s virtual summit will not by itself change the outcome of this struggle, but at least it will signal that the United States is once again on the side of the good guys.