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Jan. 6 and America’s support for democracy abroad

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Shortly after the horrific Jan. 6 onslaught on the U.S. Capitol, the “hypocrisy chorus” began.

Critics of America’s global democracy-support policies, including Russia, China and Iran, argued that a hypocritical and damaged America now lacks moral credibility and should retreat from backing democracy abroad. The partisan divide regarding the impeachment of former President Donald Trump added momentum to the skeptics’ narrative. Some detractors even argue that democracy is simply no longer an effective system of governance.

Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described American democracy as “limping on both feet,” adding that “America no longer charts the course and therefore has lost all right to set it. And, even more, to impose on others.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the events of Jan. 6 “showed how weak Western democracy is,” while Chinese state media proclaimed “the failure of democracy.”

While self-serving statements by foreign adversaries aren’t surprising, they’re deeply inaccurate. Jan. 6 marks a change not in whether the U.S. should support democracy overseas but rather how we should speak about it at home and abroad. It was a clarion call to redouble American efforts at home and abroad to strengthen the only system that can challenge the undemocratic forces that seek to limit citizens’ rights and sow instability globally.

The United States’ support for democracy around the world is not an export of a perfect system at home; it’s a testimony to the transformational change made possible through democracy. The United States has never been a perfect country; our advocacy is based on the excellence of democratic ideals, not the excellence of our track record alone. Our global advocacy for democracy stems from the knowledge that democracy remains the best governing system to allow for accountability of leaders to citizens, security through a rules-based system, economic growth based on anti-corruption and rule of law, and respect for human rights for all. 

While Jan. 6 was unquestionably a dark day in American democratic history, it was also a day in which democracy worked. Lawmakers fulfilled their commitment to certify the results of our democratic election. Law enforcement agencies arrested insurgents who defiled and interrupted our democratic process.

And, lest we forget, the people of the U.S. state of Georgia elected two new senators, an African American pastor and a young Jewish American journalist. In many places, including the United States not too long ago, any of these new senators’ characteristics – their ethnic, racial or faith background or their vocation – would have been an immediate disqualifier. Yet now they are lawmakers in the same building that was attacked last month.

The very system that was under attack is the system that responded and is being used to correct historical wrongs. That is what democracy looks like.

For the United States to stay silent in the face of undemocratic forces because we have failures at home would be immoral, shortsighted and irresponsible. Staying neutral on authoritarian behavior because our country woke up to racial injustice last summer and domestic terrorism in early January would be the worst kind of self-centered, navel-gazing possible. Activists in Burma, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Egypt and elsewhere don’t need American support because we “got democracy right.” They already know we are imperfect. They need American support because they are risking life and limb for democracy and need all who have seen those ideals on display to stand in solidarity.  

When the United States has spoken from a position of perfect mastery of democracy at home, we have failed to speak honestly and fully about our history, which is marred by the evil institution of slavery, systemic disenfranchisement and abuse. And where we have shied away from speaking out about democracy because of our shortcomings at home or fear of haughtiness, we have abandoned those who need international support and missed the opportunity to highlight how many countries – including our own – have addressed these failures through democracy.

Every democracy is subject to undemocratic forces, and Jan. 6 showed that the United States isn’t invulnerable. It also showcased the importance of strong democratic institutions, processes and values to counter those forces.

The United States must continue to support democracy overseas, based on the humility of our own lived experience and confidence in the values that we have aspired to over the course of our imperfect, two-century experiment with democracy.

We owe that to the people who courageously fight for democracy in their own countries, as so many have done in ours.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is the Kelly and David Pfeil Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.

Tags Capitol attack Democracy democracy promotion Direct democracy Donald Trump Liberal democracy Vladimir Putin

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