It was not an attack with a hypersonic weapon or cyber warfare, but it was targeted at the very heart of the United States. The first high level meeting between American and Chinese officials under the new administration of President Biden went underway in Alaska last month, and our standing in the world took center stage. With his opening remarks, the top Chinese diplomat took aim at our divided politics and claimed the United States was, in effect, an unreliable world partner and a declining power.
For the past few years, whispers and accounts indicated that the Chinese were claiming this behind our back to other countries. However, this has now bubbled over into a direct confrontation on our soil. Chief among the accusations is a troubling charge that Chinese form of government should be preferable to Western democracy. That is ridiculous, however, we face some challenges. Given the tensions between China and Taiwan that have escalated in recent weeks, as it relates to accidental conflict or possible military action, it is imperative that the world continues to see the United States as a symbol of freedom in an increasingly complex world.
The growing threat of domestic terrorism, exacerbated by the mediocre response of the last administration to a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than half a million Americans, now lays bare the daunting challenges that face our system of government and our way of life. These efforts of China to wield and leverage our divided politics against us on our own soil, as well as sow doubt about our strength around the world, are among the numerous reasons that leaders of both parties must make bolstering our representative democracy a top national priority.
If the United States cannot build broad coalitions abroad, or if our ability to project power and advance our global agenda is deterred, that directly harms our national security. If countries like China are using cracks in our system against us in its diplomatic agenda on the world stage, that harms our national security. Its charge that the democracy of the United States is the problem and other countries should not trust us is so wrong.
We have work to do on issues like ending racial injustice, creating modern jobs, and tackling climate change. Yet the United States certainly remains the leading global power. Our economy is the strongest in the world, and so is our technology smart military and our higher education system. Our ongoing efforts to do better and to form a more “perfect union” is just one of the characteristics of our country that makes us exceptional.
We must do more to bring us closer to the promise of the United States. That is why we should focus on reforms to strengthen our democracy so that we can continue to be a beacon of peace, freedom, and human rights abroad. There is no doubt that our current political and social divisions run deep. But when we are able to course correct and make the changes that will give our own people reason to trust and believe in the awesome power of our democracy, other world leaders will do the same.
The most important actions we can take right now are to restore civic education in our schools, protect our elections from insidious outside influences and hackers, and end practices like partisan redistricting. As the oldest continuous democracy in the world, we must set the standard for fair and safe elections where civic participation is encouraged and public policy decisions are based on who has the best ideas rather than which major donors gave the most money in an election cycle.
The election last year saw the highest turnout in over a century and was the most secure in our history. Now is the time to build on this success and ensure the process is even more secure and accessible. That means improving our election infrastructure and establishing best practices. It means healing our partisan politics and joining with other similar minded countries to forge coalitions of democracies working to resolve problems, whether that is vaccine distribution to poorer countries, climate change collaboration, or the reformation of technology supply chains.
China is foolish to claim the United States is not trustworthy. It goes to the heart of our values. China could well succeed in awakening a somewhat complacent country at a critical time in our history. Russia galvanized us with its Sputnik challenge in the 1950s. Now the derision of democracy and assertion of dominance from China could propel Americans to their very best instincts and ideals. The great words of Winston Churchill are a poignant reminder to us all. “The United States stands at the pinnacle of world power. This is a solemn moment for democracy. For with primacy in power is joined an awe inspiring accountability for the future.”
Tim Roemer is a former member of Congress from Indiana, former United States ambassador to India, and former member on the 9/11 Commission. He now serves as one of the chairs of the Reformers Caucus at Issue One.