A few days ago, President Joe Biden announced to western allies that America is back while the images of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol were still fresh in our memories. The ambitious damage-control operation that the Biden administration has embarked on has quite a few critical fronts: the COVID-19 pandemic management and vaccine roll-out; the much-needed economic relief bill negotiations; the broad social and racial discontent; and the most pressing of all the institutional challenges the country has been left to deal with: the distrust in American democracy.
The United States is in an extremely uncomfortable—and unusual—position where much of its political authority, historically based on the strength and stability of the American experiment, has been cast in doubt after the Capitol insurrection. The country, with Biden's leadership, must not only work to recover public trust in democratic institutions, but also ease concerns among Western superpowers that the United States can be seen once again as an unfailing ally.
Historically, "democracy promotion," as it's called, had been an essential artifact of the American foreign policy agenda. Efforts around the world have oscillated from financial aid to institutional promotion, from containment to military intervention. The strategy would very much depend on which party was in office, but under Trump, the embrace of autocrats like Putin and Kim Jong-un contrasted with the aggressive rhetoric against Maduro in Venezuela, making it unclear if his administration was more interested in giving the impression of pushing for regime change to secure Venezuelan American votes in South Florida than democracy itself.
The investment in democracy building has been both a commitment to advance democracy development around the world and a preemptive measure against authoritarian regimes. This time around, the country is facing one of the most consequential tests to its own democratic system while the world is watching. How can Biden advocate for democracy overseas while in his own country is under attack?
The United States has to lead by example in breaking the authoritarian expansion started by Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party. The first weeks of the Biden administration have been essentially oriented by the complete undoing of some of Trump's most far-reaching decisions: leaving the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, rescinding the Muslim Ban, among other immigration policies. The message is both a domestic compromise and a foreign policy pledge.
The Biden administration has probably two years to undo most of the damage Trump did to belief in democracy. Past use of democracy promotion had been strengthened by the advocacy for human rights, and the fight against Communism, and later on becoming an instrument in the fight against Islamist terrorism. This time, the assurance given by the Biden administration to support democracy in Venezuela, Myanmar and Belarus is a signal that his mission shouldn't be limited by his own administration's efforts to recover public trust in American democratic institutions.
This administration understands the lack of trust—domestic and foreign—in its democratic institutions and commitment needs messaging supported not just by words but actions. While Biden is still moving forward his main policy decisions, getting his cabinet confirmed, and issuing executive orders to reverse most damaging decisions made by the previous administration, this is not enough to bring relieve among the skeptics. However, it does show Biden's resolve to reestablish democracy at home, signaling the events of January 6 have not completely erased basic democratic principles of American democracy, at least, not among Democrats.
There are serious doubts about the moral and practical authority of the United States as a trusted advocate for democracy building. However, the problem the country is facing, and Biden's first steps seem to be in that direction, is credibility.
The only way for the United States to recover its trustworthiness is by example, at home and abroad. The administration is moving this way by diverting from Trump's failing policies regarding the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the social unrest. At the same time, his foreign policy approach appears to be based in the country's best interest, as well as a reinforcement of democracy worldwide, producing relief among allies, in a strong rebuke to the previous four years of Trump's disengagement.
There are also signs that this administration will enact policies intended to mend America's role in democracy promotion, by sanctioning Russia, Myanmar, and committing to review its strategy toward China. These decisions are in no way incompatible with restoring faith in democratic institutions in the United States. On the contrary, it is reinforcing the need to oppose any attempt to digress from democracy, at home and abroad. It is about setting an example for countering authoritarianism in domestic and foreign spaces.
Today's democracy promotion starts at home. It is the renewal of an outreach that was not always as devoted to democracy as it's pretended to be, but amidst the present challenges, it seems fit to assume its values to restore trust among the American people, and the international community. While it will take time to rebuild faith in democracy, the efforts being made in that direction should not be diminished. History will tell if this experiment faced an insurmountable test, but in the meantime, let's hope this is the groundwork for American democracy's recovery.
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