This Will Leave a Mark

The Global Impact of Illiberal Trends and Political Dysfunction in America

The shocking scenes of insurrectionists ransacking the Capitol Building on Wednesday reverberated around the world.  The sum total of the global reactions served as a sort of geopolitical Rorschach test, an indication about how various leaders feel about the United States.  The reactions also offered a preview of the reception incoming U.S. President Joe Biden will get when he comes to office. 

Authoritarian governments like China and Russia gloated – with one Russian leader saying, “The United States certainly cannot now impose electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world’s beacon of democracy.”  Democratic partners expressed dismay and hopes that America would keep it together.   Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed confidence that this was just a passing phase, saying, “I think American democratic institutions are strong, and hopefully everything will return to normal shortly.” 

What happened is cause for introspection in America about how much has deteriorated in our own society.   One former senior U.S. diplomat who served in countries plagued by political violence told me in an exchange we had while Congress was being overrun: “I’m thinking of the cable we’d be writing if this had happened when I was overseas.” 

Echoes of problems we see in other countries like rising intolerant attitudes and sharp, uncivil exchanges are now a part of the landscape in America’s politics, as noted by author Kim Ghattas in the Atlantic.  These deeper pathologies aren’t likely to fade as fast as many people expect once Trump is out of office.  It’s tricky to make comparisons between the situation in the United States and other countries that have different histories or experiences. 

But at times this week, I found myself thinking back to a research trip I took to Iraq early after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.  I was doing research aimed at listening to what ordinary Iraqis felt about the chaotic situation in the summer of 2003.  The differences between Iraq back then and America today are massive.  But one common sentiment I detected is the popular confusion and dismay at a situation that results from the mix of ideologically driven incompetence and the decline of a country's social fabric in an acid bath of “us versus them” identity politics.

This week in America, the worst fears many people had weren’t realized – a political transition will occur in America.  But how Americans and their leaders respond in the coming months will determine whether the political system and social fabric remain healthy and resilient enough to bounce back.   

The rest of the world is watching America’s politics closely, and people have seen the growing illiberal trends for years – trends that were a pre-existing condition made worse by President Donald Trump.  A morbid joke I’ve heard in several countries around the world over the past decade:  America tried to export so much democracy to the rest of the world that it didn’t have much left at home. 

What happened this week is the latest, most dramatic display of America’s internal dysfunction and divisions – with a radical right-wing fringe threatening the heart of America’s democracy with violence. 

This extremism, along with the broader social and partisan splits, have held back America from addressing severe problems like the pandemic, jobs, inequality and hunger more effectively or taking advantage of opportunities to invest in the common good.   The lack of an inclusive patriotism and sense of shared national purpose – also erode America’s ability to shape global events. 

When America fails to take care of its own democracy and its own people, the world notices.   On a work trip to a conflict zone in the Middle East in late 2005, people expressed dismay to me that the U.S. government wasn’t able to respond more effectively to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  How poorly America’s government took care of its own citizens was part of the mix of growing negative perceptions about the country fueled by things like abuses at in prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. 

When partisan rancor led to a government shutdown in 2013 that lasted more than two weeks, a Chinese official visiting my office in Washington D.C. pointed out that the shutdown was a self-inflicted wound by the government of the world’s largest economy, just as his government was marching forward with a global economic plan – the Belt and Road Initiative linked to improving its own domestic economic fortunes.   America has had two more government shutdowns since then – including one in early 2019 that lasted more than a month – and all of these episodes reflect the internal divides while sending a message to the world about the lack of a shared sense of purpose. 

The Biden administration comes into office signaling an intent to focus on the world while dealing with the major problems at home.   President-elect Biden is looking for ways to implement his “build back better” slogan of national recovery in a way that is connected to U.S. foreign policy, and he and his top aides have talked about having a foreign policy the middle class can support.  Much of the focus here is on economic issues and job creation and addressing the concerns of Americans who feel left behind by globalization. 

But the post-election turmoil and the events this week demonstrate an urgent need for a political component of a “build back better” agenda, one that is focused on building broader coalitions at home to implement political reforms that can produce a healthier politics – ambitious ideas like ones in this report issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Reviving America’s liberal democratic system is essential for creating a more unified approach to foreign policy.  The international system is a state of flux - tectonic plates have been shifting in the world for much of the past decade - and other countries are operating more assertively in the global sphere, seeking to shape trends towards their advantage.

The recent trend to make key foreign policy and national security questions partisan wedge issues in America’s politics has motivated other countries to either exploit America’s internal divisions or increasingly ignore America’s role in the world. 

Illiberal trends on both the right and left in U.S. foreign policy debates during the past few years have splintered a shared sense of national purpose.  At times, these foreign policy issues are mixed in together with the “us versus them” identity politics infecting America and many other democracies around the world.   The President of the United States, some members of Congress and sometimes their staff operating just like Twitter trolls when discussing national security not only lowers the quality of the debate on foreign policy – it operates as an open invitation to countries around the world who want to exploit these divisions for their own purposes. 

The divisions and rancor in U.S. foreign policy debates have become so acute that it has made the old debates about American leadership and exceptionalism in the world versus a more restrained approach are increasingly passé.   Much of the rest of the world looks to America as a country too dysfunctional and consumed with its own divisions – and as a result, it has less impact in the world than it could. 

America remains a leading economic and military power in the world – but the weaknesses in its own political system hold back its our ability to shape and influence the rest of the world.  This week’s events are the latest wakeup call on the dire need to make the revival of America’s liberal democracy a key component of any national project to “build back better.”