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The Degradation of Democratic Norms Here Makes It Harder to Promote Them Abroad

Even as we struggle to protect our own democracy, we can’t stop fighting for democracy around the globe.
August 26, 2020
The Degradation of Democratic Norms Here Makes It Harder to Promote Them Abroad
Opposition supporters rally to protest against disputed presidential elections results in Minsk on August 23, 2020. (Photo by Sergei GAPON / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)

On August 9, longtime Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko engaged in massive fraud to steal re-election for a sixth presidential term. (His previous “victories,” except for his first in 1994, were hardly more honest.) The day after the election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a reasonably strong statement, calling the election “not free and fair” and appropriately condemning the use of violence against protesters and journalists (though the United States since has gone largely silent). But in Belarus and around the world, some may wonder what moral ground the United States has to criticize others, given President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that he would accept the results of the U.S. presidential election in November should he not be declared the winner.

The apparent degradation of American democracy might lead some toward disengagement in democracy promotion and moral international leadership. This would be a twofold mistake. By ignoring our role as the foremost champion of democracy around the world, we would give comfort and support to foreign despots.

Given the use of federal forces, including Park Police and Secret Service, on June 1 to clear Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., of peaceful protesters and the deployment of federal security agents without identification and in unmarked cars to Portland, Oregon, the similarities between the United States under President Trump and Belarus under Lukashenko are discomforting.

Of course, America is still a special country and, for now, vastly more fair and just than Belarus. In Portland, some protesters reported being detained without apparent cause. In Belarus, protesters—and even those not protesting—are detained without cause as a matter of course, and are often beaten and tortured in police custody. In Portland and Washington, federal law enforcement used unnecessary and shocking violence against peaceful protesters. In Belarus, police used live ammunition against what they described as a “group of aggressive citizens with metal rods in their hands.” Lukashenko has threatened to use the Belarusian army against protesters. Trump’s efforts to involve the military in domestic policing have met with resistance from the Pentagon.

But the non-violent aspects of authoritarianism are much more similar. Trump’s effort to suppress voter turnout, including through various obstacles to mail-in voting, has parallels with Lukashenko’s efforts to steal the election in Belarus. Trump’s persistent refusal to say he will accept the outcome of any election in which he isn’t the winner betrays a view of elections that Lukashenko would appreciate.

Under normal circumstances, governments across Europe and the free world—not to mention the brave Belarusians on the streets—would look to Washington to lead the response, both public and private, to such an offense to democracy. And Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun, a very decent man, is in Europe this week to address the situation. But an old familiar form of whataboutism is returning: Who are the Americans to criticize others, given what’s happening inside its own borders?

At the height of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, the Soviets would parry any accusation of human rights abuses by invoking the horrors and indignities of Jim Crow and the deep injustice of segregation, as if that excused the Gulag. Now, Lukashenko can point to Lafayette Square and Portland and respond, “Tu quoque. ”

Of course, the task is not any easier when Trump praises authoritarian leaders, such as when he “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim or called Egypt’s el-Sisi his “favorite dictator.” Trump’s own whataboutism doesn’t help either. When asked about the murders of Russian journalists in 2017, for example, he replied, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” This was one of many opportunities when Trump declined to criticize Putin, as well as the worst kind of moral equivalence—put forward by the president of the United States, no less.

As the Republican party holds its convention, the United States is facing serious challenges at home on many fronts, from its reckoning on racial justice and presidential attacks on the media, to concerted, years-long attacks on the independence of the Justice Department from political influence.

But these domestic shortcomings don’t call for retreat; they challenge all Americans to continue our decades-long commitment to supporting democracy and human rights globally, while simultaneously addressing concerns that abound inside the United States today. We must fulfill our responsibility to speak up when other governments commit serious human rights abuses, engage in massive corruption, or undermine the rule of law and democratic processes, at least to signal our commitment to free and fair government at home as well as abroad.

There is no moral equivalence between developments in the United States and those in Belarus—or in any other country with an authoritarian regime. We remain a democracy, albeit one where our institutions that support the rule of law are challenged by a president who too often views himself as above the law. We should fight domestically to reassert the rule of law so that we can be in a stronger position to do so internationally, and fight for the rule of law internationally so that we don’t weaken the community of free democracies that buttresses our own.

Human rights activists, civil society figures, opposition leaders, and oppressed citizens around the world look to the United States, as they have for years, to speak truth to power in their countries. Far be it from us to tell protesters in Belarus and other unfree countries that they came at the wrong time looking for inspiration and moral support in the United States.

The values and truths we espouse globally are equally true at home. We tell other leaders that they should not use power to enrich themselves. We should repeat this guidance as strenuously as ever, while we seek to spotlight how our president may have violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, enabling his family’s profiteering from their political offices.
We stress the importance of separation of powers and of checks and balances to fledgling democracies around the world. As we give this advice, we should heed our own wisdom, despite the fact that our Senate wilts in the face of alleged impropriety by the current administration.

The behavior, rhetoric, and actions of the current administration are cause for great concern about the future of America’s democracy. They also complicate American efforts to hold other governments to account, not least the ones in Beijing, Minsk, Manila, Riyadh, and Moscow, among other places. We must continue to speak out when we see egregious abuses in other nations, but we should also recognize that not pushing back when necessary on American transgressions will lend more credence to whataboutism—and with increasing justification.

This week, the Republican party and President Trump are outlining their vision for the next four years. Americans have the opportunity to judge whether the current president and his party are capable of defending freedom and self-government at home and abroad. “Freedom,” President Reagan was fond of saying, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. ”

We must seek to challenge any threat to democratic values and institutions at home and abroad. Retreat on either front is not an option.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca and David J. Kramer

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a professor at Georgetown University, the incoming executive vice president of Freedom House, and the Kelly and David Pfeil Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. David J. Kramer is Managing Director for Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute and served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush administration.