Opinion: How to restore America's moral leadership for democracy

The scene in front of the United States Capitol after rioting supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the building. Photo by: Leah Millis / REUTERS

The horrifying scenes of violent, seditious protestors storming the United States Capitol raise doubt about how — and indeed if — the U.S. can be a democratic leader globally. How can we claim to promote democracy abroad when it is in crisis at home?

As two people who have spent their careers proudly supporting democracy as U.S. ambassadors and policymakers, and who now lead organizations devoted to democracy and human rights, it was heartbreaking to watch as both friends and enemies of democracy alike ask that exact question.

The president of Zimbabwe took to Twitter, saying, “Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.” The government of Turkey called on Americans to use “moderation, common sense to overcome this domestic political crisis.” Even the illegitimate foreign minister of Venezuela condemned “the political polarization.”

Where do we go from here? How can we restore America’s moral leadership for democracy?

First and foremost, we must unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw in and around the Capitol. Those who took part must be held accountable.

But it’s not enough to decry the events of a single day. Unfortunately, these subversive acts against the legitimate results of a clearly valid election have been coming for some time.

Words matter. What happened Wednesday is a result of the inflammatory and baseless comments over many years from some of our government leaders, who for the past few months regarding the election results fueled the despicable actions that took place in the Capitol. It is the culmination of the lies and contempt for democracy among those who have knowingly trampled democratic norms of transparency, accountability, and equality.

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So, on the verge of a new administration, Democrats and Republicans alike must recommit themselves to address the simmering intolerance, division, and distrust that have brought our American democracy to the brink.

We know from decades of experience that the job of democracy is never done and that democracy is fragile. We also know it is resilient. One of the great virtues of democracy is that it’s the only form of government that can renew itself over and over again — and reaffirm its sacred foundation when governments and leaders fall off the path. This is one of those moments.

The violent actions on the sacred grounds of the Capitol remind us of the consequences of spreading misinformation.

However, even as we go about the work of restoring our own republic, we cannot shy away from standing firm for democracy abroad. We cannot let the crisis at home erode our commitment to human rights and human dignity globally.

Around the world, authoritarian opportunists from Beijing to Minsk to Caracas are eroding the foundations of democracy. At this time of crisis for democracies around the globe, America — with all our struggles and imperfections — cannot be silent or pull back.

Our country’s history is not one of unbroken, clear, and easy progress toward a more perfect union — quite the contrary. Our democracy has always been messy, a work in progress, and a struggle to achieve the aspirations boldly laid out by our founders. The principles that undergird that process are what form the basis of America’s ability to shine as a beacon for democracy.

America’s democracy assistance is an offer to walk with people on their democratic journey. We do not lecture but share lessons learned from our own experience and that of a variety of international contexts — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We acknowledge to our partners that democracy is not easy, that it is forever a work in progress, and that every democracy has flaws, including the U.S., whose history includes defects in our march to form that more perfect union.

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It is this commitment to help advance universal values of human dignity for all equally that informs our work, and that is more important than ever — particularly given malign international actors. People around the world continue to welcome democracy assistance from all who would help them fight to secure their rights and dignity. Just as we must fight to defend our own democracy and realize true liberty and justice for all on our own shores, we must not fail to assist all who would boldly fight for the same elsewhere.

President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration has already signaled that restoring America’s global democratic voice will be a priority. It will find strong bipartisan support among many for that mission. Those of us who work in democracy and development must all rededicate ourselves to be partners in this effort. We must send a clear message of hope, encouragement, and solidarity to the brave activists, journalists, political leaders, and citizens around the world who are fighting for freedom.

While much of the focus, and rightly so, is on the violence that occurred at the Capitol, let us not forget what occurred once the dust settled. Order was restored, Congress went back to work, and the election results were certified.

Working together, Republicans and Democrats must return to work to renew the promise of our democracy. Every member of Congress must put country before party, reject the forces of violence, division, and hate, and return to the politics of dialogue and compromise. People everywhere who are struggling for democracy and dignity — as well as those who oppose them — are watching.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Mark Green

    Mark Green is executive director at the McCain Institute and former administrator at USAID.
  • Derek Mitchell

    Derek Mitchell is president of the National Democratic Institute.