One of the major foreign affairs problems that haunts the United States stems from the fact that every national election here brings with it the possibility of radical changes in our foreign policy.
If you consider that observation against the premise that the most important elements in any nation’s foreign policy are consistency and predictability, you will understand the problem.
We have just gone from a tough, hostile Trump foreign policy to an apparently more benign Biden foreign policy. For example, Trump blamed the Chinese for Covid and many other things he didn’t like, while continuously praising Putin and Russia. Biden, on the other hand, is going a bit easier on the Chinese and calling Putin a murderer! It’s hard to think that the change could have been much more radical.
Any wish list for most of the world’s population — not for its leaders, but for its people — would probably contain internal calm, international peace and personal security. Such a list could go on and on, but it’s fair to say that such populations want anything other than violence, conflict and any other struggles that make their lives more difficult.
What do most Americans say they want for the rest of the world? Knowing little else, they want democracy. Fifty years ago, that really meant something, but how does it look today?
With intelligent gun control now favored by three-quarters of the population clearly politically impossible, the world looks at a country that loses dozens of its citizens a month to gun violence and does absolutely nothing to stop it. According to Gunviolencearchive, between March 1 and March 27, 2021, 55 Americans were killed by gun violence and 157 wounded.
Voter suppression, gerrymandering, the Electoral College as well as disproportionate representation in the Senate and the overwhelming role of money in politics are all issues that make our claims of “democracy” subject to foreign skepticism. And then there are the unfortunate facts of our racism, our attitude toward foreigners and our treatment of all minorities here at home.
And now, in the aftermath of the 2020 elections, many of our more rural, Republican-run states are in the process of passing legislation aimed at disenfranchising existing voters.
Further, how do you mitigate the continuous flow of untruths on the 2020 national election outcome from the White House or the Trump administration’s worst-in-the-world showing on Covid, or their disinclination, at best, to intervene in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection?
Of course, the real, intractable problem is how other countries react to our desire to bless them with our “democracy.” Take much of the Muslim world. Since the advent of Islam in the early seventh century, that religion has evolved in many ways that would be an anathema to many Americans. Muslim social traditions, their treatment of women, their moral agenda, their positions on human rights and individual freedoms are all elements that strongly complicate the likelihood that believing Muslims would be prepared to accept “democracy” as we would offer it. They are, in the main, sufficiently comfortable with what they now have.
What options, then, do we have for encouraging a safer, more peaceful world? In his 1989 farewell speech to the nation, Ronald Regan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
That “shining city” certainly has lost much if not most of its luster, yet the Regan message stands strong. If we do not wish to use force to try to bring “democracy” to the rest of the world, a policy that has been universally counterproductive for us in the past, then the only way to sell it is to show the world that it is a magnificent system that, for their own reasons, they desperately need to adopt.
And the only way to make that work is to concentrate on the strengthening of our democracy and country — physically, morally, philosophically and economically. If we can do that, the shining city just might win the day.
Haviland Smith, Middlebury, is a long-retired CIA operations officer who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, working primarily against the Soviet target. He was the first chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism operations.