by Renee M. Earle
Between January 6 and January 20, disbelieving viewers in America and throughout the world watched two weeks of American history, unlike any before, cascade across their TV screens like a 33vinyl record played at 78 RPMs. Cameras recorded the dizzying transformation of the Capitol from take-for-granted placidity, to unimaginable desecration, and finally to a stage festooned to welcome the inauguration of a new president.
Foreign Service friends and colleagues in Washington, DC and abroad wondered what the world would take away from these images. We had often encountered military and armed police patrolling cities in other countries—but never in OUR capital. A Department of Justice colleague worried that our work abroad, such as justice system reform in countries from Colombia to Afghanistan, might now be at risk. After witnessing the January 6 events on Capitol Hill, would our overseas partners embrace us with as much confidence?
The Constitution and citizen participation in a democracy played a large role in my career abroad as a public diplomacy foreign service officer with the State Department. In the years after the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain fell, supported by the FAS (Freedom Support Act) and SEED (Support for East European Democracy) Congressional appropriations, helping the people of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union construct, or reconstruct, democratic institutions and practice was an important focus for our embassies in East and Central Europe. These programs were broadly welcomed by our host countries.
In the former Soviet republics, we offered satellite receivers and television programming to official and independent broadcasters to end the information blackout and allow access to views from outside the USSR. People were hungry for the information and a new order. One of our most popular programs was a 12-part series on the U.S. Constitution dubbed into Russian. The program was eagerly consumed by thousands across the region.
In newly independent Kazakhstan, the embassy was asked to assist with drafting a new constitution, and we brought U.S. legal scholars to work side-by-side with Kazakhstani academics. The group of Kazakhstani supreme court judges we invited to the U.S. to meet with counterparts and see our nation at work returned to tell us that if they had not seen it, they could never have imagined the extent of freedom in our political practice and institutions. Later, even in Western Europe, as the Europeans considered a new constitution for the European Union, U.S. ideas were welcomed. Our guest speaker, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, held up a copy of the relatively short U.S. Constitution that contains the foundations of our federal democracy, contrasting it with the long treaty EU representatives were drafting.
Alexis De Tocqueville in his Democracy in America wrote that one of the characteristic differences between Europe and America was American civic engagement. When Americans see a problem in their community, their first action is to consult and organize with fellow citizens rather than petition the government for a solution. That civic engagement was absent in the societies of Eastern and Central Europe where conformity was demanded, and independent thought was not only discouraged but as often punished.
A large component of U.S. efforts in the region therefore focused on civic education. After some resistance from education bureaucracies, the programs were welcomed by teachers and proved among our most consequential. Students were shown they could and should start change themselves by taking on the responsibility of civic participation. Czech high-school participants in the program decided their community deserved running water. The municipality had repeatedly stated it could not afford it, so before drawing up their petition, the young students did the necessary research to prove its financial feasibility. The students got their water and were later invited to Parliament as an example of the citizen involvement needed to grow democracy in the Czech Republic.
All of these activities were initiated by American efforts and accepted by our partners as helpful lessons from America’s 200-year experiment in democracy. The shameful display that Americans and the world saw in our nation’s capital on January 6, however, was not democracy in action. It resembled what so many people in the rest of the world are still trying to escape. Still, a few countries’ schadenfreude aside, reaction from most of the world indicated hope that the U.S. would quickly overcome an aberration. It appears that the need for a beacon, no matter how broken it might look on occasion, remains strong.
Since January 6, we have seen reasons for renewed hope, but also for continued caution. On January 18, we celebrated the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, who, against many indications to the contrary, spoke of our ability to change. On the very day we honored Dr. King, the Trump administration released its 1776 Commission report, a broad denial of facts in the assessment of many aspects of American history. The peaceful inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden as our 46th president reassured us that we have kept our republic, and Amanda Gorman’s stirring inaugural poem promised that we could reach beyond division, inequality, and racial injustice—if we step into our past to repair it. To heal, we must also remember, as President Biden reminded us. And this includes our most recent past on Capitol Hill. It is time we recognized what even we could lose—at home and abroad.
Perceptions of U.S. society have often influenced international opinion of the U.S. as much as our foreign policy. While the world will certainly welcome our return to treaties and multilateral institutions, today more than ever, the world’s willingness to accept American leadership will depend greatly on how it views U.S. domestic policy and our social values. To ensure our democracy’s survival, we must address our homegrown shortcomings and educate our citizens for civic participation anchored in the Constitution and rule of law. We can regain international trust only if we set our own house in order. Only then can we credibly ask others to follow our example. Only then can our diplomacy be effective in promoting democratic values and advancing a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Hill on January 15.
Renee M. Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services.