by Ken Moskowitz
When I was the U.S. Embassy press officer in Kyiv, Ukraine in the late 1990s, the public affairs section sponsored programs showcasing and explaining American democracy in the post-Soviet republic. One major event I organized was a public symposium entitled “Holding Elections in a Free Society”. We featured American government and academic experts on topics such as how to maintain a level playing field among competing political parties, registering to vote, ensuring fairness in the counting of ballots, election monitoring, equal access to the media, and similar features of our electoral system. The implicit message, of course, is that our election system is worthy of emulation.
But our experience in last November’s presidential election, and the groundless objections about its integrity and result raised by President Donald Trump, culminating in a pro-Trump mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, did not resemble the exemplary depiction in my symposium. How could American diplomats justify holding such programs today, after the president himself condemned our Federal elections as rigged and massively fraudulent, our national government as corrupt, federal bureaucrats as members in a disloyal or self-serving Deep State, and the federal and state courts as biased institutions?
The world has noted the deterioration in America’s democratic culture. In the 2019 Index of Democracy published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the rating of the U.S. on its democracy scale fell from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.96 in 2019 (with 10 as the top score), dropping it further into the “flawed democracy” from the “full democracy” category. The U.S. now ranks 25th of 167 countries rated. American diplomats might be shocked to learn that the Economist team now grades U.S. democracy lower than Mauritius, Chile, and Uruguay according to its measures of features such as the electoral process and pluralism, and the functioning of government.
The Humbling of American Advocacy for Democracy
Andrew Preston, a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge, citing Woodrow Wilson promising to “teach the South American republics to elect good men,” has written that America must get its own house in order before it can preach about democratic values. In my own thirty years of public diplomacy work, many of my foreign interlocutors, even in friendly counties like Japan and those in Eastern Europe, have shown little patience for Americans calling our country “exceptional” and the best model for correct political behavior. But seeing the interest that people around the world have for a country viewed as a “beacon” of democracy, it is natural for U.S. diplomats to want to explain what makes the United States special or unique, and it is indeed part of their job. It seems that our power, creative energy, and affluence — our inherent soft power — foster curiosity (or even envy) that many foreign publics around the world have for us.
With this in mind, one healthy consequence of the Trump years might be a humbling reminder for any U.S. government officials who harbor ingrained views of American exceptionalism to avoid a patronizing tone in their conversations with foreign nationals. These officials might even remind foreign nationals of the fragility of democracy, as witnessed in our recent experience. Yet even if conscientious diplomats say all the right things, foreigners still hear presidents and members of Congress of both political parties frequently say that America is the greatest country on earth. In addition, American political leaders have been criticizing other countries’ human rights deficiencies since at least the era of Jimmy Carter. A typical response to this was the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman who in June, 2020 said that the U.S. has no right to lecture China on its Hong Kong policy after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. China, comparing the attack on the Capitol to pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong praised by U.S. politicians, contended that the U.S. image as a “beacon of democracy and freedom” has been shattered.
Indeed, it is hard to teach political wisdom to other countries since Trump’s behavior invited comparisons to nations where the losers in elections routinely challenge the results, and often with similarly violent consequences. In fact, other countries do not enjoy the integrity of the American electoral system, with its many safeguards and procedures for redress, such as legal challenges, recounts, and certifications, in addition to our long history of peaceful voting. As we saw, Trump took full advantage of these legal guarantees, and then continued to press bogus claims of election fraud. How could a U.S. government representative now claim experience and expertise in conducting free and fair elections to unstable countries with weak democratic institutions?
The assault on our citadel of democracy, the U.S. Capitol, is a particularly sobering and humiliating lesson for heretofore confident American diplomats. That may not be a bad thing. We can now perhaps better understand and genuinely sympathize with foreign publics suffering from political instability due to contested national elections.
Another lesson of the Trump era is in our attitude toward government communications or public information itself. My experience has taught me that the coin of the realm for embassy spokespersons is our credibility and honesty. This is how we have long distinguished ourselves from representatives of authoritarian governments who practice the half-truths of propaganda without compunction. We have now had a president who lied routinely for four years, up to and including the claim that he won a re-election in a landslide. Given this egregious example of mendacity, U.S. government spokespersons overseas might address the fragility of democratic values, even in a mature democracy like ours.
President Trump generated conflicting feelings about the U.S. government that I proudly served and the country I celebrated in word and deed throughout my State Department career. My view is that of a great and fair, though flawed, democracy. This stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s America: a rigged system of arrogant elites abusing their power through election and financial manipulation, selling out to foreign powers, and engaging in insider conspiracies. With this image of America now widely held among foreign publics, our Foreign Service officers may need years to undo the damage of the Trump years.
Many Americans viewed the departure of Trump and the beginning of the administration of President Joe Biden in January as a victory for democracy. In his Senate nomination hearing to be Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said that “Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin.” I believe that it was a narrow victory for democracy, which demands this new note of humility in talking about U.S. elections overseas. We should continue to conduct programs on elections in order to share our lengthy experience in this arena. But this should include sharing our recent experience of how elections can be disrupted or overturned by determined parties. That would be a first step to repairing America’s image and rebuilding its credibility as a leading democracy.
Ken Moskowitz has been Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Temple University Japan since August 2016. In 2015, he completed a 30-year career as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. State Department. Domestically, he served as an inspector with the Office of the Inspector General and as an APSA Congressional Fellow for Sen. James Jeffords and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. His overseas postings, where he specialized in press and cultural work, included the U.S. embassies in Sofia, Budapest, Kyiv, and Tokyo, where he was the American Center Director. He has also taught cultural diplomacy at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, and attended SAIS/Johns Hopkins University as a mid-career Fellow. He holds a Ph. D. from the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, an M.A. in Philosophy from Brown University, and a B.A. in History and English Literature from Swarthmore College.