The U.S. Needs to Get Its Own House in Order
Emma Ashford comments on some of the more bizarre responses to the outrageous attack on the Capitol that the president incited:
It’s a sign of how broken U.S. foreign-policy debates are that the primary reaction from many commentators was to worry about America’s moral authority and global leadership. There were comments about how happy China’s Xi Jinping must be and worries that this would undermine U.S. democracy promotion abroad. Michael McFaul, a former Obama-era ambassador to Moscow, tweeted that “Trump today delivered his latest, but hopefully his last gift to Putin.” Meanwhile, a group of NGOs, including the National Endowment for Democracy, issued a statement reaffirming its “commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values.” In short: in the middle of a literal coup attempt aimed at halting the certification of a democratic election, with insurrectionists storming the Capitol, many foreign-policy hands were fretting about whether the United States could continue to spread democracy and human rights abroad and whether it might impact America’s ability to engage in great-power competition with China.
No doubt some foreign governments will enjoy trolling the U.S. over the disorder and chaos that the president has fomented, but that isn’t why Americans should be alarmed and disgusted by what we have seen over the last two months. It may be true that the U.S. will have no credibility to promote democracy or to rally democratic states in opposition to China in the wake of this disgrace, but that is at the very bottom of the list of what we should be concerned about right now. The purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to protect the United States and to ensure that our constitutional system of representative government endures, and none of the rest of it matters if we cannot keep the republic intact and functioning at home.
Some of the politicians that preach loudest about “standing with” democratic protesters elsewhere have proven that they will do serious damage to our own system if they think it will boost their political fortunes. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley weep crocodile tears over the plight of Hong Kong protesters, and then they turn around and seek to subvert our own democratic system when they see some short-term advantage in doing so. That should remind us that interventionists cynically abuse the rhetoric of rights and democracy for their own purposes all the time, and it tells us that we don’t have to take these senators seriously ever again.
Our colleague Samuel Goldman expressed the hope earlier today that the attack on the Capitol would cause some humble self-reflection on the part of our foreign policy elites:
On the plus side, I am cautiously optimistic that this week's debacle will temporarily restrain our habit of lecturing other countries about their political deficiencies.
— SamuelGoldman (@SWGoldman) January 8, 2021
I wish that would happen, but for at least the last twenty years we have seen how quickly Americans have sought to distract from our own failings by chasing after enemies abroad and meddling in the affairs of other countries. As Ashford’s article reminds us, the first reaction that many people in the foreign policy establishment had to an attack on the Constitution and Congress was to worry about the implications for U.S. “leadership,” as if that were what was most important at the moment. Last week, I said that the U.S. needs to be focused on getting its own house in order before it presumes to lecture others about democracy. The events of this week have shown just how bad the rot is and how much work needs to be done. The first step in repairing the damage has to be removing the president from office as quickly as possible to show that we will not tolerate such an attack on our system.
We also need to reflect on how our government has made a habit of ignoring threats here at home while obsessing over minor nuisances on the other side of the planet. Having inflated threats everywhere else, they missed the one staring them in the face. Two decades of the “war on terror” have caused massive suffering, displacement, and death in many other countries, and all of it has been done in the name of keeping the U.S. secure. Americans have put up with ever-more elaborate exercises in security theater and infringements on civil liberties supposedly for the sake of national security. We have massively overreacted to the threat of foreign terrorism, and millions of people have paid and are still paying the price for it. Now a rabble of domestic extremists was able to seize the Capitol with relative ease in part because the relevant authorities never even considered the possibility that it could happen. Our government’s attention is so fixated on distant threats from somewhere else that pose little threat to the U.S. that it misses the dangers that are right under our nose.