To support democracy abroad, U.S. needs to set its own house

Former Russian ambassador and Stanford political scientist Michael McFaul recommends that the incoming Biden administration “go big” in its efforts to reaffirm core democratic values – including passing comprehensive, structural reforms.

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By Melissa De Witte

The armed insurrection that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is a gift to America’s autocratic adversaries who want to challenge America’s fight to promote universal values of democracy and human rights, says Stanford political scientist Michael McFaul.

For the United States to continue in its pursuit for democracy abroad, it’s crucial that the country put its own house in order, said McFaul in an interview with Stanford News Service. But even as that is happening, the U.S. should not cease speaking up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law around the world, he emphasized.

Here, McFaul discusses how the insurrection, and the country’s democratic regression that was accelerated by Donald Trump’s presidency, will impact the incoming Biden administration and what steps the U.S. must make to reaffirm its democratic values, both domestically and abroad.

McFaul is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. McFaul served in the Obama administration as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation and has authored several books, most recently, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What long-term impact will the insurrection have domestically?

I would start by saying that for several years now we have been in a period of democratic regression in the United States that started before Donald Trump became president but was accelerated over the past four years. The tragic events of last week – an armed insurrection against the Capitol inspired by the president of the United States – is a giant exclamation point to a very dark period for American democracy. That said, I cannot predict what this inflection point means. I know what I want it to mean, though: I want all Americans, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, to unite behind our democratic institutions and our constitution, and to unite against those autocratic forces.

I hope that recent events lead to a recalibration within the Republican Party that says whatever our ideological differences are within our party and with respect to other parties, we are all going to adhere to the democratic rules of the game. I think that demands speaking truth. I think that demands pushing out those anti-democratic elements that won’t sign up for that. But I don’t want to try to predict what will happen. I know what I want, I don’t know what the trajectory will be.

What can the new administration do to prevent further violence and assault from happening around the country?

Before we talk about the Biden administration specifically, I think there is a lot of responsibility, particularly among Republican elected officials, to understand the dangers of disinformation and the dangers of spreading falsehoods, to come to grips with that and to tell the truth to the American people. Start with the November presidential election. It was a free and fair election and millions of votes were not stolen. Until Republicans admit that, it’s going to be very difficult for us to come together and unify behind a defense of our democratic institutions.

As for President Biden and his team, I would recommend that they go big. Once President Biden is sworn in, I believe that he should get very serious with a long list of democratic reforms. He can start with House Resolution 1 that calls for deep structural reforms needed to revive our American democracy. House Resolution 4 – which is voter rights named after John Lewis – is another place I would start right away.

In Biden’s address to the nation on Jan. 6, he remarked that the world is watching. What will other countries be looking for in how Biden and his administration tackle the insurrection and the events leading up to it?

The world was watching on Jan. 6. Some cheered and some lamented. Remember, the world is not unified. The autocrats of the world cheered. If you look at the publications that came out of Tehran, Beijing or Moscow, it’s very clear what the autocrats of the world thought. This was a gift that will give for years, and maybe decades tragically, for America’s fight to promote universal values of democracy and human rights. That is an analytic statement in my view; that is not a normative statement. Likewise, “small d” democrats around the world lamented in all those places I just described. I know lots of people were disheartened, because they were looking for a new moment and renewal of American moral leadership with the Biden presidency.

What can Biden and the new administration do to rebuild America’s reputation on the global stage?

Without question, the most important thing that the United States of America and President Biden can do to support democracy abroad is to get our own house in order here at home. We need democratic reforms here to have any credibility to demand democratic reforms of other regimes. At the same time, it is incorrect to say, “Well, until we get our own house in order we cannot talk about democratic erosion and human rights injustices abroad.” I do not believe that. And believe me, human rights activists also don’t want us to check out for years or decades until we get our own house in order to stop speaking up in their defense. I think that’s a challenging space that President Biden is walking into. But I know President-elect Biden, I used to work with him when he was vice president. I travelled to places like Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova with him and I know that he believes that morality has to be part of U.S. foreign policy. I am encouraged by him and his new team that we are going to return to speaking up about democracy, human rights and the rule of law around the world. But there is no doubt about it, it will be a much more challenging proposition as a result of the tragedy that happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Can you explain a little further what morality in U.S. foreign policy looks like?

In American history, we had a debate about whether morality and the support for human rights abroad should be a part of our foreign policy, and that debate goes all the way back to the founders of our republic. Some believe it should, some believe it shouldn’t. I am in the camp that believes that it should, not only because I think it’s the moral thing to do, but I think it also advances American security interests. Having more democracies in the world is good for our security. All of our enemies have always been autocracies. No democracy has ever threatened, let alone attacked, the United States.

I believe that is a tradition President-elect Biden also adheres to. The devil is in the details, of course. It’s an easy thing to proclaim that at 30,000 feet; it’s a much harder thing to do when you admit honestly and openly that the United States has many security relationships with countries around the world that are not democracies. That hypocrisy is true and makes it challenging to speak about these things with any credibility, but I think that you can and that speaking honestly about what is democracy, what is human rights, what is rule of law is a first positive step.

I realize it may be too early to tell, but how do you think you will teach last week’s events to your students? What lessons do you hope can be learned about American democracy?

I am teaching a course in the spring on popular mobilization with an Egyptian colleague of mine. It will be very interesting to discuss our comparative perspectives and to talk about under what conditions does popular mobilization lead to democracy and under what conditions does it lead to the breakdown of democracy.

For me, I think the biggest challenge will be to speak analytically about causality. What causes moments like this to happen? What are the causal factors here at play? We as social scientists need to explain them and that is most certainly what we are going to be doing in our course in the spring. There are socioeconomic structural factors involved as well as agency – agency of politicians like the president as well as agency of groups like the Proud Boys.

I get really animated when I hear people saying these people were right-wing conservative. It had nothing to do with conservatism. It’s the exact opposite of that. I think we are undermining 200 years of American tradition. It had nothing to do with the ideas of conservativism or even the right wing. I think we need to give our students the language to speak about these things with an open mind. The way that people talk about these things will be different, and we have to listen but we don’t have to check our values at the door just because we are listening to other political perspectives.

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