Three European diplomats opened the door to the ambassador’s residence and offered a cognac and a request for anonymity.
Years ago, they might have been happy to talk openly about American democracy, the heart of the superpower’s “brand” on the world stage, as one put it. Now this is a matter of uncertainty and controversy. The brand is tarnished as former President Trump, who tried to cancel the 2020 election, teases a political comeback and President Biden, the man who replaced him, struggles politically.
“It’s not about Trump,” one said. “It’s much deeper than that. And it’s much more disturbing.”
Many Washington embassy televisions were tuned to the Jan. 6 committee hearings and the barrage of testimony detailing Trump’s plot to subvert the will of the electorate with the help of an angry mob of his supporters.
But worry than America was adrift began to rise ahead of the hearings, as Western allies saw the rise of nationalism and isolationism, and a sense of disenfranchisement among voters that spilled over into their own countries, according to interviews with veterans of foreign policy and US diplomats, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about an ally’s problems.
“It weighs very heavily,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official who has just returned from a tour of European capitals and who has been repeatedly questioned by foreign officials about the US mid-term elections. -mandate and the potential for a return of Trump.
Conley, who heads the German Marshall Fund, a U.S.-based organization that focuses on transatlantic and multilateral relations, said officials fear Biden’s attempts to fix a fractured system are temporary, like glue. holding a broken vase.
A diplomat who spoke to The Times pointed to the months immediately following January 1. 6, 2021, when Republican lawmakers quirky to condemn Trump to take his side. The period was crucial, he said, because it illustrated that the pressure to fall behind Trump was coming from below.
“It’s terribly disturbing,” I said. “Because it means democracy is sick among the voters, not just the system, the institutions, the politicians.”
Despite the red flags, several diplomats said they saw the transition of power to Biden, difficult as it was, and the responsibility that January 1 brought. 6 audiences as a sign of resilience. An ambassador noted that America has also emerged from the damage caused by disruptions such as Watergate and the Vietnam War.
“This country, things have never been extremely stable,” he said. “There’s always something going on.”
Although diplomats disagree on the severity and extent of America’s problems, most fear the country’s growing polarization will undermine its reputation and reliability. They cite several contributing structural problems, such as paralysis in Congress, partisanship in the Supreme Court, restrictive election laws at the state level, and fractured news media. Some also accuse Democrats of playing power politics and, in the longer term, of failing low-income white voters, leaving many disillusioned with the political system and vulnerable to Trump’s breed of populism.
America, according to one diplomat, is a place where “two different worlds coexist but do not speak to each other”.
America’s size, power, and self-proclaimed moral reputation make its problems outweighed. The ripple effects include instability in European governments, turns to authoritarianism elsewhere, and emboldening in China and Russia, validating President Vladimir Putin’s claim that liberal democracies are fading.
“Democracies are challenged, both inside and outside,” said a European diplomat. “It’s a real problem, and we see it in the United States; we also see it in our countries.
For example, French President Emmanuel Macron struggled to form a government after the emergence of a far-right nationalist party in the June elections. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who came to power because of his opposition to a unified Europe, has agreed to withdraw after a series of scandals. And Hungarian Viktor Orban, a far-right nationalist, recently said that Hungarians should resist becoming “people of mixed race”, echoing the rhetoric of racial purity that many Europeans hoped to bury after the Holocaust.
In Latin America, several countries have turned to more autocratic or anti-American governments while strengthening their ties with China. In June, Biden failed to to persuade some of the governments invited from the Western Hemisphere to attend a major regional gathering, the Summit of the Americas, which the United States was hosting for the first time in three decades, after his administration ruled out some countries.
Prior to the meeting, which took place in Los Angeles, Earl Anthony Wayne, former US ambassador to Mexico, Argentina and deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, said America was no longer winning the war of ideas against China.
“There is a sourness of public opinion about the effectiveness of democracy,” Wayne said. “They look and see that the United States has the same problems. It’s not a shining example of success in the North.”
Biden’s promise that his election would mean “America is back” on the world stage has not convinced many leaders that she will stay there, said David Gordon, a former State Department official. George W. Bush administration, who is now an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm specializing in political risk assessment.
“Biden had an easy act to follow. I’ve known all these guys forever. But they watch him physically fade away before their eyes. They compare President Biden to Vice President Biden, and he’s not the same guy,” Gordon said. “They worry about what the future holds for them. Will Trump return or someone else inclined to the America First agenda?”
As one European diplomat said: “You have to be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. The US elections can still change things.
Meanwhile, some see Biden as compromising on some of his promises to put human rights at the center of his platform, including a promise to make Saudi Arabia an outcast because of the brutal murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other attempts to silence dissidents. Some also say Biden failed to call out allies such as India and Israel when they committed alleged abuses, and he was widely pilloried for a chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On some level, nearly all of America’s allies view their relationship with the United States as strategic rather than ideological or moral. The balance of these priorities depends on the country and who is asked to weigh them.
Michael Green, former national security adviser for Asia in the George W. Bush administration, said this was especially true among allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
The intellectuals of these countries tend to view American leadership along with European allies, fearing that a return of Trump to the White House would further erode democracy.
Yet many people in the political arena in some of those countries viewed the Trump years through a security lens and often found themselves agreeing with Trump’s advisers on how to deal with China, he said. said Green, who now directs the Center for American Studies at the University of Sydney. .
“The people who ran foreign policy when Trump was not paying attention to it, which was basically most of the time, were basically hawkish conservative Republicans,” he said.
But a second Trump term could upset that reckoning. Many of the same allies fear, for example, that Trump will fulfill his stated desire to withdraw US troops from South Korea, giving up what they see as a stabilizing force for the region.
Other governments, including those that have looked to their own authoritarian populist leaders like Orban of Hungarysee a potential Trump comeback as a boon, said Conley, of the German Marshall Fund.
“They’re playing – recklessly – on our bias and hoping it works for them,” Conley said. “It’s very, very risky.”