America, the Shining City on a Hill?

Our founders always imagined America as the shining city on a hill. Near the end of his life, James Madison, one of our earliest diplomats, stated, “Our country, if it does justice to itself, will be the workshop of liberty to the civilized world.” As the horrific scenes at the Capitol unfolded, I was heartbroken as the world watched an attack on this noble vision.

The reactions from across the globe were swift and overwhelming. Even before the lawless riots finished, the confidence of our allies was shaken with calls for calm in our shores. I was glad, however, to see many stand by this country they know and love. The prime minister for New Zealand tweeted, “I have no doubt democracy will prevail.” Further, the leader of  Spain told the world, “I believe in the strength of democracy.”

Unsurprisingly, our adversaries like Russia tried to take advantage of our wound, claiming democracy was “limping on both feet.” As Colin Powell said, “The world cannot believe we have done it to ourselves” and called the chaos a gift to Vladimir Putin. The taunts from Turkey said the United States should “overcome this domestic political crisis with maturity.”

The truth is that such terrible violence is what America condemns around the world and works to prevent, not just as the reflection of our values but also because it is in our best interests. When Ronald Reagan first launched the National Endowment for Democracy, he said, “Our freedom and that of our allies could never be secure in a world where freedom was threatened everywhere else.” Several groups, supported by the State Department and Agency for International Development, work to advance these efforts with training, election observation, and advocacy for the rule of law.

Madeleine Albright has testified to Congress, “Our future depends, to a great extent, on whether democracy succeeds or fails. We must realize the stakes of failure mean a world that is more insecure, unstable, and unhealthy.” Dan Sullivan, a senator and chairman with the International Republican Institute, has also warned that, “The last time authoritarian governments were on the march, the result was World War Two.”

It is our bipartisan commitment to back fragile democracies that makes the chaos last week all the more heartbreaking. Yet despite the darkness of the day, within hours, democracy prevailed as lawmakers returned to work in the same chambers that had been attacked. We will grapple with the magnitude of what happened, bring the perpetrators to justice, and our leaders will ensure the peaceful transfer of power. But this must not lead us to turn inward or lose sight as the world watches us. What we do matters to the health and safety of our 330 million citizens

We cannot afford to hand an inch of ground to our adversaries after 2020 marked another year of decline in global freedom for more than a decade. Our allies call for us to show up at the international table. Indeed, the new administration has articulated a clear vision to engage with the world and bolster the bipartisan coalition that supports democracy. It is not just our strength but also our credibility as a global leader and a partner which is needed to confront the global threats that affect our daily lives, from the coronavirus to climate change and cybersecurity to disinformation. Our strength abroad will come from our strength here at home.

There is much to reckon with, not least of which is the shameful contrast between how the racial justice protests last summer and the insurrection last week were handled. Natalie Brown, ambassador to Uganda, spoke of why we must get it right. She said, “We are mindful of the work still to be done in our experiment with democracy, while our history has taught us that democracy must be defended if it is to endure.” I am very confident that we will live up to be a beacon for democracy that our allies still call for. Not only do I believe in my fellow citizens, but the effects of a frayed America on the world stage are the reasons for us to get it right.

Liz Schrayer serves as the president and the chief executive officer of the United States Global Leadership Coalition, an alliance of businesses and organizations which advocate for American diplomacy around the world.

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