Los Angeles Times

America’s allies are anxious about U.S. democracy

Diplomats say nation’s drift has continued with Jan. 6 riot. Some see signs of resilience.

- By Noah Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson

WASHINGTON — Three European diplomats opened the door to the ambassador’s residence and offered up a Cognac and a request for anonymity.

Years ago, they might have been happy to talk openly about American democracy, the core of the superpower’s “branding” on the global stage, as one of them put it. Now, it’s a subject of uncertaint­y and controvers­y. The brand is tarnished as former President Trump, who tried to overturn the 2020 election, teases a political comeback and President Biden, the man who replaced him, struggles politicall­y.

“It’s not about Trump,” one of them said. “It’s much deeper than that. And that’s much more worrying.”

Many of the television­s in Washington’s embassies have been tuned to the Jan. 6 committee hearings and the barrage of testimony detailing Trump’s plot to subvert the will of the electorate with help from an angry mob of his supporters.

But concern that America was adrift began increasing before the hearings, as Western allies saw the rise of nationalis­m and isolationi­sm, and a sense of disenfranc­hisement among voters that was spreading to their own countries, according to interviews with American foreign policy veterans and 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 just returned from a tour of European capitals and was asked repeatedly by foreign officials about the U.S. midterm elections and the potential for a Trump return.

Conley, who heads the German Marshall Fund, a U.S.-based organizati­on that focuses on transatlan­tic and other multilater­al relations, said the officials fear that Biden’s attempts to repair a fractured system are temporary, like glue holding together a shattered vase.

One diplomat who spoke with The Times pointed to the months immediatel­y after Jan. 6, 2021, when Republican lawmakers shifted from condemning Trump to taking his side. The period was crucial, he said, because it illustrate­d that pressure to fall behind Trump was coming from the ground up.

“That’s terribly worrying,” he said. “Because it means that democracy is sick among voters, not just the system, the institutio­ns, the politician­s.”

Despite the red f lags, several diplomats said they saw the transition of power to Biden, however rocky, and the accountabi­lity brought by the Jan. 6 hearings as

World leaders ‘are worried about what the future will hold. Will Trump come back or another person inclined to the “America first” agenda?’


signs of resilience. One ambassador said America has similarly reemerged from the damage wrought by disruption­s such as Watergate and the Vietnam War.

“This country, things have never been hugely stable,” he said. “There’s always something happening.”

Although the diplomats disagree over the severity and scope of America’s problems, most are concerned that the country’s deepening polarizati­on is undercutti­ng its standing and reliabilit­y. They cite several contributi­ng structural problems, such as paralysis in Congress, partisansh­ip on the Supreme Court, restrictiv­e voting laws at the state level and a fractured news media. Some also accuse Democrats of playing power politics and, over the longer term, abandoning 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 are coexisting but they’re not talking to each other.”

The size, power and selfprofes­sed moral standing of America give its problems outsize significan­ce. The spillover effects include instabilit­y in European government­s, turns toward authoritar­ianism elsewhere and the emboldenin­g of 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 issue, and we see it in the United States; we see it also in our countries.”

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron struggled to assemble a government after a farright nationalis­t party surged in June elections. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who came to power over opposition to a unified Europe, has agreed to step aside after a series of scandals. And Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a hard-right nationalis­t, recently said that Hungarians should resist becoming “peoples of mixed race,” echoing the racial-purity rhetoric that many Europeans hoped to bury after the Holocaust.

In Latin America, several countries have turned to more autocratic or anti-U.S. government­s while building stronger ties with China. In June, Biden failed to

persuade some of the Western Hemisphere’s invited government­s to attend a major regional gathering, the Summit of the Americas, which the U.S. was hosting for the first time in three decades, after his administra­tion excluded some countries.

Ahead of that meeting, which took place in Los Angeles, Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Argentina and deputy ambassador to Afghanista­n, said America was no longer winning the war of ideas against China.

“There is a souring of public views on how effective democracy is,” Wayne said. “They look and see the United States has been having some of 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 it will stay there, said David Gordon, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administra­tion who is now an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a consultanc­y focused on political risk assessment.

“Biden had an easy act to follow. He has known all these guys forever. But they are watching him fade physically before their eyes. They compare President Biden to Vice President Biden, and it’s not the same guy,” Gordon said. “They are worried about what the future will hold. Will Trump come back or another person inclined to the ‘America first’ agenda?”

As one European diplomat put it: “You have to be careful not to put all one’s eggs in one basket. U.S. elections can change things again.”

In the meantime, some see Biden as having compromise­d on some of his promises to put human rights at the center of his agenda, including a pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah because of the brutal murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other attempts to silence dissidents. Some also say Biden has failed to call out allies such as India and Israel when they have been accused of committing abuses, and he was widely pilloried for a chaotic and deadly pullout from Afghanista­n.

At some level, almost all of America’s allies see their relationsh­ip with the U.S. as strategic, rather than ideologica­l or moral. The balance of those priorities depends on the country and who is asked to weigh them.

Michael Green, a former national security advisor on Asia in the George W. Bush administra­tion, said that’s particular­ly true among allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Intellectu­als in those countries tend to view American leadership in the same light as European allies do, worrying that a Trump return to the White House would further erode democracy.

Yet many people in the policy arena in some of those countries viewed the Trump years through a security lens and often found themselves in agreement with Trump’s advisors on how to confront China, said Green, who now leads the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

“The people who ran the foreign policy when Trump was not paying attention, which was basically most of the time, were basically hawkish conservati­ve Republican­s,” he said.

But a second Trump term could upend that calculus. Many of the same allies fear, for example, Trump would fulfill his stated desire to withdraw American troops from South Korea, forgoing what they see as a stabilizin­g force for the region.

Other government­s, including those that have turned toward their own populist authoritar­ian leaders such as Hungary’s Orban, see a potential Trump return as a boon, said Conley, of the German Marshall Fund.

“They are — unwisely — gaming out our polarizati­on and hope it will work for their side, “Conley said. “It’s very, very risky.”

former State Department official

 ?? AMERICA’S BRAND Samuel Corum Getty Images ?? had been declining even before the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and the subsequent hearings, experts say.
AMERICA’S BRAND Samuel Corum Getty Images had been declining even before the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and the subsequent hearings, experts say.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States