As a university student in 1961, I heard John F. Kennedy speak of America as “a city upon a hill.” A few years later, Ronald Reagan said “Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining city on a hill.” Both great Presidents cribbed this from the Sermon on the Mount and from Thucydides who described Athens as a city “open to the world.” Kennedy, Reagan, and Thucydides all knew that the more democracies, the safer their own country.
Thirty-six years as an American diplomat convinced me that America’s power derived from the world’s belief that we are indeed the “city on a Hill,” a country that inspires, not a country to be feared. Unlike previous World Powers we created alliances by inspiration and not coercion or by Mafia-like “protection” to small countries. Like ancient Athens, we often slipped from our pedestal, overthrew democratically elected governments, supported foreign tyrants and occasionally devastated some innocent country in order to “save it.” Athens’ allies abandoned it because it lost its way, another lesson for today. But, despite our failures we still inspired admiration until the late outgoing administration created the doctrine of ‘America First’, dismissing democratic values as only for the weak. It opted for the Mafia formula. It never understood that, unlike our adversaries, we have allies who share our values. Our adversaries maintain alliances to protect tyranny. We turned our backs on our allies and grasped the bloody hands of dictators.
Fortunately, four years is a blink in the eye of history. Our democratic allies want the America they knew back. We cannot erase the actions of the outgoing administration, but we can mitigate them while avoiding the mistakes of the past. ‘America First’ seduced many Americans who had grown tired of ill-conceived ‘forever wars’ or believed that globalization let clever foreigners take their jobs away. Truth be told, as a country we prospered fantastically from the world we shaped after World War II, but a sizeable portion of our citizens did not share in that new prosperity. Others saw their way of life threatened by the frenetic change of globalization.
How do we square the circle? How do we renew our credentials as the indispensable ‘shining city’ without making the same mistakes and reinvigorating the anti-democratic isolationism concealed in the ‘America First’ slogan? Domestically, we have to give priority to preparing our young people to compete in a world from which we cannot isolate ourselves. Internationally, we must play to our strength as the champion of democracy. President Biden has begun the process declaring that he wants to reinvigorate an alliance of democracies. But we need to play it smart. Forget spreading democracy by toppling authoritarian regimes. It rarely works and is rarely worth the cost; look at Libya. We brought down the USSR by example, not war. Military strength prevented the Cold War from becoming a shooting war but the USSR imploded because its citizens saw how democratic states prospered while they lived in misery. Authoritarian regimes carry the seeds of their own destruction; their people cannot give them negative feedback and thus they cannot correct their own weaknesses. Helping a weaker democracy face down a predatory tyrannical neighbor will ultimately undermine the tyrant.
We must pay special attention to those countries that break the shackles of dictatorship and help them nurture their newfound freedom with military, economic, and diplomatic assistance. An authoritarian reaction crushed most of the Arab Spring Revolutions except in one country, Tunisia. We should help Tunisian democracy succeed; it will inspire democratic forces in its neighborhood. At the same time, we should not reward suppression of democracy as we have done in a number of Middle Eastern countries. Egypt’s generals overthrew a democratically elected President and established the most brutal dictatorship in modern Egyptian history. That dictatorship enjoys massive U.S. economic and military aid far more than we give Tunisia. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
Another wannabe dictator, Turkey’s President Erdogan, threatens weaker democratic neighbors. Erdogan’s revanchist claims on Greece and Cyprus and his aggression by proxy into Armenia provides a textbook example of an opportunity to defend democracy effectively and cheaply. We should provide all three countries, which have demonstrated willingness to pay for their own defense, with military material. That would deter aggression, stabilize the region and, by blocking Erdogan’s efforts to restore Ottoman glory, strengthen democratic forces among the Turkish people.
The examples go on and on. Our own missteps opened the door to autocracy in Russia, which now threatens the small but very democratic Baltic Republics as well as shaky new democracies in the Ukraine and Georgia. Only the Russian people can change Russia but an example of working democracies next door will accelerate the process. Similarly, what better way to check Chinese hegemony in East Asia than to buttress democratic countries such as South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan? In the Middle East, Iraq’s people have tasted democracy and have made it clear that they do not want to fall under Iran’s control. American support gives hope to those who want to bring freedom to their countries and creates a better world for America.