In 2013, eight years before horned intruders stormed the United States Capitol in the name of a perverse freedom, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass argued in his book Foreign Policy Begins at Home that the greatest threat to American security comes not from abroad but within. Originally launched in 2012 and renewed at the beginning of 2022, the Council’s Renewing America initiative is predicated on just such an idea: for the United States to succeed abroad, it must fortify its democracy first.
Since Haass’s original insights, others have echoed his call for a foreign policy that begins at home. In 2020, Zack Cooper and Laura Rosenberg, then co-directors at the Alliance for Democracy, argued in Foreign Affairs that in order to maintain influence abroad, democracies must strengthen domestic institutions. If they can get “their houses in order,” democracies have a winning hand to play; genuine rule of law, superior economic dynamism, a free press, and competitive markets are all comparative advantages in the long game of geopolitical competition.
One year after their article in Foreign Affairs, the war in Ukraine, while far from over, has offered indications that Cooper and Rosenberg may be right.
The United States and its allies, buttressed by the fierce resistance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, have rallied in a defense of democratic values and a show of economic, political, and military might. Despite the troubling electoral successes of far-right leaders in France and Hungary, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has acted swiftly and effectively, imposing crippling sanctions on the Russian economy and oligarchs, and seizing an estimated two-thirds of Russian foreign currency reserves. The United States has supplied Ukraine with essential, albeit still inadequate, security assistance, recently approving an additional $800 million in military aid that includes sales of artillery, armored vehicles, and helicopters. Meanwhile, Russian technology and IT workers have fled the country, while over 600 companies have chosen to exit Russian markets amid heightening social pressures and an increasingly isolated Russian economy.
On the Russian side, its forces—many of whom did not even know why they were being deployed to Ukraine—have sabotaged their own equipment and refused to carry out orders. There have been staggering numbers of Russian causalities—including top generals—amid poor planning and logistics failures. Putin has grown increasingly paranoid and dangerous, and U.S. intelligence has stated that Putin’s top advisers are too afraid to be honest with him about the state of the war. Moreover, Putin’s intense secrecy prior to the invasion, when he neglected to consult some of Russia’s top government officials before invading Ukraine, have fomented confusion and led to poor execution since the start of the offensive.
Thus, the West has, so far, managed to leverage its significant political, economic, and military advantages in defense of Ukraine. The pull of free markets and rule of law has led to a mass Russian exodus from the private sector, and multilateral action from the world’s leading democracies has showcased their global influence. But, as Richard Haass reminded us almost a decade ago, global power begins at home. Without an improvement in domestic institutions, the international influence of democratic nations on display in the war in Ukraine will slowly, but surely, erode.
And, given the declining state of democracy both at home and abroad, there is ample reason to worry. In its Freedom in the World 2022 report, Freedom House determines that just twenty-five nations improved their democracies in 2021—nearly a 75 percent decrease from 2005. The same Freedom House report shows that eight out of ten of the world’s citizens currently live in only “partly free” or “not free” nations, with 38 percent of the world’s population living in the latter countries, the highest proportion since 1997. And, although the United States still received a denomination of “free,” its aggregate democracy score has fallen by eleven points in the decade from 2010 to 2020.
For Americans, such figures point to an unsurprising pattern of institutional decay and democratic backsliding. 2020 concluded with a hotly contested presidential election—in which an incumbent president refused to accept the results of an election that experts have almost unanimously deemed secure. And 2021 began with the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, launched on the basis of such false beliefs about the election’s fraudulence. In a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll taken in December 2021, just 21 percent of Republicans said they believed that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate. And, in a March 2022 report, the Pew Research Center estimated that Democratic and Republican members of Congress are “farther apart ideologically today than at any time in the past fifty years,” a reflection of the growing partisanship that has wracked the American political system.
Equally frightening, while Russian troops marched on Kyiv, elements of America’s illiberal right-wing have stirred. Swaths of America’s most prominent GOP voices have expressed what has been, at best, ambivalence, and, at worst, outright support for Putin. On February 19, Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance stated, “I don’t really care what happens in Ukraine.” In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Trump referred to Vladimir Putin as a “genius,” though he later tried to walk back his comments citing distortions by the “Fake News.” Tucker Carlson of Fox News has equated the Russian and Ukrainian regimes as democratic and moral equals, stating that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin are “both tyrants” and arguing that Ukraine is a “growing dictatorship.” One of Carlson’s most elegant diatribes scolding the supposed provocative behavior of the United States was used by Russian state media as propaganda. Carlson’s antics would be easy to dismiss as fringe were it not for his over three million nightly viewers.
Such outcries of illiberalism do more than just inflame partisan fervor. They undermine the ability of the United States to act abroad. As Cooper and Rosenberg argue, when democracies fall short of their own ideals, “authoritarian competitors use those deficiencies to discredit them.” And evidence shows that it’s not just our enemies that pay attention—our allies take note when American leadership fails as well. The percentage of German, French, and British citizens who “have confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs” jumped, respectively, by 78, 76, and 72 percent after President Joe Biden assumed office from President Donald Trump, according to a Pew Research poll. These numbers—and the fact that former President Trump was impeached for withholding $400 million in congressionally approved aid from Ukraine for political reasons—highlight the dangers that the erosion of domestic institutions pose to an effective foreign policy.
Still, Ukraine has magnified the power that the United States and other democracies can have on the global stage. But the roots of this influence are domestic. The immediate lesson for Americans is clear: leading up to what is sure to be a contentious 2022 midterm election season, and an even more fraught 2024 presidential election, the world will be watching. The work of the January 6 committee to investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol is encouraging, but its dissolution after the 2022 midterm elections would strike a blow to American democracy and, subsequently, America’s international credibility. The case for improvement is, therefore, not simply a moral one; it is a realist imperative for the preservation of America’s international power.