Andrew Preston is a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge whose books include Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.
Just over a century ago, Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States was going “to make the world safe for democracy.” In doing so, he not only brought the U.S. into the First World War, he also launched an era of American democracy promotion that transformed the world, even if it didn’t always make it more democratic.
During the election campaign, Joe Biden made a pledge to recover the Wilsonian tradition. One of his signature foreign-policy vows is that he’ll host “a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” It’s a vague plan, but such vagueness has often worked for U.S. presidents in the past.
Mr. Biden, however, faces a big problem: Donald Trump has already brought the Wilsonian era to a close. His supporters’ storming of the Capitol made sure of it. Even though American democracy remains robust – if it weren’t, Mr. Trump’s putsch would have been successful – its image as a standard-bearer has been tarnished irrevocably.
Mr. Biden will push on regardless. “Let me be very clear,” he said Wednesday, responding to the uprising. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America [and] do not represent who we are.” The incursion, the president-elect declared, was the work of “a small number of extremists” who were trying to stop the sacred workings of a hallowed democratic process.
Never mind that the mob was hardly small. The real problem with Mr. Biden’s message is that it is only partly correct. The damage to any hopes of a renewed Wilsonian spirit promoted by America’s democratic beacon was already done before the horrifying scenes at the Capitol.
As unpalatable as it was, the riot was very much in keeping with a populist political tradition that is older than the republic itself. A large cohort of Americans, remarkably consistent in their social and ethnic makeup, has often taken matters into their own hands whenever the future of the country – their country, unchanging, as they define it – seems in peril. Just consider the white settlers who poured west across the Appalachians in the 1760s despite a royal proclamation forbidding them to do so, the Southern rebels who seceded in 1860-61, the Red Shirts and Knights of the White Camelia who violently resisted Reconstruction after the Civil War, the prairie populists of the 1890s, the Second Klan of the 1920s, the anti-communist witch hunt during the early years of the Cold War, the John Birch Society of the 1960s and the militia movement of the 1990s. Yesteryear’s Paxton Boys are today’s Proud Boys.
Though these Americans often use undemocratic means, they’ve hardly been unrepresentative. Indeed, democratically elected leaders, or those who aspire to elected office, have ridden the momentum of these movements while also goading them along. To the roster of Andrew Jackson, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and Patrick Buchanan we can add the name Donald Trump. They may not represent Mr. Biden’s America, but they certainly represent an America – and not a small one at that.
America’s own foreign-policy legacy also makes Mr. Biden’s project feel doomed. The U.S. campaign of democracy promotion scored some notable successes across the 20th century, most notably in Germany and Japan. But that has also led U.S. leaders to hold an unwavering confidence that they knew what was best for others. As Mr. Wilson himself put it shortly after becoming president, he was going to “teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Invasions of Mexico followed in 1914 and 1916, as well as of Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916. This Wilsonian tradition persisted through his successors, especially during and right after the Cold War, and helped lure the U.S. into Baghdad in 2003.
There’s also a long American tradition of foreign interference in elections – that is, of Americans interfering in other countries’ elections. U.S. intelligence helped defeat the strengthening Communist Party in Italy’s 1948 elections. In 1973, the democratically elected prime minister of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a U.S.-supported coup – standard operating procedures during the Cold War. At the same time, Washington had no hesitation in propping up thoroughly undemocratic dictators around the world so long as they were reliably anti-communist.
Whatever one thinks of the necessity of allying with autocrats and human-rights abusers against the evil of communism – an argument made by Ronald Reagan, among others – it has done sustained damage to America’s reputation as a protector of democracy. Americans may have forgotten these episodes, but others around the world have not.
Just as Mr. Biden cannot simply wish away this new revolt on Capitol Hill, he can’t kid himself that the rest of the world still sees the United States as “the great arsenal of democracy,” as Franklin Roosevelt once described it. It’s far too late to conjure up those ghosts.
The United States still has a role to play in restoring democracy at home and abroad. But instead of reviving a foreign policy of democracy promotion – which has too often come at the barrel of a gun – Mr. Biden should focus first and foremost on restoring it at home. This will be a greater challenge than any president has faced since the Great Depression. His approach may be through a renewal of liberal democracy that takes account of racial justice and climate change but also generates economic growth, which won’t be easy – but Americans did have a system along these lines under the New Deal.
If he can pull it off, Mr. Biden will not only begin the long healing process the United States so desperately needs, he will also show the world that Americans can truly make the world safe for democracy. After all, the best foreign policies often begin at home.
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