Americans are seeing in real time the catastrophic impact of the decision by President Trump to withdraw a small set of military personnel from Syria. In only a week, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Islamic State have made stunning gains at our expense. We are unfortunately witnessing an equally rapid demise in American soft power. It is simply not as visible.
Our soft power has been a big part of our national strength and ability to advance American interests. It is slipping fast. I have focused much of my time since leaving United States government service four years ago on promoting strong and accountable governance to partner nations. My presentations emphasize the importance of the rule of law, transparency, accountability, coordination, planning, information sharing, and why strong civil society, free speech, and open media matters. I walk groups through the tools that Congress has to conduct oversight and exercise its independent constitutional authorities, and how the executive branch makes and manages national security policy. Traditionally, groups will want me to walk them through how oversight and decision making processes “really happen” in normal and exigent circumstances. Not perfectly, I answer, but it often works out pretty well in the end.
Until now. Foreign parliamentarians and executive branch officials want to talk more about what has happened to the rule of law, accountability, and free speech inside the United States. This is not a place I ever thought I would find myself in after 27 years working at all levels across our national security institutions and on Capitol Hill. I have been a policymaker and an intelligence official, a political appointee, and a career bureaucrat who spent much of my time trying to advance American national interests. Undergirding my work was the deeply held belief that other countries viewed our constitutional separation of powers and democracy as full of warts but still the best aspirational model relative to others.
Having a vibrant accountable democracy has been a strategic asset for our country. It gives us the ability to engage and encourage emerging democracies, build and sustain alliances, have diplomatic advantages, and build coalitions to constrict malign actors. It provides heft to our demarches that foreign governments respect the rule of law. More than our military prowess, our democratic norms set us apart from the Soviet Union during the Cold War and China today. The Soviets had military power but a miserable economy and government corruption.
The United States was able to recruit many foreign spies because they believed our democratic system of government was better. The Chinese central planning model with one party shows strong economic growth and innovation is possible even if comes with subjugation of individual freedoms and all encompassing government propaganda. China also offers a lot of money for infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative. If you are the leader of a small country unsure what path and which allies to cultivate is best for your national interests, and the United States looks and acts like a mess at home and unreliable abroad, the Chinese model becomes relatively more palatable. The hedging starts to happen.
Now during my engagements overseas, I am inundated with commentary and questions about what has happened to the United States. Emerging democratic groups tell me they are all too familiar with unaccountable government, corruption at the highest levels, abusing judicial power to go after political rivals, and pliant legislators unable or unwilling to cross party heads. They ask what will happen next in the United States and tell me how distraught they feel that it no longer appears to be a model for good government. More than anything, I am told over and over again that corrupt actors are justifying their actions by pointing to the president and his enablers. Global democracy is will suffer fast and precipitously, they say, if the United States does not once again lead by example.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize in their brilliant book “How Democracies Die” the importance of norms and temperance as key for democratic resiliency. They discuss how it is the informal actions that discourage “winner take all” demonization politics as being as important as the formal and written rules themselves. Democracy not exercised is democracy in decline. I reference this often when responding to foreign parliamentarians and executive branch officials, telling them that the United States is falling short but eventually will come through current events as the strong and resilient democracy it was meant to be.
I firmly believe this even if it is hard to see when this will happen and how we will put back in the box the dangerous authoritarian forces that have been released at home. Regardless, this collective American lapse creates a far longer road ahead to regain our aspirational soft power edge against China and its central model of economic growth and authoritarianism. The race is now on and, unbelievably, we are losing our lead.
Todd Rosenblum is a former professional staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former intelligence officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. He also served as acting assistant secretary at the Department of Defense and deputy undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security. He is now a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.