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 flags, several diplomats said they saw the transition of power to Biden, however rocky, and the accountability brought by the Jan. 6 hearings as signs of resilience. One ambassador noted that 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 self-professed 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 far-right 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 committed alleged 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 like 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.”