The events of [last Wednesday] have underscored the profound challenges that the US faces, with wide-ranging implications for a country whose national narrative is firmly rooted in a sense of American democratic “exceptionalism”.
The incoming president has promised to renew and strengthen democracy at home and abroad. He intends to hold an international Summit for Democracy to raise the issue of democracy up the world’s political agenda in a year where most leaders are likely to be otherwise engaged with the pandemic and global recession. But the new US leader cannot revert to the customary narrative in which the US takes a unique – exceptional – position atop the moral high ground when it comes to democratic values. Democracy promotion may now need to begin at home.
European leaders generally view the incoming administration with great relief. They will want to support Biden’s efforts to stand up for democracy. The UK, for instance, has mooted the idea of using its 2021 presidency of the G7 to convene a “D10” – democratic ten – group of the G7 countries plus India, Australia and South Korea. But in the meantime European leaders currently find themselves in the extraordinary position of calling for a peaceful transition in the US itself, with some issuing statements overnight in terms more familiar from diplomatic protests to authoritarian regimes.
For obvious reasons, autocrats do not share this enthusiasm – although some have no doubt enjoyed issuing calls for the US to find a peaceful way to resolve its challenges. There will be a fine line to tread between standing up for democracy and needing to find ways to deal with major powers ruled by authoritarian leaders, especially China and Russia, on issues from pandemic response to nuclear arms control. A variety of US politicians have expressed concern that America’s adversaries will find ways to capitalise on its current internal divisions.
Nonetheless, the most fundamental threat to US democracy promotion comes from within the US itself. The sitting president’s extraordinary attacks on the system, which have materialised into a physical mob attack that temporarily – if briefly – managed to disrupt the transition process, have immense and long-term implications for a polarised US polity. They also undermine the US’s ability to speak up for democracy around the world, including the post-Soviet space.
The attacks on the democratic process have not managed to overturn the election results. The evacuation of Congress to a secure location, complete with gas masks, only strengthened the resolve of its members to complete the election certification on the allotted day. Several of those who had sought to block certification lost their stomach for it after seeing neo-Nazis and QAnon conspiracy theoristsgloating in the corridors of power. A few days ago, all ten surviving defence secretaries came together across party lines to insist on a peaceful transfer of power and the sacrosanct nature of civilian rule. For those watching these events from an authoritarian country, the strength of the US constitution’s checks and balances on executive power is being tested in a dramatic and visible fashion. So far, it is holding.
But this was a close call, and large swathes of both the political elite and the public now question their system at a fundamental level. Opinion polls suggest many people believe the president’s unfounded assertions of voter fraud; one post-election poll found only one-quarter of Republican voters believed he should concede. As senior Republicans in Congress have often backed the president’s wild claims, and many more have declined to call them out, profound, extensive and long-term damage is being done to the credibility of American democracy and leadership around the world.
Ironically, some of the senior American policymakers who regularly criticise Russia, China, Belarus or Venezuela as autocratic are, at the same time, undermining the credibility of the US’s own political system by denying the democratic election result in the US. They are helping to enable those authoritarian rulers to say that the US is in no position to lecture them. When the US narrative on democracy is inconsistent or short on credibility, the countries that the US criticises are more likely to see themselves as being singled out unfairly, for geopolitical reasons compared to which (they think) values are mere window-dressing.
This matters for the state of democracy globally. In the past four years, democracy has been retreating around the world, in part because of an international system where the US appears to have de-prioritised democracy while Russia and China have provided alternative sources of military and economic support, respectively, for non-democratic governments. At the same time, there has been a surge in popular protest, which has been only temporarily dampened by the pandemic, and which have involved a mix of pro-democracy protests and protests over problems that established democratic systems are failing to resolve within their existing institutions. In the post-Soviet space, there have been extensive pro-democracy protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, raising risks that Western support for democracy will get caught up in the geopolitics of confrontation with Russia.
Elsewhere, a growing number of African leaders are evading their constitutional term limits –most recently in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in October 2020. In the Middle East, the wave of popular uprisings that took place a decade ago showed the limitations of Western support for democracy in the region; Gulf autocracies were willing to bankroll governments with much larger sums than EU assistance plans offered to fledgeling democrats, and Russia was willing to put its military behind the government in Syria while Western powers would not go to war for the sake of the opposition there.
The US’s democracy promotion efforts have always had their problems; they’re inconsistently applied, seen as inadequate by many democracy activists and viewed with paranoia by authoritarian rivals and allies alike, and have been compromised by the cynical use of “democracy” as a justification for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. US democracy promotion has also tended to be very US-centric, insisting liberal democracy is inextricably intertwined with liberal economics.
But the greatest strength of US and European democracy promotion comes when they are able to model a way of life that others aspire to. As an old adage says, example is the best sermon. That normative power has been massively undermined.
This has already been evident with the upsurge in violence against protestors and journalists in 2020, particularly around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, themselves triggered by racism and violence by police. US diplomats tasked with reprimanding other governments for their abuses face a more complicated task when their host countries can ask them about police violence and election disputes. In one striking and nuanced example last year, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe issued an impassioned statement that denounced both the killing of George Floyd and the violence against protestors in Zimbabwe. He wrote both about the racism he himself had experienced in the US, and about the mechanisms that the US had to make itself better.
As the EU considers its future relations with the Eastern Neighbourhood, it will need to plan for a situation where the US may have renewed aspirations for democracy promotion but will continue to face challenges to its credibility. Such challenges will go far beyond the usual predictable and rhetorical pushback from authoritarians, to more fundamental questions about how to renew a thriving, trusted liberal democracy in the face of disinformation and distrust. These problems are hampering everything from politics to pandemic response; in the most developed and educated countries on earth, at least some of those privileged enough to access Covid-19 vaccines will refuse them, because they think they’re part of a conspiracy by billionaires to insert 5G microchips in their arms.
European policies and programmes will need to emphasise the pillars of democracy beyond the ballot box – the rule of law, the effective functioning of independent institutions, respect for norms and standards in public life, and other checks and balances on power – and tackling the problems of polarisation, misinformation and hate speech. These are not only messages for foreign policy, but necessary for revival and recovery at home.
Jane Kinninmont joined the ELN in 2020 as Director of Impact, with a mission to strengthen the influence, policy relevance and impact of the organisation’s research, convening and networks. Previously she was Head of Programmes for The Elders, an organisation of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to work for peace, justice and human rights around the world. In that role, she focused on identifying opportunities to promote diplomatic and political solutions to conflicts, to strengthen multilateral approaches to peacemaking, and to advocate for the rights and dignity of refugees.Before joining The Elders, Jane was Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs research institute, where she led a research project on generational change in the Gulf Arab monarchies and its impact on Gulf relations with Iraq, Iran and Yemen; worked on various projects that analysed the roots of regional conflicts and brought younger-generation voices from the region into the debates on policy solutions; and mentored visiting fellows through the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs. Her publications included Iran and the GCC: Unnecessary Insecurity and Future Trends in the Gulf.Jane’s previous positions include Associate Director for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Group and Senior Editor/Economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, where she provided analysis of economic and political risks and trends, and bespoke strategic advisory services, for senior business executives working in emerging markets. Jane has also contributed articles and analysis to a wide range of publications including the Economist, Financial Times, Newsweek, Guardian and Prospect, and to consultancies and NGOs such as Oxford Analytica and Freedom House. She appears regularly in the broadcast media.Jane has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Balliol College, Oxford University, and an MSc in International Politics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where she wrote her thesis on the politics of the “war on terror” in 2002-03. Outside of work, Jane is a onetime music journalist, a published poet, and a mother of two.
On January 6, 2021, Pro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump's election loss. Hundreds breached the U.S. Capitol Building. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Sipa USA).
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.