America’s credibility as a force for democracy depends on the conduct of the 2020 election. As the current race approaches its conclusion, the world’s eyes are glued to the process, because far from being simply an internal political deliberation, it is an event in which the whole world feels it has a stake. The impacts of American policies are felt in the fabric of many people’s daily lives, whether it’s through economic trade, the protection afforded by alliances, or the prospect of American-led military intervention. Yet beyond the immediate influence of these policies on foreign populations, people are also invested in the success of America’s democratic practices, because America’s example sets a worldwide benchmark for democracy.
Though there has been a lot of discussion about which foreign country supports which candidate, this is not particularly relevant to the choice the American people will make. What is more relevant to both the American people and others around the world is the influence the United States will have abroad.
To an extent, this influence is granted by economic power and military might—assets that provide a great deal of leverage. But it is not the American way to bully and bludgeon others into following its lead. Instead, it is the idea of America and the principles on which it was founded, and ultimately demonstrated through its behaviors, that have proven most effective in inspiring others to follow. The attraction to these principles and behaviors put the United States in stark contrast to its great power competitors, China and Russia.
Unfortunately, research shows that much of the world is losing the perception that the U.S. is different than its ideological competitors. According to a recent Pew poll, America’s standing in the world is currently at a historic low. This is a warning sign, signifying people’s willingness to work with America may be diminishing as well. When foreign people were asked whether they have the confidence in world leaders to do the right thing regarding world affairs, America’s leadership ranked below China and Russia. Additionally, most people in almost every surveyed country expressed a negative view of the United States. In a time when different forces around the world are competing for the personal attention and support of individuals, the U.S. needs to do a better job of answering the question, “Why choose America?”
The conduct of America’s elections should be one of those reasons. If the United States wishes to remain a world leader, it should strive to exemplify the principles it wants the world to follow, by conducting its election faithfully, competently, and peacefully without intimidation or threats, regardless of the outcome. Both candidates must fully accept the results of the election and prevent major controversy over the legitimacy of the process, lest the election erupt into the type of chaos seen in Belarus or Kyrgyzstan.
We should remember that people admire America because they believe in the principles it stands for, the shared values of our peoples, and in the benefit that America brings to them. The credibility of the American message established at the founding of the country, extolling the virtues of individual liberty and freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, depends on its willingness to uphold that message in practice. Today, there is a concerning and growing international perception—expressed by most people in the U.K., France, Germany, and Spain—that America does not respect the freedoms of its people.
A failure of the American electoral process would send an unpredictable ripple effect around the world, by fraying the fabric of confidence in which other democratic societies wrap their own systems of government. At the core of this election is concern over whether America is truly upholding the values and the systems it has established, and thus its credibility. While those systems have seen their flaws, the concept of checks and balances, accountability to the people, and the concept of a peaceful transition of power are all at stake. If this system fails, it is because the American people, in conjunction with their elected officials, did not uphold it. In this time of increasing choices and information saturation, does America want to remain an example of sound democratic practice as exercised through its system of elections? Or does it want to cede that soft power to others who are eager to take advantage? In the end, voters should insist that our country upholds its democratic values, both in rhetoric and in practice.