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The Democratic Credibility Of The U.S. Has Taken A Hit. Here's How To Fix It.


President-elect Biden has promised to host a democracy summit in his first year on the job. The idea is to try to restore American leadership by promoting democratic values. The country's credibility has taken a hit, especially in the wake of the insurrection on Capitol Hill. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been talking to American democracy promoters on how to restore that.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For the past couple of decades, Donald Bisson has worked on rule of law programs in the former Soviet Union, monitored elections in the Balkans and is now trying to support Tunisia's fragile democracy. He runs the Carter Center there and says the Tunisians who work with him were sad and disappointed to watch angry mobs overrun the Capitol.

DONALD BISSON: It makes them frightened for their own democracy. It makes them nervous about it and say, well, if this can happen in the United States, you know, we just started. We've only had it for 10 years. We're still working it out. We're still trying to figure out how to do this and whether we can hang on to this democracy.

KELEMEN: Bisson says he often warns politicians abroad not to try to undermine the integrity of elections in their countries with false claims of fraud. Trump made that harder.

BISSON: The whole Trump era and the fake news and the constant lying and all of those things have diminished the view of democracy, at least as it's practiced in the United States, which is the one that they do look to.

KELEMEN: Another non-governmental organization in this business, the National Democratic Institute, has 50 offices around the world. Its president, Derek Mitchell, called a virtual town hall for staffers in the wake of the Capitol Hill insurrection.

DEREK MITCHELL: There was a lot of confusion, a lot of shock, a lot of concern, just really at a personal level about what's happening in the United States and wanting to know how they then deal with partners.

KELEMEN: So Mitchell reminded them that NDI's work is not based on the assumption that America is perfect.

MITCHELL: People around the world are not interested in democracy simply because of the United States. And they're not going to wait to fight for their own justice because we're fighting to be a better and more perfect union at home. They're fighting for their own rights. And I think we, along with our allies and others, should continue that fight.

KELEMEN: While U.S. democracy promoters try to figure out how to restore America's brand, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn't seem to think that's necessary. He was at the Voice of America recently telling reporters there to stop, in his words, demeaning America and instead just promote it.


MIKE POMPEO: Expanding freedom and democracy are what America has always been about. You're the voice of American exceptionalism. You should be proud of that.

KELEMEN: Pompeo often talks about America's ideological struggle with China's Communist Party. But Stanford University's Michael McFaul says America's credibility begins at home, and U.S. government broadcasters should be telling the truth about the country's imperfections.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: And I say this as somebody who was a former ambassador in Russia doing battle on these ideas almost every day. You have no credibility speaking to foreign audiences if you don't admit your own flaws and your own weaknesses.

KELEMEN: McFaul says the past four years have been a big test for America's democracy, but he believes the U.S. needs to stay in the business of supporting democracy abroad, and not just for moral reasons.

MCFAUL: Remember; we've only been attacked by autocracies. There's never been a democracy that's threatened our security. And the challenges ideologically and the challenges in terms of other kind of socioeconomic and political interests are all driven by autocracies - China, Russia, Iran, North Korea. Those are the list of countries that challenge us.

KELEMEN: Those countries have tried to score political propaganda points in the wake of the insurrection on Capitol Hill. America's allies, meanwhile, are looking to the incoming Biden team to shore up democracy both at home and abroad. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.