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Public Diplomacy and the Risk of Overmoralizing

The U.S. should get back to promoting liberal democracy and the rule of law—but must avoid taking up progressive causes.
June 23, 2020
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TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump arrives for a press conference in New York, September 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

In August 2011, Norman Eisen, then the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, joined  diplomats from a dozen other countries in voicing support for Prague’s first gay pride march. The backlash was as swift as it was unexpected and the controversy over what was seen as inappropriate interference in domestic affairs became a defining moment of Eisen’s ambassadorship. It was not just fringe figures on the Czech right who spoke out against it, but also the country’s conservative president, Václav Klaus. Even Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister and a staunch Atlanticist, pushed back, saying that “expressions of support to rights that nobody in the Czech Republic is denied are counterproductive and redundant.”

If a post-Trump United States is to get back into the business of promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights around the world, special care must be given to avoiding a recurrence of the situations from past administrations in which the United States would insert itself into other countries’ divisive domestic debates.

Public diplomacy has suffered under the Trump administration. The president is notorious for cozying up to authoritarian leaders. Meanwhile, the promotion of democracy and core American values has been on autopilot—just occasionally punctured by dismal news such as the appointment of a Viktor Orbán admirer, Merritt Corrigan, to the position of the White House’s liaison with USAID, or more recently the firings at Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

A course correction is vitally needed—but the next administration ought to be wary of an overcorrection.

To be effective, U.S. public diplomacy and the promotion of American values overseas cannot go through wild swings every election cycle. In the past, efforts at promoting democracy, good governance, and the rule of law generally sought to avoid political and ideological controversy, and thereby commanded bipartisan support. In an time of growing polarization and bitter culture wars, that will be no easy feat.

The Prague gay pride example demonstrates even the most innocuous acts in support of an obviously worthy cause can backfire—even under favorable conditions. The Czech Republic has been a reliable ally. It is also the least religious country in in the region, by a wide margin, and as early as in 2006, the Czech legal system began to recognize registered partnerships for same-sex couples, with little controversy. In short, little suggested that backing a gay-pride march in the country’s capital could backfire so spectacularly.

And that, mind you, was nearly a decade ago. Compared to the relative idyll of 2011, the divisiveness of “cultural” and values-related questions in Central and Eastern Europe has only grown. Russian propaganda actively seeks to depict Putin’s regime as a bulwark against Western decadence. Hungary’s Orbán has actively exploited LGBT issues and migration to distract from his authoritarian practices and corruption at home. As he put it in a recent speech, Hungary “is an island of peace and security” in comparison to Western Europe, which is “twisting in the multicultural grip of their vindictive colonies.”

With the United States largely absent from the scene, the ire of Orbán and his ilk has been directed mostly at Brussels. And often, the would-be authoritarians have half-a-point. Two years ago, while the Hungarian government was seeking to chase out our foreign-funded NGOs and the Central European University founded by George Soros, the European Parliament’s Sargentini Report lambasted Hungary for failing to “to adapt working conditions for pregnant or breastfeeding workers,” for the “prevalence of negative stereotypes and prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, particularly in the employment and education sectors,” and for the fact that Hungary’s “constitutional ban on discrimination does not explicitly list sexual orientation and gender identity.”

To be sure, such criticisms may not be without merit. But they have also helped Orbán make his case to Hungarian voters that the real issue was not his rewriting of the country’s constitution and purges in the judiciary but a wholesale attack of Western elites on traditional values.

If November brings a Democratic victory, the next administration must avoid the risk of overreach by the left, particularly given the rising prominence of illiberal, iconoclastic voices who depict traditional American, and Western, tenets of liberal democracy—representation, limited government, and free speech—as a façade for white supremacy and other forms of oppression of women and minorities. Inevitably, that will play into the hands of ruthless leaders who never believed in those principles to begin with.

The ultimate driver behind the Black Lives Matter movement—the effort to eradicate police brutality and racism—is noble and just, and the movement’s recent protests resonated around the world, as a paradoxical testament of America’s continuing cultural dominance around. Yet the failures and excesses of the movement’s leadership and intellectual undercurrents—in the form of the so-called “cancel culture,” street mobs tearing down statues, and a deeply revisionist attitude toward history—are unlikely to travel well, particularly outside of English-speaking countries.

The reason is not that Europe’s history is without blemishes—quite the contrary. Marked by serfdom, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and colonialism, and culminating in two world wars and the Holocaust, Europe’s past is a treasure trove of grievances. Yet, after the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, the continent has been consistent in keeping a tight lid on the ghosts of the past. Hence President Emmanuel Macron’s flat refusal to consider taking down statues of controversial figures of French history, and hence the sense of panic around European capitals whenever past traumas—lost territory, language rights of ethnic minorities, or reparations for old injustices—resurface in political conversations.

The progressive agenda of seeking to dismantle all lingering structures of oppression and to purify the public square, university campuses, and the corporate environment of sins of the past will provoke a reaction in the United States—as it has before. But if, in an atmosphere of political triumph after the defeat of Trump and Trumpism, such ideas permeate policy choices made by the next administration—especially over what causes and values the U.S. government lends its support overseas—then the 2011 kerfuffle in Prague will be nothing compared to the controversy progressive America risks stirring by its moralizing in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and beyond.

Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.