Domestic Divisions and Implications Abroad

Image design by Vinicius Tavares min
Image design by Vinicius Tavares min

Is Domestic Turmoil and Unrest Putting America’s Credibility in Question Abroad? 

By Charles Ray and Robert Wilkes

The Elephant in the Room: How Domestic Affairs Affect Foreign Relations

By Charles Ray – Former U.S. Ambassador; Chair of the Africa Program, Foreign Policy Research Institute

In 1947, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg suggested that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Widely adopted by the administration of Harry S. Truman, this statement was meant to imply that American politicians should always present a united front to other countries, domestic political differences notwithstanding. Vandenberg meant this not as a prescription to end political bickering at home, but as a way of obscuring our differences in international fora.

The problem with the concept is that it has never really worked. During the 1950s, for instance, when African and Asian countries were achieving independence from European colonial empires, the U.S. was supportive but failed to convince many in Africa and Asia of its sincerity because of its pervasive racial segregation at home. How, many asked, can the United States chastise others for discrimination when it discriminates against 20% of its own population on the basis of race? The dichotomy was recognized by many in the foreign policy establishment, but such sentiments were rarely publicly expressed.

Times fortunately have changed, but in many ways they remain the same (as the French saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose). United States foreign policy still promotes democracy, inclusiveness, and rule of law abroad. But in the wake of the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob seeking to overturn a democratic election, American diplomats at home and abroad are faced with a situation similar to the 1950s—our credibility is in question.

The World is Watching Our Domestic Turmoil

Recently, a participant in a conference that I attended remarked in jest, “Can a country whose head of state contests a legally-held election and incites his supporters to descend upon the seat of government be called a democracy?” While this comment was meant to be a joke, as a 30-year veteran diplomat, I can imagine that this question was asked seriously in several capitals, including those of the home countries of attendees at the conference.

How, some will ask, does the United States hold itself out as a beacon of democracy and respect for rule of law when an event like January 6 can occur? And even worse, when representatives of one political party attempt to portray what millions of television viewers saw as a violent riot as “legitimate political discourse”?

One could ask, how can we as Americans, especially those serving as diplomats, interact with foreign counterparts with a straight face on matters such as rule of law and the importance of peaceful transfers of power when one party in our Senate blocked an investigation of the January 6 riots and when that same party in the House (with one or two exceptions who are now treated as pariahs) refused to cooperate with an investigation? 

A Perilous Standing as Leader of the Free World

While we play political games over this issue, the world is watching. Some of our closest friends abroad worry about the viability and continued health of American democracy. They’re concerned for our role as a global leader, especially should we elect another disruptive president in 2024 or if another losing president challenges election results. The events of January 6, 2021 have cast a dark shadow over our standing as a beacon of democracy. Many countries are now hesitant to look to the United States as an example of effective democracy.

All, however, is not dark. While law enforcement failed to heed the warning signs and adequately prepare for the violence that unfolded on January 6, the FBI has since demonstrated the professionalism for which it is famous, arresting approximately 800 of those suspected of participation. Of the more than 800 against whom charges have been filed, over 250 have pleaded guilty. 

While this is a step in the direction of demonstrating that the rule of law is still respected in the United States—at least by some—the fact that those who encouraged, facilitated, and incited the violence have yet to be called to account still casts a dark shadow. The unfortunate message being conveyed is that those in positions of power are immune from consequences for their actions, and only the poor and powerless must pay the cost of unlawful conduct.

One of the messages conveyed by the events of January 6 was that a major political party of the United States can refuse to concede when they lose an election—a characteristic common of many autocratic regimes. The right, though, is not the only guilty party in this regard; Democrats, too, bear some responsibility. Although the refusal of the Democratic losing candidate in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election to concede did not lead to violence, it nonetheless sent a negative message to audiences abroad about the depth of the American commitment to free and fair elections for which we push frequently.

Similarly, while the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests aimed to expose real injustice and inequities in our system, the presence of looters and people provoking violence in some of the protests, and the failure of BLM organizers to control them or come out strongly against them, negated their main message in the minds of many foreign observers. These events further undercut our ability to promote respect for rule of law abroad. Saying, “but we didn’t engage in violence,” is not enough to erase the underlying notion of refusing to accept the process, a nuance that we can ill afford to ignore when it comes to how the international community views us as a nation.

The Only Path Forward

None of these actions help American diplomats prevail in interactions with foreign counterparts. Unless it can be shown that a sincere effort is being made to respect the rule of law in the United States, doubts will remain abroad.

The United States has not completely shaken the negative images from the era of racial segregation, which has been shown by the international reaction to the George Floyd killing and other instances of racially-related or racially-inspired acts of violence. It’s unfortunately safe to conclude that we will not quickly erase the stigma associated with the events of January 6. For a long time to come those events will be the elephant in the room whenever we discuss certain issues with our counterparts abroad. American diplomats will be put on the spot when they endeavor to take foreign governments to task for what we consider bad behavior.

We shouldn’t let this stop us from trying, though. Nor should we let it veer us off the path of supporting respect for rule of law and support for inclusiveness and human rights. We do need, however, to take a good look in the mirror and admit what we see—first to ourselves, and then to others. And finally, we must set about cleaning up our act.


Vandenberg Had it Right

By Robert Wilkes — Senior Correspondent, Divided We Fall

In his opening, Ambassador Ray suggested Senator Vandenberg’s aphorism that politics stops at the water’s edge was never true. I disagree. It was true then, is true today, and will ever be true. Americans fortunate enough to be selected for international service have a duty to defend America’s honor and reputation at all times and in all places. Above all, they should demonstrate pride to be Americans. Diplomats of other nations large and small, rich or poor, democratic or autocratic, do just that. 

In my work on pro-Israel causes in Seattle, I have had many occasions to work with Israeli consulate diplomats. Of all the nations on Earth, Israel is the only one to be routinely condemned by the UN. Despite this, Israeli diplomats continue to defend their nation steadfastly and with honor and grace. Israel is one of the most contentious places for politics imaginable, yet her foreign service stands by Vandenberg’s precept and unites behind her flag. 

Diplomacy Amid Great Power Competition

Defending our place in the world should and must be an honor, not a chore. The great majority of Americans believe our diplomats can hold their heads as high as any nation on Earth. As America remains at the center of a global ideological struggle, defending America now especially means much more than applying military power. Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela all use anti-American propaganda to increase their power in their spheres of influence. For these reasons and others, it is of utmost importance that U.S. representatives overseas defend the ideological underpinnings of our great republic. 

The world is a safer place when America leads with confidence and strength. There is much we can learn from the well-intentioned yet mistaken “apology tour” of the early Obama years, which lowered our esteem in the world, confused our most important allies, and weakened our foreign policy abilities. One could ask, “Would Putin have invaded Ukraine if Biden had not so clumsily abandoned Afghanistan?” 

Cultivating Our Global Image

Ambassador Ray cites the events of January 6 and the present state of civil rights in America as evidence of a breakdown in rule of law. He argues, “Unless it can be shown that a sincere effort is being made to respect the rule of law in the United States, doubts will remain abroad.” The Ambassador and I agree on the centrality of the rule of law in sustaining an all-too-fragile republic. I agree with his statement that a perception of a lawless society in America tarnishes our image and our status as a role model worthy of emulation. However, we see the significance of January 6 and the present state of American civil rights very differently. 

January 6 has been condemned by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Once order was restored, the rule of law was applied—with a vengeance. I need not explain this point, as Ambassador Ray’s essay enumerates these arrests and convictions. January 6 was deplorable, but it is not a failure of the rule of law. Laws were broken, and justice is being applied according to law. As such, one cannot argue that the rule of law was not measured out to those at the Capitol on January 6. 

In my opinion, the politically-motivated fixation by Democrats on January 6 is a self-inflicted wound to our international image. We are now witness to a highly-anticipated primetime hearing. While the lawless and unquelled rioting we endured in cities across America was even worse, in both cases we have handed our ideological enemies a picture-perfect opportunity to cultivate anti-American propaganda. We shot ourselves in the foot. 

I also agree that our turbulent history of civil rights and the events of January 6 give other nations an occasion to smirk at us. Anyone who has spent much time abroad will notice that it’s an international pastime to make fun of Americans. We are gauche, boorish, too rich, and too powerful. People of other nations love to say snarky things about us—after all, our influence is hard to escape. The dollar is the world’s reference currency and English must be learned everywhere. Furthermore, our movies and television, enjoyed by global audiences, paint a distorted view of our culture. American diplomats should serve as a reminder that we keep the peace and we are not what you see in sitcoms. 

History Repeats Itself

In response to Ambassador Ray’s suggestion that America’s credibility is presently in question, I would argue it is historically shortsighted to think that we are living through unprecedentedly alarming times. Nothing is new here. Our adversaries have been employing anti-American propaganda since America became a great power. The Soviets/Russians have kept the pot boiling for nearly a century using “active measures” to undermine the moral authority of the U.S. The former head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB described active measures as “the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.” Describing this strategy towards the West, he stated:

Not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs

Russia continues to use active measures to this day, especially on social media. The technique is on full display at, short for Russian Television, where one can presently read an op-ed entitled “Colombia’s New President Could Deal a Major Blow to U.S. Imperialism,” amongst other calculated distortions. Those representing the U.S. abroad should be mindful of the troubling efforts of our adversaries to undermine our standing in the world and accordingly project an image of confidence and pride.   

The U.S. Constitution and our republican form of government guarantee our freedoms; it is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement. The success of our system is beyond question. We are a nation of people, flawed people, and our nation has flaws too. Despite our shortcomings, we are blessed to be Americans and have a tremendous amount to be proud of. In the interests of America and the world, our diplomats and leaders should hold America’s remarkable virtues and successes at the forefront in dealings with their foreign counterparts.

If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more Divided We Fall debates here.

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Charles Ray
Former U.S. Ambassador; Chair of the Africa Program, Foreign Policy Research Institute | Website

Charles Ray retired from the US Foreign Service in 2012 after a 30-year career. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he spent 20 years in the US Army. During his 30 years in the Foreign Service, he was posted to China, Thailand, Sierra Leona, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe. He served as deputy chief of mission in Sierra Leone, was the first US consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Since his retirement from public service in 2012, he has been a full-time freelance writer, lecturer, and consultant, and has done research on leadership and ethics. He is the author of more than 200 books of fiction and nonfiction. Ray is a trustee and chair of the Africa Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.

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