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On Diplomacy and Democracy: Perspectives from a U.S. Diplomat

I am reminded of the most remarkable speech I have heard in my foreign service career. It was July 4, 2006, and it was the first Independence Day reception we were holding in our brand-new embassy, a symbol of our enduring commitment to the Cambodian people. Cambodia then – as now – had amazing and resilient people who had survived genocide and were working to rebuild their society. Cambodia then – as now – faced grave challenges to its democracy. We wanted to encourage the Cambodian people to believe in and work for democracy. We wanted to challenge Cambodian leaders to respect human rights and uphold rule of law. But America was in the midst of its own crisis. The Abu Ghraib scandal had shown American servicemembers humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners. It demonstrated that we did not consistently uphold the very values that we espoused. What could we say?

That day, Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli spoke about the fragility of democracy. He highlighted the strength and resilience of the Cambodian people and outlined the challenges that the country faced and the steps needed to overcome them. Then, in a tone of humility and solidarity, he described the challenges that the U.S. had faced over its history in preserving democracy and respecting the human rights of its citizens. He spoke about the Alien and Sedition Acts and the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He spoke about McCarthyism and how so many fine American leaders and government officials were unfairly vilified in a witch hunt that mesmerized the country. He described the long and uncompleted road to civil rights for Black Americans. He talked about how important it was for Cambodians to continue to work for democracy, speaking not because the U.S. had an unblemished record in preserving our own democracy, but precisely because we had battled against challenges of our own so many times. This is hard, he said. We know, we are with you.

The day after the President inspired an armed mob to storm the Capitol and attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, this must be our message too. In case there was any lingering doubt, yesterday was the final, dramatic ending to the notion of American exceptionalism. We can no longer imply that other countries should listen to us because of our untarnished record of defending democracy and civil rights. We can no longer pretend that police treat black and white protesters the same. We are not the City on the Hill that we have wanted to be.

And yet, even after yesterday’s events, we are still a country that strives to live up to those ideals. We are a country where members of Congress – just hours after being threatened by violent protesters – returned to the Capitol and stayed until 3:45 a.m. to certify the results of the presidential election. We are the country where the Georgia Secretary of State patiently and respectfully rejected presidential pressure to falsify the election results, even though it meant that his own party would lose power. We are the country where voters danced in the street while standing in hours-long lines to vote, and black sororities strolled to the polls. We are the country that just elected a Jewish American and a Black American to Congress in a state that was once the heart of the confederacy. We are the country where a Catholic President and a Black and Indian female Vice President will be sworn into office on January 20.

We are not a country that has figured everything out and can speak to others from a position of supreme moral authority. We are a country that has been and continues to be engaged in the struggle of trying to become what we imagine ourselves to be. When we speak to foreign audiences around the globe, we cannot offer them the assurance of a tried-and-true path to perfect democracy. But we can offer them what we have learned along our own journey, and our commitment to get up every morning and continue the fight no matter the obstacles. It is hard, we can tell them. We know, we are with you.

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