In over 45 years of working in global affairs, I’ve observed a simple truth: America’s ability to lead the world depends not just on the example of our power, but on the power of our example.
American democracy is rooted in the belief that every man, woman and child has equal rights to freedom and dignity. While the United States is far from perfect, we have never given up the struggle to grow closer to the ideals in our founding documents.
The constant American endeavor to live by our values is a great strength that has drawn generations of strivers and dreamers to the United States, enriching our population. Around the world, other nations follow our lead because they know that America does not simply protect its own interests, but tries to advance the aspirations of all.
This has stood as the foundation of American foreign policy throughout my political career — until recently.
Around the world, including in the United States, we are seeing the resurgence of a worldview that is closed off and clannish. President Trump keeps longstanding allies such as Germany at arm’s length, while expressing admiration for autocrats like Vladimir V. Putin who thwart democratic institutions.
Rather than building from a narrative of freedom and democracy that inspires nations to rally together, this White House casts global affairs as a zero-sum competition — for the United States to succeed, others must lose. Among the many problems that plague the Trump administration’s foreign policy, this line of thinking is perhaps the most disturbing.
During a speech in July, Mr. Trump said, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” This statement divides the world into “us” and “them.” No American political figure has so narrowly defined our interests since the period between the world wars.
Mr. Trump’s shameful defense of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who unleashed hatred and violence in Charlottesville, Va., further abnegated America’s moral leadership. Not since the Jim Crow era has an American president so misunderstood and misrepresented our values.
Most recently, the Trump administration’s order to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — punishing young people brought to this country by their parents, many of whom know no home but the United States — betrays an unnecessary cruelty that further undermines America’s standing in the world.
When Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said that it was important to “understand the difference between policy and values,” he wrote off the very thing that makes the United States exceptional. And at a time when democratic values are under siege around the globe — from populist attacks that undermine confidence in democratic institutions to leaders who try to bolster their power by closing the space for civil society and rolling back citizens’ rights — the world cannot afford to have America cede the field to illiberalism and intolerance.
Placing American democratic values back at the center of our foreign policy does not mean we should impose our principles abroad or refuse to talk with nations whose policies run counter to them. There will always be times when keeping Americans safe requires working with those whom we find distasteful. But even when we must make those hard choices, we can never forget who we are and the future we seek.
Reclaiming our values starts with standing up for them at home — inclusivity, tolerance, diversity, respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. If these are the democratic principles we wish to see around the world, America must be the first to model them.
These are also the values that tie us to our closest allies — the friends we depend on to address major global challenges. They must believe that the United States will continue to support them and to stand up for democracy.
Leading with our values also means that we speak out when nations violate their citizens’ rights. If leaders repress their own people, we must make clear that it constrains our ability to cooperate with them. We can meet our security imperatives without giving a green light to dictators who abuse universal human rights.
Finally, a foreign policy built on our values must stand firm against foreign powers that celebrate a perceived withdrawal of American leadership as an opportunity to increase their influence. Without the United States standing as a bulwark for global democracy, illiberal powers like Russia will take increasingly aggressive steps to disrupt the international order, bully their neighbors and return to a more divided world.
From the Marshall Plan after World War II to our alliances in East Asia, both Republican and Democratic officials have long embraced a vision of American leadership that fosters a more secure, inclusive and generous planet. That ideal made the world safer and more prosperous — for Americans and everyone else.
The international community still needs a strong, democratic America leading the way. And the good news is that the United States remains better positioned than any other country to shape the direction of the 21st century. But to succeed, we cannot abandon the tenets that we fought so hard to defend over the past seven decades — ideals that magnified American leadership and produced the greatest increase in global prosperity in history.
You cannot define Americans by what they look like, where they come from, whom they love or how they worship. Only our democratic values define us. And if we lose sight of this in our conduct at home or abroad, we jeopardize the respect that has made the United States the greatest nation on earth.
Joe Biden, a former Democratic senator from Delaware and vice president of the United States, leads the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania.