Updated at 1:24 p.m. ET on June 9, 2020.
This is an extraordinarily tense moment in the United States. Currently on display are police brutality, racism, a president fanning the flames and threatening to use force against peaceful protesters, and a Defense Department leadership initially complicit in using the military for partisan purposes—during a pandemic, no less. Authoritarian states jeer at us, and friends pity us. The head of the venerable Council on Foreign Relations considers the U.S. a “power in retreat.” Some American commentators compare the protests to uprisings against Middle East dictators, because in both cases, protesters believe that, as the writer Steven A. Cook has put it, “political institutions of the state and the prevailing social orders had combined to rob them of their dignity.” American diplomats are evidently struggling to justify our country as a functioning democracy.
Here’s how to do so: by recognizing that we are now seeing America becoming better than it was. This churning, disputatious, and even sometimes violent dynamic is what social change in America looks like. And what it has always looked like.
As the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once wrote, “American culture as I have experienced it seems so much in process, so brilliantly and sometimes brutally in motion, that standard models for it fail to apply.” This is what the American public is witnessing. Yes, recent events do bear similarities to when exasperated people in Tunisia and Egypt lashed out at their governments. And it’s scary to be part of. Our politicians are no less venal than politicians elsewhere. But what is different from the sorrowfully unsuccessful efforts to change government behavior elsewhere is the distributed system of political power in these United States, the vibrancy of a civil society that knows its rights, and the willingness of so many Americans to acknowledge the nation’s failings and take responsibility for improving society.
America’s standing in the world was damaged by Jim Crow, a segregated military fighting World War II, resistance to school integrations, the My Lai massacre, and the torture of prisoners after 9/11. Americans are not good at getting things right at the outset; we are good at making things right over time. White Americans are being challenged to accept responsibility for allowing black Americans to live in fear of police brutality. This raising of consciousness will change the U.S. as a country, and well it should.
Police in Buffalo who shoved and injured an elderly man have been suspended. The Army is investigating the aircrew of a helicopter, bearing medical insignia, that hovered dangerously over a crowd in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department is being sued for its decision to aggressively clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, near the White House. The government of the District of Columbia painted Black Lives Matter down the middle of the street leading to the White House. Businesses are falling over themselves to be associated with racial-justice efforts. President Donald Trump talks like a dictator, but the plethora of ways that Americans can frustrate his ambitions—coupled with the determination of millions of Americans to do so—is a much more powerful force.
Far from being a bludgeon of the state, the U.S. military is reinforcing its fealty to the Constitution rather than the president and modeling how to amplify black voices. The Air Force chief of staff flatly stated, “Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020.” Months before the protests, the commandant of the Marine Corps banned any display of Confederate symbols. And since the Lafayette Square disgrace, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have scrambled to put themselves on the side of restraint in the face of peaceful protests. These developments are a beautiful reminder that the American military is part of a broader civilian society, not a repressive force.
The U.S. isn’t the only country where racism is a persistent problem. It’s not the only country where police have immunity to prey on their fellow citizens. It’s not the only country where the government would expand its powers and evade accountability if it could. Recent protests in Amsterdam, London, and elsewhere show that what happens in America matters for the advance of human rights and civil liberties elsewhere. Even when its citizens struggle and stumble, the U.S. is still the world’s best hope for advancing the truths we hold to be self-evident.
When the governments of Germany, Australia, and—astonishingly—Turkey call on the U.S. to respect press freedom, it is an embarrassment. But many Americans welcome their condemnation to support our common commitment to unfettered freedom of the press. Americans are strong enough to bear the hypocrisy of Turkey’s criticism and honest enough to absorb what Australia and Germany are telling us.
Many authoritarian governments have long tried to deal with dissatisfaction among their own citizens by stoking criticism of their external rivals, and America’s current turmoil provides such an opportunity. But while propagandists in Beijing may revel in decrying racism in America, how many law-enforcement officers in China would join hands and march with protesters, as the police chiefs of Houston and other cities have?* Who in the Chinese military would kneel in front of protesters to acknowledge the justice of their cause, as members of the National Guard have in the U.S.?
Our struggles are the world’s struggles, because the values that form our republic are universal values. We believe that people have inherent rights and allow governments to curtail them in limited ways only for agreed purposes. What protesters are demanding right now is equal justice before the law, and making that principle a reality for black Americans will be a victory for human rights everywhere.
The Marquis de Lafayette, for whom the square in Washington is named, was a great friend to the U.S. “The welfare of America is bound closely to the welfare of all humanity,” he once wrote to his wife. “She is to become the honored and safe asylum of liberty.” By arguing and protesting and suing the government, Americans are trying to prove Lafayette right. This is American progress in the making.
* An earlier version of this article misidentified a city whose police chief marched with protesters. That occurred in Houston, not San Antonio.