To defend democracy, be one
A conversation with Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders
As the war in Ukraine rages on, familiar ominous noises can be heard in Washington.
There is talk of a potential no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would potentially bring the United States, which hasn’t won a big war in a while, into conflict with Russia. Blob’s gonna blob. But for ordinary Americans, too, the heart-rending, infuriating spectacle of Ukraine is testing the resolve to stay out of the war. And yet the United States has shown itself in recent years to possess limited skill in understanding and influencing other places. Moreover, its democracy is in distress at home even at it defends that system abroad, and its standing in the world has been grievously wounded by the Trump years and the misbegotten wars that preceded it.
Should America get more involved? Should it cut off Russian oil imports at the risk of making life even more unaffordable? Should it go soft on countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to alleviate the pain of rising gas prices? Should it use this moment to make a decisive pivot toward renewable energy? These are the questions of the hour. I reached out to Matt Duss, the highly respected and insightful foreign advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders, to help me sort through the morass of the moment.
Matt is one of the smartest and most contrarian foreign-policy thinkers in Washington. I always appreciate a guy who doesn’t see a problem far away and reflexively think, “Maybe I should call Lockheed Martin!” Our conversation is below.
“If we want to defend democracy abroad, the first and best thing we can do is practice it at home”: a conversation with Matt Duss
As you watch the war in Ukraine unfold, I wonder what you think it tells us about the state of the world — and relations of power in the world — that is new in this moment.
One thing that I think is new is watching a leader, President Volodomyr Zelensky, effectively using new media tools in real time to rally his own people and world to his cause. We’ve seen activists and movements in various places around the world in the past decade, such as the Iranian Green movement, the Arab Awakenings protests, and Occupy Wall Street, to name just a few, using new media technology tools to raise awareness and to sidestep government and corporate media control. This goes back as far as the 1999 WTO protests. But I can’t remember any world leader using this technology in real time in a crisis like this, so effectively and so admirably, just completely dominating the information space. It’s amazing and inspiring.
I'm interested in the connections Americans make, and don't make, between what is happening abroad and what is happening here at home. There is this sudden surge of pro-democracy rhetoric, heard even on the right. But democracy has been dissolving right here at home, and I remember considerably less interest in defending it here from some of these voices — whether on investigating January 6 or passing democracy reforms.