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OPINION: Democracy saw success, challenges in 2022

By Lee Hamilton


At the start of 2022, I wrote that defending democracy was the defining challenge for the United States. I noted that we Americans have faith that democracy is the best and most-just system — that we believe in government “of the people, for the people and by the people.”

Defending democracy remained a consistent theme in my columns throughout the past year. And there was some good news. For example, in the midterm elections, candidates who questioned our institutions and focused on divisive issues were largely unsuccessful. Most of those who lost, regardless of party, accepted the results.

On the international scene, the U.S. stood firm in support of democratic Ukraine, which is fighting bravely against a brutal invasion by Russia. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, received a hero’s welcome last month when he met with President Joe Biden and spoke to a joint session of Congress. We provide generous military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

But democracy faces challenges. At home, extreme partisanship and divisive politics make it hard for our representatives to work together. As I wrote in April, we have seen encouraging signs of bipartisanship in government. Still, it often seems that Americans are living in different political universes. I noted that we need to cultivate the political skills, such as listening and compromising, that make democracy work. That’s as true today as ever.

As for international affairs, I have written often about importance of U.S. leadership, pointing out in July that we contribute more than any other nation to the search for global peace and prosperity. But we saw troubling signs, described in reports from Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit and others, that American democracy and leadership are not as vibrant as they should be.

And our leadership is sorely needed. Just over a year ago, I lamented that Vladimir Putin had dashed our post-Cold War hopes that the U.S. and Russia would coexist peacefully. I still hoped U.S.-Russian tensions could be managed peacefully, but that turned out to be overly optimistic. In February, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Appropriately, I wrote three times in 2022 about China. When Xi Jinping was confirmed to a third five-year term as Chinese leader in the fall, I noted that China’s autocratic government, state control of the economy, and aggressiveness in the Asia–Pacific region make it our most serious foreign-policy challenge. I described how China’s threats to its neighbors, especially Taiwan, require a firm but cautious response. It’s safe to say China will be near the top of America’s foreign-policy agenda in 2023.

I also took note of some positive developments. India, the world’s largest democracy with 1.4 billion people, marked the 75th anniversary of its independence. Brazil, whose political divisions mirror our own, is managing a transfer of power after a divisive political campaign and a razor-close election. Biden hosted a summit of leaders from Africa, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Last year also saw the death of larger-than-life figures on the international scene — former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and England’s Queen Elizabeth II. Gorbachev’s democratic reforms raised hopes that the U.S. and Russia could be friends, hopes that Putin has dashed. The queen was beloved in the U.S., an example of our democratic nation’s ironic fascination with royalty.

As we begin a new year, our faith in democracy challenges us to live up to our ideals. We must defend and strengthen our institutions, including free elections and the peaceful transfer of power. And we must engage with the world, living our values and defending freedom when it is threatened, as in Ukraine. America remains the world’s best model for democracy and peace. May we live up to that aspiration in 2023.        

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.

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