Ms. Abrams joined the World Affairs Council of Atlanta for a wide-ranging discussion on democracy around the world.

The U.S.’s failed pandemic response is symptomatic of President Trump’s retreat from global institutions, which has created a leadership vacuum autocracies have been only too happy to fill, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said Thursday.  

Ms. Abrams, a staunch advocate for voting rights who has claimed voting irregularities in the election cost her the gubernatorial race versus Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018, said the disjointed, hands-off federal approach has given ammunition to regimes claiming democracy is inefficient.

“The more China can use the United States as an example of the failure not of competence, but of democracy, they can bastardize our behavior and use it to justify an expression and an expansion of their autocracy. And we are leaning into that by continuing to not successfully solve this problem,” said Ms. Abrams, who has been floated as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden

She spoke via Zoom with World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro, covering a wide variety of topics ranging from the feasibility and security of voting by mail — a hot topic given Mr. Trump’s ongoing spat with Twitter over the issue —  the recent killings of unarmed black men Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., and George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the need for a global approach to deploying a coronavirus vaccine. 

Speaking as the U.S. passed the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, she said the country exported its early denialism over the virus, exacerbating the health crisis and strengthening other elected leaders that have made a habit of weakening democratic institutions, including the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

“What is happening is that as the United States is pulled back from its moral posture, but also its strength, we have seen autocracy fill that vacuum,” said Ms. Abrams, who has been meeting with consuls general in Atlanta in a bid to strengthen her relationships globally. 

She praised South Korea as a democracy with an effective, centralized response to the pandemic, contrasting its recent implementation of socially distanced national elections with the varied electoral laws across 50 U.S. states. 

Mr. Trump’s (and the Republican party’s) presiding over democratic dysfunction, she said, has contributed to a retreat from liberal democracy globally, emboldening leaders now taking advantage of a pandemic to consolidate power. 

“And it is attractive in the midst of a crisis to have someone just tell you what to do to survive. And that’s what autocracy does. It says that our survival, that your survival, depends on our power, and to the extent democracies like the United States falter and fumble and disassociate themselves from responsibility, the concomitant result is that instead autocracies start to rise, and their allure becomes even more strengthened, because there is no long-term plan from the United States or any other nation state to say how they will solve this problem on a national and global scale when the next crisis hits.”

China, for instance, is investing in the World Health Organization even as the U.S. has pulled back funding, and it’s undertaking an ambitious effort to provide humanitarian aid in the form of personal protective equipment to countries fighting the virus in a way that the U.S. hasn’t, she said. 

She claims the U.S. pullback has undermined Taiwan’s bid for to contribute its world-leading expertise on containing COVID-19 to the World Health Organization, though some would argue that Mr. Trump’s hardline stance has opened the window for Taiwan in the international arena in unprecedented ways. 

Ultimately, Ms. Abrams aimed to link her lifetime of domestic advocacy on issues of representation and politics for what she said has been a longtime interest in international policy, proven out by fellowships with the German Marshall Fund and work with the Salzburg Seminars. She even wrote an article on the restoration of democracy in Brazil while studying for a master’s of public administration at the University of Texas

“When I became a state legislator, part of my job was to represent the state on foreign soil, in Israel and Taiwan and Korea. I’ve met with the consuls general here … because part of the responsibility as a minority leader in that house, was to be a voice for the state of Georgia.” 

Her recent Foreign Affairs article, “American Leadership Begins at Home,” articulates the link explicitly between strength of American democracy and its ability to project strength around the world. 

Combating ‘Vaccine Nationalism’

In the talk with Mr. Shapiro, she also stressed that nationalism threatens the world’s ability to distribute a vaccine quickly and equitably — given that no one knows which country (or countries) will win the race to introduce the first out of more than 100 candidates under development now.

 It’s a “false premise” that the U.S. must serve only its own interests — instead, the world should protect the most vulnerable to ensure a more durable recovery, she added. 

“The failure to provide an international solution to vaccination means we will constantly be at risk. And we need to understand that the first iteration of the vaccine does not mean that we are suddenly shielded and protected,” pointing to precedents in the extended fights against polio and smallpox. 

“We have to begin with the notion that we have to treat as many people as possible as quickly as possible as broadly as possible. And that should be how we start to think about global health security writ large. We cannot localize our health security by forgetting that these diseases may not originate here, but they will eventually and inevitably find their way to our shores. So our responsibility is to begin our work by serving the entire world and not simply being localized and parochial in our response.”

Mr. Trump’s America First approach and its damage to traditional alliances will make this all the more difficult, she said. 

“We do not have the current leverage to build the coalition to put the pressure on that nation state to provide service and to provide a universal response. And that’s one of the reasons we have to reassert our global leadership today.

“Let’s be clear: one of the challenges we face today in our international conversations is that we no longer enjoy the trust of our allies, let alone of our opponents,” she said, pointing to trade conflicts not only with China but also Mr. Trump’s threats to Europe and rocky relationship with Mexico and Canada.

“When we diminish our allies, we give them less and less responsibility for standing with us in times of crises, and we weaken their ability to be our emissaries when we have challenges.”

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The event was sponsored by the Atlanta Global Studies Center, which is jointly operated between Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...