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America was the keeper of democracy. We were imperfect but we kept trying, until now.

Today, we are leaderless and voiceless from the White House, even as the voices of our citizens in the street, here and abroad, are loud and strong.

Wendy R. Sherman
Opinion columnist

I was privileged to be a diplomat for the United States in two administrations, traveling the world to protect and advance our interests. The moral authority of America, the beacon on the hill that President Ronald Reagan spoke of, was an essential part of that interest. America, under Democratic and Republican presidents, valued human rights abroad, even in acknowledging our deep imperfections of racism, sexism and economic discrimination. I was proud to represent my country and heard repeatedly from others that they would do their part to follow, but that America needed to lead. We were the keepers of democracy, the imperfect union that aspired to always being better and wanting others to do the same.

We did not always do our best. During the struggle of Muslims in Bosnia, despite bipartisan support by Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, we hesitated until our satellite uncovered a mass grave in Srebrenica, and then we knew what we must do. We hesitated in Rwanda and witnessed a genocide, when we should have more forcibly led an international response. And, in Syria, although we tried to mobilize the world and did remove declared chemical weapons, we nonetheless held back for an America exhausted of foreign wars.

But we have persisted in calling out human rights abuses, engaging with the world and the institutions of the world to be better; to fight for democratic values, to welcome people fleeing torture and death, to be a better America; to help ensure a better, more just world.

We have persisted — until now.

Morally leaderless and voiceless

Today, we are leaderless and voiceless from the White House, at home and abroad, even as the voices of our citizens in the street, here and abroad, are loud and strong.

Throughout the world this week, protesters are marching in London, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo and elsewhere in solidarity with Americans protesting George Floyd’s killing, police brutality and racial injustice. Voices from the pope to the prime minister of Canada challenged President Donald Trump and questioned whether the United States still possessed any moral authority.

In London on June 7, 2020.

In an irony of history, last week also saw remembrances of June 4, 1989, when a single man, so small in the face of an enormous tank, came to symbolize what became known as Tiananmen Square Massacre. In little more than 24 hours, hundreds if not thousands of Chinese citizens were murdered and thousands injured as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared martial law and ordered a military mobilization to mow down peaceful protesters to reassert control. 

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Then-citizen Donald Trump praised China the following year for demonstrating the “power of strength" — foreshadowing his calls as president for military force to end violent protests, for governors to “dominate” and crush the call for justice, according to audio of the meeting obtained by CBS News. President Trump’s words and actions signaled a government more inclined to authoritarian leadership than to democracy.

America is in a time of despair. The inequities of the pandemic that left people of color disproportionately ill and dying, combined with the repeated targeting of black men and women by those police who have forgotten who we are as Americans, are a cauldron of that despair. If ever there was a need for moral leadership, it is now. President Trump cannot, does not know how or has decided not to provide that leadership. Ultimately, we will have to wait until November, but in the breach, we need every voice at every level and in every community to rise up, calling out the best in us to be the best America that we can be.

Change and renewal at the ballot box  

The protesters may eventually leave the streets and the pandemic will likely march on. But this is a time to recall some of the techniques of past times when we, the people, led our country. Protesters can make this the teach-in summer, organizing teach-ins, even if on Zoom or with social distancing, on racial injustice.  Each of us can learn to listen to their voices, to be uncomfortable with the realities of America and take personal responsibility for change.

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Legislators can take steps to agree on a common standard for the use of force by police, confront the inequity of qualified immunity that overprotects police conduct, and take other steps on criminal justice reform. Local government can invest in mental health, social services and housing. Schools can make sure that history lessons are inclusive and honest, that reading lists and speakers represent the diversity of America and that protest is affirmed as a hallmark of democracy.

And, of course, this must be the summer of voter registration, of ensuring mail-in ballots as COVID-19 continues to restrict our public action and a summer that leads to a fall of change at the ballot box. Then, as U.S. diplomats travel the world, America may once again have a chance to humbly provide some moral authority.

Wendy R. Sherman, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and director of its Center for Public Leadership, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of “Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence." She was undersecretary of State for political affairs from 2011-15 and led U.S. negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. Follow her on Twitter: @WendyRSherman