The Capitol riots showed U.S. democracy’s vulnerability. How does that affect its global influence?

When rioters burst into the United States Capitol building last week, the images of broken doors, shattered windows and vandalized offices were shared worldwide, but the most lasting damage done Jan. 6 was to America’s global influence. 

With President Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment this week, the international community has widely held its breath – a stark contrast to the widespread condemnation of the Capitol breach that has raised concerns about the United States’ long-standing claim that it is a beacon of democracy. 

“The images have shaken us,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, president of NATO ally Germany, in a press conference last week. “We had to see how vulnerable even the oldest and the most powerful democracy in the world is.”

Since President Woodrow Wilson declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” as part of his argument for entering World War I, the U.S. has portrayed itself internally and externally as the model of democracy for the rest of the world to follow. That ideal became intertwined with its foreign policy and its values as a nation – before the arrival of Donald Trump, that is. 

From his “America First” policies that alienated allies to his withdrawal from international treaties and his courting of autocrats, the four years of the Trump presidency represented a rebuke to the idea of America as the defender of democracy. Last week’s Capitol riots were the latest, and perhaps hardest, blow to that concept, weakening an already feeble American standing abroad and potentially affecting diplomacy, trade and response to international threats in the short and medium term.

“No one in the world is likely to see, respect, fear, or depend on us in the same way again,” tweeted Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the post-American era has a start date, it is almost certainly today.”

But others believe the damage caused by the outgoing Trump administration, although significant, is also reversible, pointing to similar crises in the past like Watergate and the JFK assasination in another turbulent epoch, where a combination of new leadership and civic engagement helped America regain its stature on the global stage, a place from which it has the potential to promote and inspire democracy in other corners of the globe. 

Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice president of research and analysis, told GroundTruth in a phone interview that, regardless of whether there is a Senate impeachment trial before the transition to the Biden administration, the House decision to impeach Donald Trump sent an important signal to the world. “Regardless of the outcome, there remains a lot of work to be done to improve our democracy.”

Worldwide, democracy has been on the backfoot in recent years. The watchdog NGO Freedom House, which has been tracking Freedom in the World for nearly half a century, has reported a 14-year decline in global freedoms, including a deterioration in established democracies like the United States.

“India and the United States are the largest and perhaps the most influential democracies in the world, and their drift from liberal democratic ideals is sending exactly the wrong message,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House in March 2020. “If major democratic powers fail to set strong examples and provide constructive leadership, it will be impossible to reverse the global trends that threaten freedom for all societies.”

Elsewhere leaders are doing the work of eroding democratic institutions from within their countries. In Uganda this week, as presidential election votes were counted, opposition leader Bobi Wine tweeted that his home was “under siege” from the country’s military, the most recent violent suppression of the democratic process in the country this election cycle. The same week Trump was impeached by the House, the U.S. canceled its observation of the Ugandan elections because the votes would lack transparency, according to Reuters.

A loss of standing

For decades, despite sustained criticism for its role in several wars and foreign interventions, the U.S. was able to promote democracy based on its own example: a stable system in which power has been passed peacefully for some 220 years, often from one party to the next and despite invasion and even civil war. Trump’s incitement of a mob of supporters which stormed the Capitol not only broke that chain of hitherto peaceful transfers of power, it showed the world that the U.S. is no different than the countries it had admonished in the past.

“If you have something like [the Capitol riots] it’s going to mean your ability to to set yourself up as a paragon and a shining example is somewhat diminished,” said Joseph S. Nye, Jr., professor emeritus and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, as well as the author of the book “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.” 

Nye, who developed the theory of soft power, or non-coercive influence over other countries through the persuasion of culture, shared values and policy, says that despite Biden’s win and the promise of change it comes with, there’s a skepticism among allies that America can right its course for good, and that will affect its ability to influence allies and rivals: “There will be a lasting effect of the Trump years in terms of trust of the United States. If we don’t manage the COVID-19 experience, the economy remains depressed and sour and Biden is not reelected; and you have a nativist populist, it may be Trump himself or somebody who tries to pick up his mantle, then it’s gonna turn out to be very hard to recover [America’s] soft power.”

In other words, “Once bit, twice shy,” he said.

Although pro-democracy and human rights activists around the globe were stunned to see a mob storm the Capitol, they say they were heartened and inspired because the system ultimately prevailed. (Photo by AP/Jose Luis Magana)

Geopolitical rivals like Russia and China, authoritarian governments with whom the U.S. has clashed in recent years for human rights abuses and the trampling of citizens’ civil liberties, exploited the opportunity presented by the riots to mock the perceived dysfunction of the American political system and advance the idea that the U.S. has no moral high ground from which to demand reform in other countries. 

“This, alas, is actually the bottom, I say this without a shadow of gloating,” wrote Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, in a Facebook post. “America no longer charts the course, and therefore has lost all rights to set one. Let alone to impose it on others.”

China, which has cracked down on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, went a step further and pointed to a perceived hypocrisy of American officials and media. Within China, images of the violent Capitol breach and predominantly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests have been used as propagandist fodder, implied as proof of the chaos of democracy in contrast to China’s widely criticized authoritarian system. The same week as the riots, the Chinese-backed Hong Kong police arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists. Chinese government mouthpiece Xinhua News said the Capitol riots “tore down the beautiful disguise of American democracy.” 

“Stopping the power transition with violence has shaken the roots and foundation of American democracy – the long celebrated American democracy has finally fallen from its altar,” the government-run news outlet said.

“A lot of foreign leaders are very good at the propaganda war and are good at making democracy look bad,” said Repucci, “but I think the facts speak for themselves: Our institutions have been severely tested over the last few weeks but ultimately have stood up to that test.” 

Repucci says that the events of the last week show that a well functioning democracy is not one that doesn’t have any problems, but that when there are problems like abuse of power that those are held to account. “And what we’ve seen with the impeachment… is that elected leaders on both sides of the political aisle were willing to stand up for our values and hold the president to account for his wrongdoing,” she added.

Changing perceptions

President Trump’s performance on the international stage also changed perceptions of America as a business partner willing to negotiate on trade deals, making space for undemocratic economic competitors like China to fill in the void, says Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. He points to the impact of Trump’s trade war with China and the hostile way in which he engaged with allies.

“It is not enough to talk about China as a competitor, or a potential threat. You have to outline your willingness to work with your allies, rather than attempt to put pressure on them to reach some kind of broader free trade agreements,” said Cordesman. “They have to see an advantage in U.S. trade policy, not simply pressures and negatives.” In an analysis published the day after the Capitol breach, Cordesman compiled a series of global polls showing perceptions of the U.S. compared to competitors like China and Russia. The polls indicate that the U.S. has been viewed more negatively than these authoritarian adversaries in recent years. A December 2020 Pew Research poll found that there was more confidence in Putin within many NATO countries than there was in Trump. 

Perceptions of the U.S. did fall under the Obama administration as well, said Cordesman, “but almost all of the drops, which was relatively precipitous, occurred under the Trump administration, and it was a reaction to the public image that administration had almost from its election onwards. Again, it’s very important to look at trends, not just a moment in time,” referring to this period in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.

While it could take time for the new Biden administration to come back from this low point, Cordesman says, “this is something you can do fairly quickly” through a host of individual areas of regulatory and similar policies, and without giving up U.S. interests. “It requires broad changes in U.S. policy and sort of treatment of strategic partners as partners, rather than clients states that have to respond to U.S. pressure.”

Nye believes the process of restoring America’s influence started already with the result of the election: “Despite a pandemic and despite a demagogue telling lies, an unprecedented turnout of voters was able to remove a demagogue that tried to resist that in a variety of ways,” he said, adding that the integrity demonstrated by most local officials, regardless of their political affiliation, when Trump or his allies put pressure to overturn the election and the impartiality of the judges who oversaw the legal challenges to the election serve as proof to the world that the American system can recover. 

The second step in this process, according to Nye, depends on president-elect Biden policies: “The administration will take steps which restore some of the things that were good for American soft power in the past, and rejoining the Paris Climate accord rejoining the World Health Organization are good examples of it, also reaffirming America’s alliances, the United States has alliances with 60 countries China has one or two. These are the things that have been traditionally great sources of American soft power.”

The final component, according to Nye, rests in American civil society and its resilience and willingness to acknowledge the challenges ahead, an example being the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the anti-Vietnam War movement and civil rights movement before it, BLM will have a wider, more positive impact on global perceptions of the U.S. in the long term than the storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, he says. 

“Black Lives Matter demonstrations show that even though America still has racism and still has inequality, enormous problems, it has a capacity for self-criticism, and a capacity for reform and that’s different from the type of goals that were being espoused by the mob on January 6, which were essentially to reverse a democratic election.”

For Cordesman, U.S. Foreign policy, and its approach to its partners must change as well. Part of the problem [during the Trump administration] was that the U.S. seemed to lose interest in human rights and basically found itself caught up in policies which did not show a great deal of concern for democracies, and positions of other states. […] but I think there are enough expectations that things will change.” 

And that, he says, is certainly a starting point. But it isn’t one that’s driven by the Capitol riot.

“It requires broad changes in U.S. policy and sort of treatment of strategic partners as partners, rather than clients states that have to respond to our pressure,” he said.

‘Learning from the rest of the world and yet being a model’

Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Restorative Justice at McMaster University, said that while the U.S. is still viewed by many as a beacon of democracy, its global influence can be limited by notions of “American exceptionalism.” The U.S., he says, could learn from other countries’ examples. 

“I don’t think those two aspirations are mutually exclusive: learning from the rest of the world and yet being a model for the rest of the world,” he said.

A practical step towards that goal, he says, is the establishment of a national truth and reconciliation commission, which allows a country to formally acknowledge past injustices and learn their scope by giving victims a space to have the societal wrongdoing recorded. The temporary commission then reports their findings to the government, offering recommendations for redress.

“It’s not that it solves all the problems, but it begins the conversation. And I think that’s what is sorely needed particularly in the States: the conversation,” said Ibhawoh, who has studied truth commissions for over two decades.

More than 40 countries from Chile to Canada have established truth commissions, the goal healing for victims and perpetrators alike, as opposed to retributive justice, the most well known example being the Nuremberg Trials, explains Ibhawoh. Kenya established a truth commission in 2008, following political violence in the wake of a presidential election during which claims of voter fraud were widespread. Most famously perhaps, South Africa created one such commission to investigate racial violence during apartheid. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his country’s willingness to help the U.S. through the current divisiveness through the African nation’s own experience of healing in the wake of political violence.

“One of the things a lot of people will agree with is… that if the commission did one thing, it was that it revealed the depth of the injustices, inhumanity and atrocities of apartheid,” he said. “You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in South Africa today from school kids to adults who don’t who raise this question about the injustice of apartheid, because there were hearings, all around the country – public hearings that were telecast on TV – that heard from both perpetrators and victims. So, even though it might have fallen short of its other goals of reconciliation… it made it an open national conversation, which I think will be the first step in the United States, so we can, at least for once, agree on what the Confederate flag means: is it heritage, or is it hate?”

Ibhawoh, an expert in global human rights, says that the U.S. is still an inspiration for many who seek to foster democratic freedoms in their country, and that inspiration comes not from a notion of “American exceptionalism, but from its tradition of building a “more perfect union, “the fact that the United States, isn’t perfect, that it’s continually strive to ‘live out the full meaning of its creed,’ in the words of Martin Luther King.”

“A truth commission would be in keeping with a tradition that the racial divisions in the United States haven’t stopped the country from projecting that ideal in the past,” he said, “…that tradition of the United States trying, increasingly over the decades, to repair some of the imperfections in its body politic.”