How will America’s friends and foes react to the Jan. 6 insurrection?
The combination of the Jan. 6 desecration of the U.S. Capitol and the impeachment trial of former President Trump left many deep scars and revealed many cracks in American society. Unlike the Watergate Scandal, which ended when Richard Nixon resigned from office, while these scars may heal, repairing these cracks may not be so easy.
Friends, partners, allies, competitors, rivals and state and non-state actors wishing us harm have closely observed these events and the forces and factors that led to the attack on the Capitol Building and the subsequent impeachment trial. While Jan. 6 will not have the dramatic significance of the demise of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many of the internal fault lines of American society and politics were unmistakably exposed. It is these flaws, and the vast political differences in America, that are likely to exert the most influence on international perceptions of the U.S.
Several common observations apply to international reactions and responses of friends and foes alike. First, was the failure of the U.S. government to protect its seat of power. If the U.S. was so woefully unprepared to guard Congress and the insurrectionists so easily broke through the meager defenses, how vulnerable is the rest of America to massive external disruption?
Second, can a nation so politically divided live up to its treaty commitments and obligations even with a new and very internationalist president?
Third, given these huge internal political divisions, can domestic extremist groups be exploited or encouraged to act as what Lenin called “useful idiots” or pawns to be manipulated?
And fourth and perhaps most relevant, given the horrible hand President Biden inherited, his focus must and will be domestic and containing COVID-19 and the pandemic; providing economic relief through his $1.9 trillion plan; and addressing inequalities in income, race and gender. What does this mean for his international agenda, especially since Iran has attacked a U.S. base in Erbil, testing the new team?
Friends, partners and allies, whether in Europe or Asia/Pacific, viewed Biden’s election with great relief and knowledge that the new president would try to repair the damage done by the previous administration’s America First” policies. That generated expectations for relatively prompt action. But in a nation so divided even when the president enjoys primacy on foreign policy, how quickly and to what degree would an internationalist agenda be implemented? Patience is not always a sustainable virtue. And allies are not always patient, especially when expectations run high.
Adversaries and rivals will draw different conclusions for future action based on Jan. 6 and the impeachment trial. China is likely to be ambivalent. On the one hand, with over $2 trillion invested in U.S. equities and debt that are financing America’s deficits, stability is important. On the other, opportunities for increasing Chinese global influence are enhanced by White House’s fixation on the agenda at home. And China knows well that it will take until the end of the year for the new administration to be fully manned.
Russia is almost certain to exploit these divisions. One can imagine the enthusiasm at SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence) and GRU (its military intelligence) headquarters for increasing “active measures” to promote and provoke further divisiveness in America. Bots and trolls will be hard at work to recruit and rally domestic American extremist groups to intensify and weaponize dissent against the government. And, probably, with facial recognition technologies, targets have been identified from the mob that stormed the Capitol.
Russian exploitation may have no further motivation than retaliation for American sanctions. But for anyone who is unconvinced, the “SolarWinds” cyber hack is definitive evidence of Russian intent. And Iran or North Korea could follow suit using the internet to exacerbate these American weaknesses.
The greatest danger may arise from violent extremist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Recruiting jihadis can be converted to attracting white nationalist supremacists to attack the U.S. government. And the damage can be enormous. Consider this scenario.
Suppose that rioters employed “swarms” of autonomous drones against the Capitol carrying small explosive charges. Such vehicles can be easily and cheaply manufactured or purchased. Interestingly, China is the world’s biggest supplier. If truly autonomous, jamming countermeasures or cutting off GPS guidance will not work.
Perhaps none of these scenarios will arise. Yet, each is possible. The most effective solution is to understand that the greatest clear and present danger to America is a disunited United States that creates too many opportunities and vulnerabilities for those wishing us harm.
Harlan Ullman, PhD. is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation,” is due out this year.