US sees image tarnished abroad post-Jan. 6
A United States still deeply divided over Jan. 6 has hurt its standing overseas, tarnishing the reputation of a country that has long promoted democracy efforts abroad.
The one-year anniversary of the Capitol riot marked not just a reflection point in the U.S., but also among allies and adversaries alike, who witnessed Democratic lawmakers largely gather on their own to remember a day when the democratic process in the United States came under a serious and violent challenge.
“Democracies in the rest of the world in Latin America, Asia, and Europe, recognized Jan. 6 for what it is. It was an attempted coup. It was an effort by a president to steal an election,” said Steven Levitsky, a democratization and authoritarianism expert at Harvard University and author of the book “How Democracies Die.”
“There’s no debate or division in democratic societies about what happened in the United States — an effort to overturn an election. I think what is stunning … is that we now have a political party, a major political party in the United States that was unwilling to accept defeat. That’s an indicator of an authoritarian political party, an anti-democratic force.”
The events leading up to and on Jan. 6 were closely followed by the world and watched in real time, with then-President Trump’s false claims of election fraud spurring his supporters to violently disrupt Congress from certifying the election win for President Biden.
One European diplomat, speaking anonymously to be candid, said the riot put into stark relief the threat to democracies and raised questions of the U.S. strength in being able to overcome those challenges.
“It was the first time that it came to the big public eye, ‘OK, there is a big problem in the U.S. democracy,’ ” the diplomat said of the attack. “The U.S. won’t be there all the time because they also have problems within their borders. I think it’s a bit of a call to action for the countries around the world and the allies, most of them, to be able to beef up their defenses both internally and externally.”
Recent polling shows a diminishing regard for the U.S. and its guidance on democratic principles.
A Pew survey of international respondents from 16 democratic societies, published in November, found that just 17 percent said democracy in the U.S. is a good example to follow, while 57 percent think it used to be a good example but has not been in recent years.
“Jan. 6 has done real damage to America’s reputation with democratic allies, who have long viewed the United States as an anchor for stability and a democratic world order. … It’s partly about image, but more importantly, it’s about whether America will be able to retain the ability to lead the free world,” said Ash Jain, director for democratic order with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
“For adversaries such as China and Russia, it reinforced their existing view that democracy is essentially a sham, and that there’s nothing particularly special or noteworthy about American democracy. It served to bolster the case that they have been making for years, with another dramatic set of images and data points they can now use.”
China marked the anniversary of Jan. 6 by criticizing the U.S. and its democratic model, reflecting the battle between Beijing and Washington for global hegemony.
“The American democracy is problem-ridden and the ‘Kabul moment’ featuring the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan further laid bare the serious harm of imposing American democracy on others,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
“However, it is beyond our imagination that the U.S. didn’t learn a lesson but still styles itself as a leader of democracy.”
The U.S. typically spends billions of dollars each year on democracy and anti-corruption initiatives around the globe, along with its general budget for the United States Agency for International Development and other agencies. But experts say the U.S. has lost credibility in pushing such programs.
“I think firstly, our enemies point to our hypocrisy, and our insistence on free and fair elections overseas has kind of boomeranged on us,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“That was the lost opportunity. I think last Jan. 6, as abhorrent as those events on the Hill were, that was maybe the last opportunity to steer things right and to basically come together and mix troops and move forward. And everything that’s happened since then has just deepened distrust and suspicion in the United States that I think people overseas look at that and say, ‘Why should anybody listen to them?’ ” he said.
While the U.S. has perhaps not been a leader to allies, experts say it is providing a road map for those with authoritarian inclinations.
“The people who look to the United States as the model are authoritarians. Jair Bolsonaro is actively copying Donald Trump’s efforts to discredit an election. Keiko Fujimori, the illiberal right-wing candidate in Peru this last summer very clearly copied Donald Trump in rejecting the results of a close election defeat. So it’s the authoritarians who are modeling themselves on the United States,” said Levitsky.
Cathy Lisa Schneider, a professor at American University who teaches about political violence, cited a “sharing of strategies” among countries.
“People are following what Trump did — the authoritarian playbook of Trump — in other countries. And Trump has been following, as the GOP has been, following the authoritarian playbook in places like Hungary,” she said.
“The right used to rely on military coups. And now there is this new populist playbook and they are all using it. … Trump learned some of those lessons and he promulgated it, and he’s the most visible of all of them, and so when he starts using strategies to win and it works, other authoritarians start using those strategies.”
Levitsky blamed part of the success on the lack of pushback within the Republican Party.
“Americans being divided about this is a product of the fact that with the very notable exception of Liz Cheney and a few others Republican leaders are unwilling to call this event what it was. They were unwilling even to show up, as Dick Cheney was, to Congress to commemorate Jan. 6 and that’s what generates disbelief in Western Europe and Latin America,” he said.
But Hoffman warns there are risks to the U.S. that go far beyond the reputational.
“Adversaries see in our disarray new opportunities that we’re not even aware of because we’re so focused on the divisions internally,” he said.
“It encourages adversaries and undermines the trust of allies and that, in the long term, I think is enormously consequential.”