President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to restore a global leadership role for the United States, but he will be haunted by a final act of his predecessor -- inciting a mob to trash the US Capitol.
Allied democracies voiced shock, and authoritarian states alleged US hypocrisy after Donald Trump’s supporters stormed and defiled the seat of US democracy to disrupt a ceremonial session that certified Biden’s victory.
A number of lawmakers, scholars and activists said that Biden — known for his strong interest in foreign affairs — will be obliged to focus inward and confront the reality that perhaps millions of Americans believe Trump’s unfounded conspiracy theories of electoral fraud.
“The post-9/11 era is over. The single greatest national security threat right now is our internal division,” said Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic congresswoman who was previously a CIA analyst.
“If we don’t reconnect our two Americas, the threats will not have to come from the outside.”
Biden has pledged to convene within his first year a “summit of democracies” to promote shared liberal values in a rebuke of Trump’s embrace of autocrats abroad.
That summit could now seem either poignant or awkward taking place in Washington.
“We’ve seen an undermining of trust in government here but also overseas, where the US has been a leader in promoting the rule of law and democracy, even if it’s often seen as hypocritical,” said Sarah Margon, who leads advocacy on US foreign policy at the Open Society Foundations.
“So I actually think what happened links domestic and foreign policy ever more closely.”
Margon said that foreign leaders would closely watch Biden’s domestic actions, and that he could send a strong message by ensuring the Capitol rioters are prosecuted — deterrence against any future attempts to trample on democracy.
‘Democracy must be defended’
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected “slander” that the United States had become a “banana republic” — noting that law enforcement dispersed the mob and the certification went ahead.
In a statement that was widely shared among US diplomats, Natalie E. Brown, the ambassador to Uganda, acknowledged that after the attack, “many people may question America’s right to speak out on issues of democracy around the world, and they are entitled to their perspective.”
“But when we speak out against human rights abuses, we do so not because such abuses do not occur in America. When we speak out for press freedom, we do so not because American journalists are entirely free of harassment. When we call for judicial independence, we do so not because judges in America are free of external influence.
“On the contrary, we do so because we are mindful of the work still to be done in the American experiment with democracy and because our history has taught us that democracy must be defended if it is to endure,” she said.
Nations that are often on the receiving end of US criticism wasted no time in alleging double standards.
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa renewed his call for an end to sanctions over rights concerns, saying the Trump mob’s attack “showed that the US has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.“
Venezuela’s leftist government, sounding like the latest Trump administration’s call to topple it, voiced hope that Americans “can open a new path toward stability and social justice.“
‘Turn gaze inward’
The International Crisis Group, which studies conflict prevention and historically saw little need to look inside the United States, warned in a statement that political violence remained a threat.
“The US today is a nation where millions are convinced the new president was illegitimately elected, and where too many among those millions are both armed and seemingly willing to resort to extreme measures to ensure their view prevails,” the group said.
“Having spent decades telling other countries that they need to face up to their problems, it is past time for the US to turn its gaze inward. The stakes could hardly be higher.“
Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in an essay in Foreign Policy that others could increasingly see the United States as a source of risk rather than stability — “a nation that retains a massively powerful military while its domestic politics become ever more erratic and undemocratic.“
She questioned the focus of many in Washington on how the chaos would affect US moral authority or appear to rivals such as China.
“The real foreign-policy implications are bigger and more dangerous than the question of whether Washington will be able to stage a successful summit of democracies this spring,” she wrote.