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As US democracy stumbles, the world watches and wonders

At a time when democracies are on the defensive worldwide, the U.S. Capitol crisis resonated strongly. What hit home among allies from Canada to Germany wasn’t just the mob violence. It was the fact that a sitting president instigated the assault, with the declared aim of staying in power.

Whether in Beijing, Amman, or Tel Aviv, President Trump’s maneuvers have further fed the suspicion – not a new one – that the ostensible gold standard of democracy was nothing of the sort. Perhaps the U.S. was not all that different from the autocracies and pseudo-democracies that it has tried to hold to higher standards.

Some gloated. “A Mob Smashes Capitol Hill, and American-style Democracy is Smashed,” proclaimed China’s official state TV network. 

Others were frustrated. “For years America and American media depicted us as a violent people fuelled by ancient hatreds who could never learn democracy,” said Abdullah Saedi, a Jordanian engineer. “It we went by American standards, it seems many Americans need to learn democracy.”

And some tried to feed a flame of hope. “It was like watching a horror movie, but painful as it was … democracy was saved,” said Stav Shafir, chair of Israel’s Green Party.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged that “America is back.” But restoring the country’s moral authority may prove even more daunting than repairing its alliances.


His words were striking, but the imagery even more so: French President Emmanuel Macron, voicing U.S. allies’ shock and alarm at this week’s mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol, was framed by two national flags – the French tricolor and the Stars and Stripes.

For Americans, their flag can mean many things: national pride, unity, celebration – or, like so much else beset by today’s bitter political divisions, tribalism, hostility, and anger.

Yet in the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, it has come to symbolize one thing above all: democracy. A world power whose influence has derived not only from military and economic strength, Big Macs, and Hollywood movies – important though all these have been to America’s global reach – but from a political culture rooted in individual rights, freedom of expression, fair elections, the peaceful transfer of power. All of this subject not to the whims of any one political leader, but to the rule of law.

At a time when democracies worldwide have found themselves on the defensive – against populist politicians at home and authoritarian governments elsewhere – the events in Washington this week have resonated especially strongly. And what hit home among democratic allies wasn’t just the mob violence. It was the fact that Donald Trump, a sitting president, instigated the assault with the declared aim of tossing out the result of a national election and staying in power.

Germany: “This happened in the motherland of modern democracy. Many people in Europe perceive this as a more severe crisis than the one in Europe.”  Dr. Florian Böller, transatlantic relations expert.

China: “A Mob Smashes Capitol Hill, and American-style Democracy is Smashed.” Title of a commentary on China’s official state television network, CCTV.

Nigeria: Nigerians recall how, during the 2015 election, a supporter of the sitting president named Godsday Orubebe attempted to hijack the vote-counting process on live television. He failed, but his name remains synonymous with chaos. “To Orubebe” means to try to disrupt the democratic process. Back then, many Nigerians thought only Africans could Orubebe.

President Trump’s maneuvers have fed the suspicion – lamented by allies, pointedly amplified by rivals or critics – that the ostensible gold standard of democracy was nothing of the sort. Perhaps the U.S. was not all that different from the autocracies and pseudo-democracies that America has criticized or tried to hold to higher standards, countries like China and Russia, Hungary and Poland, Turkey and Venezuela.

Iraq: “Maybe we’re not so different after all. Maybe our flawed democracy isn’t as flawed as Americans made us think it is. America now has zero credibility when discussing peaceful transfers of power.” A Western-educated Iraqi official who asked not to be identified.

Egypt: “For young democracies or activists, when you see the democratic process disrupted and face mob violence in the most established democracy in the world, of course it is disheartening because it drives home the idea that even consolidated democracies are not safe.” Amr Hamzawi, Egyptian democracy activist and former member of Parliament.

Hong Kong: Wednesday’s riot was “a gift for the Communist regimes, not just in China, but around the world – it shows how democracies fail.” Kenneth Chan, associate professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University and a former Hong Kong legislator.

“America is back,” President-elect Joe Biden said after November’s election, a pledge welcomed by allies around the world. By that, he meant not only a reengagement with alliances and international institutions shunned by Mr. Trump. He meant reburnishing the flag behind President Macron’s right shoulder when he spoke this week, including by advancing plans to hold a summit meeting with other democracies early in his administration.

But restoring America’s moral authority, a core component of U.S. influence, may prove even more daunting a challenge than repairing America’s alliances.

Canada: “Our international influence works best when we’re seen by countries around the world as being of the same mind as the United States … so we’ve been watching the degeneration of American norms over the last four years with huge trepidation north of the border.” Drew Fagan, a former Ontario deputy minister.

Israel: “Over the last year, we have seen that an America that cannot police itself cannot police the world. That has an impact on Israel as we relied on American willingness to project power and it’s gone … and the Russians and Chinese and Iranians know it.” Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

Russia: “These scenes in Washington the other day were yet another blow to those who want to perceive the US as a hopeful and inspiring model. It’s very dispiriting to see this. What happened in DC was horrifying to watch. There’s no point in blaming the Kremlin for taking advantage, because, why wouldn’t they?” Masha Lipman, liberal Russian commentator.

Well before Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol, America’s reputation had begun to tarnish. The arc is perhaps best charted from another day in recent American history when the country collectively gasped at televised images: Sept. 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda operatives crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a commemoration for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War I, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris Nov. 11, 2018. World leaders including Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron have condemned the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Mr. Trump’s supporters.

Then, the international response was nearly unanimous: solidarity with a democracy under terrorist attack. But over the years that followed, the image of America evolved. Unsurprisingly, U.S. foreign policy has never perfectly lived up to Washington’s staunch public commitment to democratic values and human rights. But the Iraq War, especially the torture and abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison by American Army and CIA personnel, marked an important turning point.

The largest shift, however, has occurred under President Trump, whose apparent lack of concern for human rights and democratic accountability abroad, and his bid to exert personal control over traditionally independent legal and judicial processes at home, have alarmed U.S. allies. 

Jordan: “For years America and American media depicted us as violent people fueled by ancient hatreds who could never learn democracy. If we went by American standards, it seems many Americans need to learn democracy.” Abdullah Saedi, a Jordanian engineer.

Nigeria: “Wednesday’s riot in Washington shows us that … there are no perfect democracies. It is something that should be nurtured at all costs. Trump’s actions delegitimize the work of people like us because autocrats will ask ‘why does an organization like the CDD exist and condemn us when their paymasters are even worse?’” Idayat Hassan, director of the U.S.-funded Center for Democracy and Development.

Russia: Most Russians always regarded the U.S. with high respect and sympathy, even if they saw it as an adversary. But now it kind of looks as though the America we knew is gone, that it just won’t be that America anymore. Some might be gleeful to see this, but I think most are sad about it.” Vladimir Pozner, veteran Russian international affairs commentator.

Concern among America’s friends about the way things were going crescendoed within hours of the polls closing at November’s election, when Mr. Trump preemptively claimed victory and urged states to stop counting votes while he remained ahead.

They had been holding their breath in the weeks since, hoping Mr. Trump would ultimately recognize Mr. Biden’s victory and that Washington could set out on its path to “coming back.”

That remains their hope – not just for the sake of the U.S. but for the broader prospects of democratic governance internationally. They’ve been taking some solace from the fact that the core structures of the American system seemed to hold in the end, with Congress returning after the mob was expelled from the Capitol and certifying Mr. Biden’s victory.

Britain: “This isn’t helping America’s sell, but I don’t know if the image is irreparable. Is it the image of the U.S. or the image of Trump?” Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Loughborough University.

Israel: “It was like watching a horror movie, but painful as it was … democracy was saved and that should give us hope. The elections proved it was possible to save democracy even from hands of those who have no moral standards.” Stav Shafir, chair of Israel’s Green Party and a former lawmaker.

Yet the stakes were enormous, as Mr. Macron made clear. “We believe in American democracy,” the French president said. Declaring that “the temple of American democracy” had been attacked, he added that when “supporters of an outgoing president challenge with the use of weapons the legitimate result of an election, it is the universal idea of ‘one man, one vote’ that is breached.”

For France and other allies, however, a nagging question remains: how, and whether, U.S. democracy as they’ve known it can be repaired and reinvigorated, especially since Mr. Trump won the support of nearly half of America’s voters in November, and of a significant number of Republican congressmen in this week’s effort to challenge the election results.

The lingering message from this week’s events was encapsulated by a diplomat from Germany, a nation whose own democracy was built and encouraged by the U.S. after the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. “After our catastrophic failure in the 20th
century, we Germans were taught by the U.S. to develop strong democratic institutions,” Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador to Britain, wrote on Twitter.

“We also learnt that democracy is not just about institutions. It is about political culture, too. All democratic nations need to constantly defend it.”

Egypt: “As an MP, I saw this type of polarization happening between Islamists and seculars, old and new ruling establishments; there was no way to mediate between them, which is one reason why the democratic process there failed. In a way, this attack should be a wakeup call for democratic institutions.” Amr Hamzawi, Egyptian democracy activist.

Israel: “I think it could do good for democracy because it gets people thinking. I don’t see yesterday as some breaking point.” Ehud Morris, a 32-year-old industrial designer in Tel Aviv.

Shola Lawal in Lagos, Nigeria; Taylor Luck in Amman, Jordan; Scott Peterson and Shafi Musaddique in London; Fred Weir in Moscow; Ann Scott Tyson in Seattle; Lenora Chu in Berlin; Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv, Israel; and Sara Miller Llana in Toronto contributed reporting to this article.

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