America’s Authoritarian Adversaries Seize the Moment

US
Tear gas is released into a crowd of protesters during clashes with Capitol police at the U.S. Capitol Building, January 6, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The immediate reaction to their condemnation should be to expose the anti-democratic motives behind it.

The Capitol Hill mobs egged on by the president and his associates dealt the United States an unfathomable international embarrassment that doubled as a gift to its adversaries — one they were all too eager to exploit. As packs of rally-goers stalked the halls of Congress, and soon after the violence was quelled by law enforcement, the chattering classes concluded that the day’s events have crippled U.S. global leadership.

Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass wrote on Twitter that it’ll be a long time before Washington can “lecture others they are not stable enough to have nuclear weapons.” The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah was similarly pessimistic, and her post reflected what now seems the prevalent thinking among opinion makers: “When the President of Zimbabwe is telling America to sod off with moralizing about democracy to other countries, you know its [sic] a wrap.”

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These observers and others are right to lament the damage that this does to U.S. democracy promotion efforts and the gift that it’s been to foreign authoritarian regimes. Still, the precise extent of that harm remains to be seen. This depends on how — and whether — Americans remedy the ills wrought by the mayhem and confront the political forces and disinformation epidemic that enabled it. In the short term, though, these efforts should be accompanied by a forceful rebuttal of foreign authoritarian efforts to exploit the moment.

In the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, there’s been an obvious difference between the good-faith international responses and those that sought to weaponize the crisis toward anti-democratic ends. U.S. allies responded with a mix of shock, expressions of confidence in American institutions, and condemnation of the president. They sized up American democracy not by the depths to which it has plunged this election season, but by the yardstick of the example that the United States has historically set.

French president Emmanuel Macron recorded a short video address: “What happened today in Washington, D.C. is not America, definitely.” “Democracy in the US must be upheld — and it will be,” assured Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. The U.K.’s Boris Johnson called it “vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transition,” and the government of Japan said in a statement that it is “hoping” for one. Some were more pointed. Former European Council president Donald Tusk warned that “there are Trumps everywhere,” and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte issued a plea: “Dear @realDonaldTrump, recognize @joebiden as the next president today.”

The difference between the world’s democrats and its autocrats could not be more stark. Just take the tweet Attiah mentioned, posted by Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa:

Last year, President Trump extended painful economic sanctions placed on Zimbabwe, citing concerns about Zimbabwe’s democracy.

Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy. These sanctions must end.

Then he congratulated Joe Biden on his victory and offered the friendship of the Zimbabwean people. Of course, the U.S. does still have the moral authority to encourage respect for human rights in the country. Mnangagwa, who displaced Robert Mugabe in a 2017 coup, has a brutal record to match that of the infamous dictator: Security forces in the country still routinely use indiscriminate force against innocent demonstrators, whom they arbitrarily imprison, torture, and rape. The New York Times reported last year that his “opponents now fear he is more dangerous than his predecessor.”

What about U.S. adversaries with more global influence? While statements out of Beijing, Moscow, and other capitals seem to illustrate the strains on America’s democratic tradition, the primary reaction to these messages should be ridicule, if they’re paid any attention at all. And they certainly don’t make for propaganda capable of convincing anyone who didn’t already take for granted what these governments have to say.

The Twitter account of the Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, used the incident to draw an equivalence between the Washington riot and the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, comparing photographs of the Washington riot with those of the occupation of Hong Kong’s legislature by demonstrators in 2019. According to the regime’s propagandists, if figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pompeo condemn the riots they should also condemn the pro-democracy movement (which the Chinese Communist Party falsely tarnishes with separatist, terrorist, and otherwise violent intentions). A GT article quotes Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying: “Many Chinese netizens are wondering why some politicians and media in the US reacted so differently to a similar situation.”

Only these were not remotely similar situations. Hong Kong’s democrats are up against an aspiring totalitarian regime that’s swallowing whole the democratic practices that the city was promised. It bears stating this simple truth, particularly in the aftermath of this week’s police raids in Hong Kong, which swept up over 50 pro-democracy politicians for their participation in a primary for legislative elections. The Capitol rioters sought to subvert a legitimate election result that’s withstood numerous legal challenges by means that defied the law.

Other examples abound. The Venezuelan government statement says that “With this unfortunate episode, the United States is experiencing what it has generated in other countries.” Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif wrote that for all of Trump’s damaging actions, he “has been doing much worse to our people — and others in the past 4 years,” referencing the sanctions campaign targeting Tehran’s support for terrorism and nuclear aspirations. Russia’s U.N. ambassador gleefully compared the overtaking of the Capitol with Ukraine’s Maidan protests, which toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s Kremlin-backed strongman. It hardly needs pointing out that these are all regimes that routinely crack down on peaceful demonstrations, then retaliate against those who seek justice. The current unrest hands them an easy message to convey — but it remains a fundamentally ridiculous one.

So the immediate reaction should be to discredit foreign propaganda and expose the anti-democratic motives behind it. This alone won’t be enough, though. Messages for an international audience to protest measures to punish human-rights abusers stand less chance of swaying people than do similar messages designed for domestic consumption that can erode the efforts of pro-democracy forces in those countries. The president’s conduct and the Capitol mobs handed them a news cycle that’s crowded out talk of everything from Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown to Iran’s obstruction of the investigation into the civilian airliner taken down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps over Tehran last year.

There’s little disputing that this assault on the peaceful transfer of power seems likely to have severe consequences for America’s global credibility unless the downward spiral slows.

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