Inspired by the attempted January 6th insurrection in Washington, D.C., “Changing of the Guard” is a series of reflections on transitions of power — the peaceful, the violent, and the era-defining.
On January 6th, 2021, a violent mob of Americans, urged on by outgoing President Donald Trump to “stop the steal,” stormed the U.S. Capitol on the day that Congress was certifying the electoral victory of his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Because Trump was attempting both to prolong his presidency beyond the expiration of his electoral mandate and to assert the primacy of his executive branch over the independent and theoretically co-equal Congress through mob violence, some political scientists have characterized the Capitol riot as an attempted autogolpe, or “self-coup.”
Unsurprisingly, America’s democratic allies were horrified at the apparent disintegration of American democracy on live TV.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted “The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.” Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron said “What happened today in Washington DC is not American, definitely. We believe in the strength of our democracies. We believe in the strength of American democracy.”
On January 7th, the day after the riot, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close political ally of Trump, said “For generations American democracy has inspired millions around the world and in Israel. American democracy has always inspired me [. . .] I have no doubt that American democracy will prevail – it always has.”
These statements of condemnation from democratic nations all drew on a common theme — the notion that the fate of democracy everywhere was linked to democracy in America. In the same way that the United States pursued a policy of “containment” during the Cold War, fearful that the appearance of Soviet-style communism in one country would lead inexorably to its spread throughout the world, many democratic leaders implicitly or explicitly argued that the devolution of America’s peaceful transfer of power into a violent circus would weaken democracy and strengthen autocracy worldwide.
Does this argument hold up? Was 1/6 a blow to world democracy? Or, alternatively, was the successful transfer of power to Joe Biden despite the sitting president’s flagrant attempts to overturn America’s constitutional order a vindication of democracy?
Authoritarian leaders and governments have pointed to the chaos and violence of the disputed presidential election as proof that American democracy is not a model worth imitating and to undermine American claims to moral and democratic leadership on the global stage.
Zimbabwean President Emerson Mnangagwa, for example, argued that “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.” Similarly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said “What we saw in the United States last night showed the failure and frailty of Western democracy in the world.” And Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, himself the self-proclaimed winner of a disputed election, seized the opportunity to rebut American criticism of his country’s electoral system.
Meanwhile, authoritarian populist leaders like Trump have seized on Trump’s tactics for use in domestic politics. Jair Bolsonaro, for example, took the opportunity to validate Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud and reiterate his own false claim that, without widespread misconduct, his own victory in 2018’s Brazillian presidential election would not have needed a runoff.
Pro-democracy activists and politicians in non-democratic countries like Russia and Hungary, meanwhile, were disturbed by the apparent instability of the political system they themselves were seeking to implement.
President Joe Biden has promised to host an international Summit for Democracy with the hope of reviving liberal democracy on the global stage and reorienting American foreign policy away from the Putins and Erdogans of the world and back towards traditionally democratic leaders. In his own words, “First and foremost, we must repair and reinvigorate our own democracy, even as we strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world.” This underlying assumption — that the fates of world democracies are intertwined — is commonly held. But is it true?
Yes. To counter global illiberalism, democratic nations can recommit themselves to the project of global liberalism.
The Trump years were characterized by pivot in American foreign policy towards leaders who, like Trump, had little interest in formal constraints on their power, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. By materially and politically supporting these undemocratic leaders, for example by denying Putin’s interference in the 2016 election, selling military equipment to his “friend” MBS, and pushing for a lopsided peace plan for Israel and Palestine, Trump strengthened the international and domestic standing of autocratic personalities.
By the same token, President Biden can dial up American support for democratic leaders and governments while disempowering reactionary regimes. Will Biden’s foreign policy reflect his promised commitment not only to redeem American democracy, but to restore democracy worldwide?
His administration’s decision to levy sanctions on the military government of Myanmar following a coup d’etat that ousted democratically-elected head of state Aung San Suu Kyi — justified, topically, by the military’s unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud — suggests that his foreign policy over the next four years will indeed prioritize democratization.
Indeed, Biden recently addressed the Munich Security Conference, appearing on-screen with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, and said that “I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy must prevail,” and that Western democracies must “demonstrate that democracy functions and works and together there’s nothing we can’t do.”
To recap, while the desecration of the peaceful transition of power may energize the Biden administration to more forcefully advocate for global democracy, the Capitol riot may have also validated criticisms of democracy, including the frequent charge from authoritarian leaders that it is a chaotic, unstable process. Ultimately, only time will tell whether or not the televised breakdown of American democracy and the former president’s attempt to violently overthrow the election he lost weakens or empowers global democracy.
If domestic backlash to the January 6th coup attempt is sufficiently severe and prolonged to reorient American foreign policy towards global democracy, then the liberal international order may yet survive. But, if American domestic politics continue to descend into epistemic crisis, cynicism, conspiracism, and authoritarianism, then the consequences of our backsliding will reverberate across the globe.