Online Commentary

January 08, 2021

US Global Credibility and Capacity to Act After the Capitol Siege

This week’s attempted insurrection in the Capitol building yielded extraordinary images of violence and death. But it also underscored an ugly truth: the United States’ profound lack of political and social cohesion is now its greatest weakness. Appalled reaction may speed Trumpism’s end, but the riot highlights a breakdown in US identity and deep problems with its democracy. All this will have important geostrategic consequences for the Biden Administration.

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Picture: Workers install heavy-duty security fencing around the U.S. Capitol a day after supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington, US, January 7, 2021.
Workers install heavy-duty security fencing around the U.S. Capitol a day after supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington, US, January 7, 2021.
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Wednesday’s violent insurgents, emboldened by large numbers of enablers, were orchestrated from the White House. Images of the day may become the ultimate icons of the Trump era: a Trump flag over the Capitol in place of the Stars and Stripes; protestors’ boots desecrating the Speaker’s desk; a confederate banner in the Capitol atrium on the day Georgia elected its first black senator.

The unforgettable events were condemned by world leaders, including Merkel, Macron and von der Leyen. And the insurrection may hasten the end of Trump as a political force, not least since an overwhelming majority of Americans was shocked and appalled. But the Capitol Hill riot was symptomatic of a profound breakdown of national identity and grave problems with the operating system of democracy in America. This will inevitably impact on its role and image overseas.

Without an external “other,” the friction driving US political life turned inward

Looking back, American democracy enjoyed a relatively charmed life in the post-war decades. There were hard-fought struggles to expand citizenship and a sense of belonging – for civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and the LGBTQ movement. These struggles at times had uncertain trajectories. But the arc of expanding political identities reinforced the United States’ sense of common belonging and purpose, held together by the US national motto: E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”

That US domestic cohesion underpinned a strong and generally principled US federal state: relatively uncontested institutional authority, a standing military with global power projection, internationalism allowing for global alliances, a strong central bank governing the world’s reserve currency and the basis for the international financial system, and a global regulatory system setting rules on everything from medicine to toys to toothpaste. Each of these attributes are quite recent and are based on the hard-fought political cohesion the US once enjoyed. All are now in grave danger.

In the last 30 years, a kind of spiritual irredentism has set in: a political sentiment which longs to reclaim the safety net of white privilege, rather than for lost territories. This privilege is now palpably slipping away from a large segment of the white population, ill-equipped for the present, who see themselves as losers in a changing society. The end of the Cold War removed the presence of external enemy as a galvanizing principle for American political life. Without an external “other,” the friction driving US political life turned inward.

The Trump presidency, the COVID-19 crisis, and Black Lives Matter protests have accelerated centrifugal forces within the US. There has been rapid erosion of the sense of common destiny which could bridge differences in race, class, generation, language, gender, religion, geography, and ideology. Many Americans are now undergoing an ontological shift, losing their once talismanic regard for the Constitution and its promise of a “more perfect union.” Even quite recently, mythologies of the founding fathers extended from reactionary conservatives (the 2010 Tea Party) to cosmopolitan progressives (Hamilton: The Musical). Now even the usefulness of common myths seems open to reinterpretation.

What does this mean for the United States as a global actor? 

Bringing the United States back together – binding up the national wounds – will be the Biden administration’s most difficult national mission, and its most strategically important.

The Biden transition team has articulated a clear agenda based on four areas – the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, climate change, and racial justice. But Biden’s specific efforts will only succeed if linked to a broader campaign to deescalate tension and deradicalize the US population. The process of healing will probably last at least a generation, and the sense of national cohesion may have frayed beyond repair. After all, even in the midst of global condemnation, 45 percent of Republican voters approved of the Capitol insurrection (43 percent did not) and 51 percent of Republican voters believe Joe Biden is at fault for the siege. 

The schisms within US democratic culture are matched by Beijing’s increasingly malevolent consistency. The combination of the two has created a deeply uncertain global environment, where dependencies can become vulnerabilities to be abused, exploited and weaponized. Efforts by US allies – including those in Europe – to overcome long-standing geo-economic, defense and technological reliance on the United States are based on the recognition that America’s wild political oscillations make it an unreliable partner, and at times a vindictive one. Their sense of vulnerability is justified.

Four key points stand out.

First, Biden is confronting centrifugal forces that will have serious implications on America’s capacity to act on the global stage. The new administration must restore the legitimacy of the American electorate’s voice and of the elites which represent the people. Victory in the Georgia run-off elections has given the Democrats narrow control of Congress. But the United States and other democracies must overcome the idea that 50-50 societies can be democratic. Like other Western countries, the US has allowed democracy’s framing to be revised downward to minimum standards, with its functioning defined as achieving a majority plus one. This has damaged the legitimacy of democratic decision-making and its institutions.

Second, America’s troubles have hurt its credibility to act internationally. Obama’s 2008 election prompted a rapid bounce in US global approval rating – from 31 to 64 percent in Germany, 42 to 75 percent in France, and 47 to 69 percent in Mexico. Obama arrived in office promising the world that the Bush administration was an aberration and that he could transcend his predecessor’s domestic and international divisiveness. He was wrong on both counts and the world saw it. Nobody expects a similar bounce in global public opinion after Trump.

Politicians in Washington continue to use the language of American exceptionalism, although their claims have less and less basis. Congressional leaders on both sides speak of “the leader of the free world,” even as Trump has encouraged political violence, carried out election interference in the state of Georgia, and attempted to extort Ukraine for political support. American contributions to global democracy, human rights, and the rule of law have now been overshadowed by Birtherism, Charlottesville, Helsinki, North Korea, the Ukrainian phone call, COVID-19, QAnon, voter fraud claims, and the Proud Boys. Now, to top it all, comes the Siege of the Capitol. For instance, observers in other democratic states – even some sympathetic to Biden’s good intentions – now wonder if the United States even has the standing to organize a Summit of Democracies. All the while, the Trump insurrection has already been used by authoritarians elsewhere to question the legitimacy of Biden’s election (Orban and Putin) and the soundness of electoral democracy (China).

Third, the new administration must convince the world that the United States can again act with real consistency. Rebuilding America’s role within a system of democratic alliances will take more than rhetoric. Foreign observers will want to see evidence that America’s population supports this role and they will push back against forces looking to tear up Biden’s global commitments. Trump made ill-considered u-turns on troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Syria, abandoned commitments to multilateral international order on trade and global health, and walked away from international agreements like the JCPOA, the Paris Climate Agreement, New START, the INF Treaty, and Open Skies. But the Bush Administration did something similar with the ABM Treaty, Kyoto, the Iraq War, and Guantanamo Bay. To regain trust, the United States must demonstrate that the American people will support durable commitments going beyond one election cycle or presidency.

The US is not the only country which must heal its damaged democracy

Finally, the Trump era has underlined both the fragility and resilience of American democracy. It has weakened the US global role, but also shown the possibility of new partnerships. The Trump era coincided with difficult geopolitical challenges: emerging and disruptive technologies, pandemic management, climate change, even industrial policy. But these pressing problems have prompted the rise of new American diplomatic actors, including cities, states and foundations, even corporate diplomacy. The past four years have demonstrated that in the absence of leadership from Washington, new actors can fill some of the US foreign policy vacuum from the #MeToo Movement, the Gates Foundation efforts to tackle the pandemic, California’s Data Protection push, the US city-state coalition to meet carbon emission reduction targets and Microsoft’s work on the Paris Call for Stability and Security in Cyber Space. These are new nodes for Europe and Asia.

The US is not the only country which must heal its damaged democracy. Germany, for example, has seen murderous attacks at Halle and Hanau and the rise of the Querdenker movement. Across the continent, burgeoning right-wing movements are enjoying success. But the US is unique. The urgent need for US political healing reflects the country’s crucial role as a strong, coherent international force. As Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming National Security Adviser, has repeatedly emphasized: the US “cannot succeed in our foreign policy if we have not invested in our sources of strength at home” including the cohesion of American democracy. The future of US global leadership depends on the success of that effort.