LONDON — For America’s adversaries, there was no greater proof of the fallibility of Western democracy than the sight of the U.S. Capitol shrouded in smoke and besieged by a mob whipped up by their unwillingly outgoing president.
Already China, Iran and Russia have pointed to the tumult in Washington as evidence that the much-vaunted U.S. system of government is fundamentally flawed and riddled with hypocrisy.
Across Europe there is grave concern, too. Not just at the division and instability rocking their powerful trans-Atlantic ally, but also at what it means for their relationship with Washington after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in two weeks.
Many question how the U.S. can ever again lecture other countries about democratic values or how it can tell other countries that they aren’t internally stable enough to have nuclear weapons.
“You are now seeing the situation in the U.S.,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a live televised speech Friday. “This is their democracy and human rights, this is their election scandal, these are their values. These values are being mocked by the whole world. Even their friends are laughing at them.”
While Iran criticized, its government in Tehran has clamped down on its own people’s rights of freedom of expression and assembly, and its security forces have used lethal force to crush protests, killing hundreds of people and arbitrarily detaining thousands more, according to Amnesty International in London.
In China and Russia, officials asked why U.S. lawmakers have been so quick to support pro-democracy protesters in other parts of the world while unrest rages in their own streets.
“You may all remember the words that some U.S. officials, legislators and some media used about Hong Kong then,” China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said at a briefing Thursday. “What do they say about the United States now?”
Police in Hong Kong arrested more than 50 pro-democracy figures Wednesday for allegedly violating the stringent new national security law. Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, said on Twitter this week that the new administration would “stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
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In Russia, Leonid Slutsky, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of Parliament, told state media that “the boomerang of the ‘color revolutions,’ as we can see, is returning to the United States,” referring to the wave of Western-endorsed democratic uprisings across former Soviet republics in the 2000s.
Plenty of people have pointed out that many of the demonstrators — in the former Soviet republics and Hong Kong — were advocating for more democratic rights. Under President Vladimir Putin, the rights of regular Russians have been severely eroded, according to monitors.
The mob at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, however, was seeking to overturn a legitimate election.
The distinction hasn’t stopped America’s detractors from making a vivid comparison.
“This an absolute gift for authoritarian leaders whose prime narrative is that democratic systems are weak and unstable,” said Matthew Harries, a Berlin-based senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank.
“Someone like Xi Jinping can say: Look, these people can’t get a grip on Covid-19 and they can’t even protect their legislature,” he said, referring to China’s leader, whereas with the Chinese Communist Party “you get stability and growth.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., echoed that sentiment Thursday, calling Trump “a complete tool of Putin” and saying that by encouraging the Capitol riot the president gave “the biggest of all of his many gifts” to the Russian president.
Victor Gao, who was an interpreter for China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, said the scenes in Washington were a vivid riposte to those wanting to transplant American political values elsewhere.
“Our system has its own problems, but this system for China works for China for the past 45 years,” he said of the one-party state. “China will never accept any attempt by the United States to impose its system onto China because it doesn’t work” for China.
Although President Donald Trump has spoken warmly about Xi, he has also hit China with tariffs and sanctions for what the U.S. says is its restriction of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims, both of which Beijing contests.
Perhaps the most notable recent attempt to export an American-style democracy was in Iraq, with institution-building being one of the stated aims of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. After Wednesday’s events, a meme circulating showed Iraq tanks launching an invasion “to bring democracy back to the United States.”
“It has been 20 years since George W. Bush tried to export American democracy as a model for the rest of the world, and these days this model is in deep crisis,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the School of Government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.
“After what we saw, the idea that Americans can teach democracy to the rest of the world is a lot weaker,” he said. “And to make matters worse is the fact that there are no great alternative democracies out there — so America’s crisis reflects a crisis of democracy in the world.”
The sense of a shared crisis was clear in the statements of alarm by several European leaders. The U.S. is far from the only country grappling with its populist right, fueled by disinformation conspiracy theories online.
“Inflammatory words turn into violent acts — on the steps of the Reichstag, and now in the Capitol,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted, referring to an attempt by anti-coronavirus lockdown protesters to storm the German Parliament in August. “The disdain for democratic institutions is devastating.”
After a bruising few years of Trump, few European leaders have kidded themselves that Biden’s win means they can go back to the way things were. There are moves headed by French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, to become less reliant on Washington militarily.
And yet this week’s events in Washington have brought the future of their relationship with the U.S. into sharp focus.
In Paris, François Heisbourg, a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said, “The outside world has to assume there is an uncertainty, a high degree of instability as to where the U.S. will be in the next few years.”
European powers “have to assume the fate of the U.S. is uncertain,” he said. “And if that is the case, we have to prepare for a world in which the U.S. is not the partner that we use to have.”
Alexander Smith reported from London; Saphora Smith from Bristol, England; Claudio Lavanga from Rome; Nancy Ing from Paris; Andy Eckardt from Mainz, Germany; Tatyana Chistikova from Moscow; and Dawn Liu from Beijing.
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