Attack on Capitol Building Shakes Views of U.S. Exceptionalism

As Congress gathered on Jan. 6 to confirm the Electoral College votes, supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in a deadly display that threatened the nation’s democratic principles, both procedurally and symbolically, as the world watched.

Now, in an apparent effort to reassure global leaders, the U.S. State Department has reportedly issued guidance to its diplomats in their communications with foreign leaders, according to CNN, on language to use to assure foreign capitals that President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

But beyond the events of Jan. 6, American exceptionalism itself is perhaps under scrutiny on a global scale. According to some political analysts, the top geopolitical risk of 2021 boils down to U.S. political polarization, which they published in a report two days before the U.S. Capitol was attacked.

“People are horrified, but they’re not surprised.” Gerald Butts, vice chairman of the Eurasia Group, a risk assessment company, said of the global reaction he’s seen since Jan. 6. “Policymakers see this as a very predictable extension of U.S. domestic politics in the Trump era: extreme polarization, violent rhetoric, the lack of cohesion; coming together around the winner in the election’s aftermath. A lot of countries have seen this movie before.”

According to Butts, the “broad postwar bipartisan consensus in the United States is gone, and it isn’t coming back,” which leaves America’s allies and adversaries questioning whether the U.S. will be able to provide reliable leadership.

Indeed, some foreign leaders are questioning the salience of U.S. democracy. The day following the attack on the Capitol Building, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe tweeted that “Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy,” referring to President Trump’s extension of economic sanctions on the African nation due to “concerns about Zimbabwe’s democracy.”

[MORE: America Appears Unrecognizable to Its Allies]

Leaders in Russia and Iran questioned the efficacy of Western democracy, following the events of Jan. 6, citing an outdated electoral system and President Trump as threats to political stability. However, other leaders, such as France‘s Emmanuel Macron, responded to the attack on the U.S. Capitol by affirming his confidence in American democracy.

Domestically, some prominent voices on American foreign policy are questioning the strength of U.S. democracy. “So much for the peaceful transfer of power, for American exceptionalism, for our being a shining city on a hill,” tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “We already knew what we needed to know about this president; the question is how did we get to where so many Americans are so willing to throw democracy overboard?”

Countries’ relations with the U.S. will hinge on whether there will be harsh repercussions for those involved in storming the Capitol Building, said Eurasia Group’s Butts. Five people died from the chaos as rioters took over the House and Senate chambers, smashed windows and waved Trump, U.S. and Confederate flags. By this past weekend, dozens of people had been arrested across the country.

“The consequences really matter here, and foreign capitals will be looking at the aftermath of this event to determine whether or not there are any real consequences for the people who perpetrated the act, and the people who directed the act, because that is the method by which democratic societies take events, facts on the ground, and absorb them into their legal and ethical framework as a country.” Butts said. “If nothing happens, if all of this is seen as a TV spectacle, and nobody pays a price for it, I think it will further unnerve America’s traditional allies and further embolden its adversaries.”

The top White House lawyer has warned Trump that he could be held responsible for inciting last week’s riot. House Democrats moved on Monday to introduce an article of impeachment against President Trump for inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol, while Republicans blocked a separate move to formally call on Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to remove Trump from office before moving to impeachment.

Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group, said last week’s violence is not new, citing the protests in Portland and Seattle, and the failed kidnapping of Michigan’s governor last year. But the events of Jan. 6 hold distinct meaning.

“The issue with the Capitol building is it happens to be one of the most important symbols of democracy in the world,” Bremmer said. “And the fact that it was defiled, it was desecrated in front of us all, with the media right there, watching it, and of course, it matters a lot more to the people that have some of the biggest megaphones themselves in mainstream media, means that the impact on popular consciousness will be greater.”

Bremmer added that the events of Jan. 6 are unique to the U.S. among developed countries.

“What we have is an incredibly, deeply divided country, politically divided and increasingly dysfunctional,” Bremmer said during a Jan. 8 online news conference. “The events of the last 48 hours, to be clear, it would be inconceivable that we would see those events play out in Canada or Japan or Germany or even the U.K. and France. It happened in the United States because the U.S. is more divided and more dysfunctional today.”

The Capitol building riot is not an isolated incident, Bremmer said, and reflects the changing views of American exceptionalism, both inside and outside of the U.S.

“This damage has been coming for decades,” he said. “In 1989 the (Berlin) Wall came down, (and) when it came down, it came down because countries around the world, particularly the Eastern Bloc, captive nations, believed that the United States had better ideas, better institutions and that we were better run — they looked up to us then. They don’t think that anymore. And they don’t think that anymore in part because we don’t think that anymore.”

More from U.S. News

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