US democracy survived the storming of the US Capitol. What has come to be known as American exceptionalism might not.
The idea that the US for reasons of its history and seemingly rock-solid democratic institutions is uniquely advantaged has long rested behind US claims to global leadership, as well as the expectation — at least among allies — that it should exercise it.
The concept is riddled with contradictions, underpinned by crude military and economic strength, and rejected by many, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, who directed his supporters to Capitol Hill to protest certification of his election defeat — by 7 million votes — in November.
Illustration: Mountain People
While it has eroded over the years, the soft power of what former US president Ronald Reagan liked to call “a shining city on a hill” has at times been powerful. On Wednesday last week, it suffered a body blow.
“Yes,” said Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, when asked on Bloomberg TV whether Wednesday’s spectacle marked the end of American exceptionalism.
“It was probably over the day Trump took office,” he said.
The fallout could include a weakened ability to confront and compete with fellow superpower China, or to call Russian, Turkish, Saudi Arabian or other leaders out for democratic and human rights abuses, including smaller economies in Africa and Latin America.
“It is not just it will be a long time before we can credibly advocate for the rule of law,” Richard Haass, a former US diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, wrote on Twitter.
“It will also be a long time for us to persuade allies to rely on us or lecture others they are not stable enough to have nuclear weapons,” Haass said
China quickly used the events in Washington to drive home a narrative of US hypocrisy, with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) drawing a direct comparison to the US endorsement of pro-democracy protesters who stormed Hong Kong’s legislature in 2019.
The US under Trump has frequently linked trade with political actions, penalizing Beijing for its crackdown in Hong Kong and its treatment of its Uighur Islamic minority in Xinjiang.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, chosen in a heavily managed electoral system that excludes opponents of Tehran’s Islamic regime, said in a statement on state television that Wednesday’s events “really shows us how weak and flaccid Western democracy is.”
He added that Trump had damaged the US’ reputation and “created so many problems for America’s relationship with the rest of the world.”
US president-elect Joe Biden has said that he plans to call a summit of the world’s democracies to reboot the cause that carried the West through the Cold War.
Proponents say that the initiative could also act as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, creating a forum in which to launch common approaches to trade and technology standards in competition with Beijing.
China has also made use of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord to position itself as a global champion of moves to tackle climate change, a mantle the US hopes to regain under Biden, but one that requires strong US leadership and collaboration.
It is not clear how the image of US legislators taking shelter from protesters will help that effort, nor Biden’s pledge to revive US-led alliances weakened by four years of Trump’s skepticism, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
However, as the world watched flag-waving protesters push into the US legislature, the shock was all the greater because such scenes would typically be more familiar from parliaments and presidential palaces in weak, nascent or non-democracies.
Former US president George W. Bush even compared Wednesday’s events to a “banana republic.”
“We all saw the unsettling pictures of the storming of the US Congress yesterday evening, and these images made me angry and sad,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday, pinning the blame on Trump’s refusal to concede.
Europeans recognized the threat to American exceptionalism — and in some cases their own — in TV images they have seen before, said Jonathan Eyal, a Romanian-born foreign policy analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think tank.
“The driving force for this is the same as we saw in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the feeling that the transfer of power is illegitimate, that the rules of the game are not agreed and a conviction that the loser loses all,” Eyal said. “It is a profound shock to me as well that you have large numbers of people in the US who came to that same conclusion after 200 years of constitutional order.”
Biden appeared well aware of the challenge ahead in a televised address on Wednesday, asking Americans to “think what the world is looking at.”
Yet even the final discrediting of American exceptionalism might not inevitably lead to the weakening of alliances or democracy promotion, Eyal said.
So long as Biden aggressively refutes false equivalence, such as between the excesses of those demanding a democratic vote in Hong Kong and those trying to upend one in Washington, and so long as he can persuade Trump’s 74 million voters that they did not lose everything by losing the ballot, a little more US humility could work in its favor.
Not only has Trump probably burned his chances of running for election again in 2024 by inciting violence, but a deft administration could use Wednesday’s events to its advantage, taking a less “Olympian” and therefore more persuasive approach to its criticism of other nations’ failures, Eyal said.
“Yes, the next few days will be pretty awful for American soft power, but in a year or so, not at all,” he said. “It isn’t so bad to be part of the team.”
Facing his own Trump-like populist threat from the far right, French President Emmanuel Macron recalled the nations’ centuries-long common history as democratic republics in a TV address on Wednesday night, suggesting no loss of appetite to work with the next administration.
“What happened today in Washington DC is not America, definitely,” Macron said, switching to English toward the end of his remarks. “We believe in the strength of our democracy. We believe in the strength of American democracy.”
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