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America Can’t Promote Democracy Abroad. It Can’t Even Protect It at Home.

Wednesday’s failed insurrection shows how the global ambitions of foreign-policy elites are divorced from reality—and undermined by domestic dysfunction.

Ashford-Emma-foreign-policy-columnist
Emma Ashford
By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen through a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen through a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen through a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The jokes were funny, until they weren’t.

“What if journalists wrote about U.S. politics the way they wrote about other countries?” asked a dozen tongue-in-cheek articles since 2016. Twitter users joked about the embattled president of a former British colony, huddling in his palace, refusing to concede the election. But all of that ended Wednesday afternoon, when a violent mob rushed past U.S. Capitol Police and invaded Congress, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and ending with tear gas, gunfire, and at least four deaths. The pictures called to mind Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank, the Arab Spring, or the streets of Venezuela. For those watching around the world, the United States had become what American leaders so often decried: a weak democracy unable to prevent violence and bloodshed from marring the transition of power from one leader to the next.

It’s a sign of how broken U.S. foreign-policy debates are that the primary reaction from many commentators was to worry about America’s moral authority and global leadership. There were comments about how happy China’s Xi Jinping must be and worries that this would undermine U.S. democracy promotion abroad. Michael McFaul, a former Obama-era ambassador to Moscow, tweeted that “Trump today delivered his latest, but hopefully his last gift to Putin.” Meanwhile, a group of NGOs, including the National Endowment for Democracy, issued a statement reaffirming its “commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values.” In short: in the middle of a literal coup attempt aimed at halting the certification of a democratic election, with insurrectionists storming the Capitol, many foreign-policy hands were fretting about whether the United States could continue to spread democracy and human rights abroad and whether it might impact America’s ability to engage in great-power competition with China.

The jokes were funny, until they weren’t.

“What if journalists wrote about U.S. politics the way they wrote about other countries?” asked a dozen tongue-in-cheek articles since 2016. Twitter users joked about the embattled president of a former British colony, huddling in his palace, refusing to concede the election. But all of that ended Wednesday afternoon, when a violent mob rushed past U.S. Capitol Police and invaded Congress, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and ending with tear gas, gunfire, and at least four deaths. The pictures called to mind Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank, the Arab Spring, or the streets of Venezuela. For those watching around the world, the United States had become what American leaders so often decried: a weak democracy unable to prevent violence and bloodshed from marring the transition of power from one leader to the next.

It’s a sign of how broken U.S. foreign-policy debates are that the primary reaction from many commentators was to worry about America’s moral authority and global leadership. There were comments about how happy China’s Xi Jinping must be and worries that this would undermine U.S. democracy promotion abroad. Michael McFaul, a former Obama-era ambassador to Moscow, tweeted that “Trump today delivered his latest, but hopefully his last gift to Putin.” Meanwhile, a group of NGOs, including the National Endowment for Democracy, issued a statement reaffirming its “commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values.” In short: in the middle of a literal coup attempt aimed at halting the certification of a democratic election, with insurrectionists storming the Capitol, many foreign-policy hands were fretting about whether the United States could continue to spread democracy and human rights abroad and whether it might impact America’s ability to engage in great-power competition with China.

To call these reactions out of touch would be an understatement. At this point, the United States has bigger problems than an inability to promote democracy around the world or worrying about an ambitious global competition with China. U.S. domestic politics are staggering under the weight of decades of partisan abuse, and while most institutions have so far proved resilient, there is no guarantee they’ll stand up to the next autocratic wannabe. Almost the only institution that retains the trust of the American people is the military, a distinction that carries its own worrying implications.

Wednesday’s violence will certainly impact the United States’ global image, although the last four years under Donald Trump have done plenty of damage already. And while it is certainly true that the political turmoil that has engulfed the country since November will make it harder for the United States to build an international coalition against China, it’s hard to see why U.S. policymakers are prioritizing rallying an ambitious and poorly defined “alliance of democracies” to push back against China, rather than trying to stop the bleeding at home.

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Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the author of Oil, the State, and War, a forthcoming book on energy and international security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

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