The Enduring Damage of This Insurrection to U.S. Diplomacy
Adversaries are already leveraging Wednesday’s indelible images of chaos for propaganda purposes.
It is already obvious from the reactions around the world that the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionist-wannabees has damaged the United States’ image badly. But how badly? After all, the insurrectionists were removed, Republican leaders easily defeated the anti-constitutional motions of some of their members, Congress confirmed the Electoral College majority for President-elect Joe Biden, the stock market closed up, and opinion polls in the coming days will undoubtedly show that a large majority of Americans repudiate the actions of a few thousand unhinged MAGA extremists.
Yet images are stubborn things. Photojournalist Eddie Adam’s iconic shot of a Saigon police chief executing a Vietcong prisoner during the Tet offensive in 1968 captured indelibly the sadness, violence, and futility of the Vietnam War. Footage of the violent Democratic Party Convention that summer in Chicago reinforced for years the image of U.S. chaos at home. Neither the American public nor U.S. allies could shake those images from their minds, while Washington’s adversaries use them in propaganda to this day.
Historians may someday view the violent footage of a mob storming the Capitol waving Confederate and MAGA flags as no less damaging representations of American strategic incompetence, disorder, and decline. No U.S. ally will de-align because of what happened and Biden has an unprecedented opportunity to draw together NATO and Asian allies around the common challenges posed by Chinese and Russian coercive revisionism. But as much as allied leaders welcome Biden’s leadership, they will also now face nagging questions from their own publics and officials about Washington’s reliability. The fact that a mob of deadbeats overwhelmed the Capitol Police will reinforce impressions of incompetence already planted by the Trump administration’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Allies who rely on treaties with the United States for their security know that nothing is automatic, that the decision whether to defend them ultimately rests with the U.S. commander-in-chief, and that only four years ago Americans elected a president who just incited a mob to overturn the results of an election. Invoking the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office has merit, but how chilling that must be for allies who know where their security in a crisis ultimately rests.
Adversaries have already begun to leverage these images for domestic propaganda consumption and will likely draw dangerous conclusions of their own. Beijing was already touting the superiority of its authoritarian political system in response to U.S. mishandling of COVID-19, and this week’s images of chaos and disorder add yet more fuel to the propaganda bonfire. This is also good for Chinese President Xi Jinping personally as he prepares to assume a norm-busting third term as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party at its 20th Party Congress in 2022. While he does not have or need formal campaign pledges, rest assured that he will exploit the domestic dysfunction of China’s greatest geopolitical rival as a core component of his political platform.
China under Xi was already rising in confidence, and the official Beijing narrative of the United States as a declining power is more than a decade old. But never before has the CCP had so much practical—and visceral—evidence of democratic dysfunction and breakdown on its side. China’s efforts to paint U.S. democracy as unstable, disordered, and unjust date back to the Mao era, when propaganda efforts highlighted racial injustice and incidents of political turmoil, such as the shootings at Kent State and the traumatic events of 1968. Yet this narrative had to battle against the many manifest strengths of the U.S. system, not least of which was the demonstrated stability and resilience of its core democratic institutions. Today, unfortunately, all that propaganda has to do is simply quote the pronouncements of the current U.S. president and broadcasting the images of events transpiring in the nation’s capital. If the 2008 Global Financial Crisis convinced Beijing and a large swathe of the Chinese population that the Western economic model was broken, the riot in the Capitol building—combined with the ongoing inability to stem the COVID-19 crisis—may well mark the definitive end of admiration for pluralist democracy.
Biden can, of course, stem some of the damage by returning U.S. foreign policy to a sense of stability and predictability, but as his administration considers how and where it must confront China, indelible damage has already been incurred. Chinese negotiators will now sit across the table from their American interlocutors imbued with a moral sense of righteousness on top of their “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Gone are the days when the United States was seen by Beijing as the inarguably stronger negotiating party.
U.S. diplomats abroad will need to explain some fundamental realities to counter these impressions. In both public and elite opinion polls, Americans’ support for international engagement, strong alliances, and strategic competition with adversaries such as China has never been more robust. U.S. allies have never been more desirous of close political, economic, and security relations with the United States. Not a single country in Asia wants Chinese domination. Democracy remains the most popular form of government in most of the world, despite the setbacks.
But the images this week also suggest that the same corrosive ethno-nationalism and extremism that plague many countries in the world were able to briefly shut down the global engine of democracy, prosperity, and order. The Biden administration will not recover by returning to regular order. It will need to create a bold new narrative about the United States’ recommitment to constitutional democracy at home and active leadership abroad.
Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).