It's Debatable

Will the World Take the United States Seriously After the Capitol Invasion?

After a pro-Trump mob stormed Congress, Americans might have a harder time accomplishing their diplomatic goals from Europe to China.

Members of the Swat team patrol and secure the Statuary Hall before U.S. Vice President makes his way into the House Chamber, at the U.S. Capitol, on the morning of Jan. 7
hours after a mob invaded the building.
Members of the Swat team patrol and secure the Statuary Hall before U.S. Vice President makes his way into the House Chamber, at the U.S. Capitol, on the morning of Jan. 7 hours after a mob invaded the building. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. Here’s a fun fact that our readers might not know: We normally write this column on Wednesday mornings. And yet here we are, on Thursday, throwing out everything we wrote and starting over. I’m sure they can guess why. But I’m honestly struggling to find the words to sum up what happened on Wednesday afternoon this week. Coup? Insurrection? Riot?

Matthew Kroenig: It is not easy, but let me try to find the words. It was certainly a disgraceful and sad day in American history. FP’s Jonathan Tepperman had an interview with the expert Naunihal Singh that concluded that “sedition” was the best word for what took place.

EA: I guess in five years we can have a panel discussion of the American Political Science Association where we debate which precise term is best to describe it. Let’s be real, though: The fact we are even debating that question is horrifying. Rioters, some of them armed, stormed the seat of government. Five people are dead. America is certainly no stranger to political violence, even if much of it has been whitewashed out of history. But Jan. 6, 2021, is not going to be forgotten soon.

MK: It is certainly historic. The last time the U.S. Capitol was desecrated like this was when the British burned it down.

EA: And I tried to tell them I was just there for a meeting!

MK: I didn’t think Scottish officers named Ashford were responsible for the fire in 1814.

I am an optimist by nature, and I am struggling to find the silver lining in all of this. I think that it shows that democracy is fragile, even in the United States, and we should nurture it. At the end of the day, however, our institutions held and Congress was back on the floor within hours certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Almost everyone was horrified by what took place. The Republican leadership and even longtime Donald Trump stalwarts condemned Wednesday’s tragedy. This might provide an opportunity for unity, both for a post- Trump conservative policy and across the aisle.

EA: American institutions held, for now. There are just under two weeks left until the inauguration.

Look, I’d like to be optimistic about this. Perhaps it will provide an opportunity for the Republican Party to repudiate Trump before it is too late. But in the absence of another impeachment effort or invoking the 25th Amendment, statements are pretty much empty gestures. And almost none of the former Trump officials—whether Jim Mattis, John Kelly, or others—did or said anything to reckon with their own complicity in Trump’s weakening of American democracy.

MK: I still think the qualified people who helped advance the country’s national security over the past four years did the right thing. I also think there was too much overreaction to everything Trump said or did over the past four years (Trump Derangement Syndrome, as I and others have called it).

But this was different. George Washington voluntarily giving up power shocked Europeans at the time, but it is what consolidated the United States as a successful republic. And we have had peaceful transitions of power ever since. Trump refusing to concede defeat and attempting to cling to power through illegal means is unprecedented. As evidence of the backlash to this outrage, even longtime Trump administration stalwarts, such as Mick Mulvaney and Matt Pottinger, resigned in protest overnight.

EA: It’s unprecedented. It’s not unexpected.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who entered the administration early on in order to serve their country and maintain U.S. foreign policy. Some, like Fiona Hill, even managed to emerge with their reputations intact. But many were just doing it for their own purposes; I’d argue that was the case with John Bolton and his desire to go to war with Iran. And at this point, those around Trump are just guilty of enabling him—and enabling this. The writing has been on the wall for some time. What did they think would happen?

MK: Well, this raises a number of important foreign-policy questions. Can the United States continue to promote democracy abroad when the health of its own democracy is in question? And what does the future of Republican foreign policy look like?

EA: I already wrote an article here on the first question. But on the second, do you still think Trump has had no real impact on the party’s foreign policy?

MK: Before this week, there was a narrative that the future of the Republican Party would be Trumpist, usually described as pro-authoritarian, anti-democratic, isolationist, skeptical of free trade and multilateral institutions, and so on. I’ve always thought that was a simplistic mischaracterization.

And I think the events of this week make that future even less likely. Trump and his aspiring heirs (namely Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley) debased themselves this week, and it will be harder for them to gain establishment support in the post-Trump Republican Party. Many rank-and-file Republican voters are disgusted as well. As one piece of data on the current balance of power, the final Senate vote on certifying Biden’s victory was 92-7, with Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, and Tom Cotton (a pretty wide spectrum of the Republican Party) all on one side.

EA: Yes, and let’s not forget that a lot of Republicans are angry at Trump right now for effectively losing the two Georgia Senate seats and with them control of the Senate. Between that and the violence, it is certainly possible that Trumpism will be repudiated. I just don’t think it’s likely.

On foreign policy, though, I saw a really interesting comment the other day from an anonymous Republican operative. He said, roughly paraphrased, that the party had made a deal with the devil, but at least it got some things out of it: tax cuts, judges, etc. Everyone focused on that bit. But the thing that surprised me was that he listed “ending neoconservatism” as a Trump achievement.

I thought that was surprisingly perceptive. Because as you’ve noted before, Trump’s foreign policies are traditionally Republican in certain areas. But where he has entirely broken with tradition was neoconservative priorities: regime change and democracy promotion abroad, or human rights. And it seems to me that the party has swung away from George W. Bush-era neoconservatism with him.

MK: I’ve never liked the term “neocon.” It has become a hard-to-define, pejorative term. But if what you mean is standing up for democracy and human rights, then I disagree. Trump’s own cabinet officials, including Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo, made China’s gross human rights abuses a priority, and I suspect that these themes will reemerge in their likely 2024 campaigns for president.

EA: A verbal priority, perhaps. They didn’t actually do anything about any of these issues. And they were often at odds with Trump himself.

It just seems to me like those people who would have been neoconservatives during the Bush administration have either been pushed out of the party (e.g., Bill Kristol), or they have converted to the new-style Trumpian Jacksonian nationalism (e.g., Tom Cotton, Mike Pompeo). The true neoconservatives are now largely homeless in today’s foreign-policy community.

But you think Trump’s legacy in foreign policy is actually pretty minimal?

MK: Putting aside his rhetoric, character, and poor management skills, his foreign policies were mostly standard right-of-center fare. He was strong on national defense and took a hard line against China, Iran, and the Islamic State.

In some areas where he strayed from past policies, he helped to forge a new consensus. Now, everyone is in favor of countering China’s unfair trading practices and being cautious about wars of choice in the Middle East.

But where his instincts were off, like harshly criticizing allies or his strange deference to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, I think those policies leave with him. Even those in the more Trumpist wing, like Cruz, don’t believe that stuff. And the mob that stormed the Capitol were not there due to deeply held policy convictions about how to deal with NATO.

But, turning to something other than this week’s tragedy, America’s European allies did give us additional reason to be skeptical of them this week, signing a major investment agreement with China.

EA: Yes, we should talk about Europe. It’s been a big week elsewhere, too. Not only did Brexit finally happen, but the European Union signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, which certainly suggests that the notion of a joint U.S.-European front against China is wishful thinking among certain parties.

And by “certain parties,” I mean you.

MK: Yes. I published a major strategy paper last month about how the United States and its like-minded allies and partners should pursue a common strategy for China. The United States and European nations have many of the same concerns, and we are in a much stronger position if we are united in our approach to Beijing. I still think this is the right approach, and the Biden administration is thinking along similar lines.

But I guess the EU negotiators didn’t get the memo. This is a bad move for many reasons. The Europeans should have waited to coordinate with the incoming Biden administration. The Chinese “concessions” in the agreement are repeats of promises that Beijing has made and failed to live up to in the past. It gives China a pass on human rights—something the Europeans say is important to their values-driven foreign policy. And it is not really a good strategy to rely on the United States for your security in Europe as you undermine U.S. security policy in the Indo-Pacific.

Fortunately, the deal is not yet final, as it is awaiting approval from the European Parliament and other procedural steps. Let’s hope it is stopped before it is too late.

EA: It’s not going to happen. This is a clear reminder of the fact that U.S. and European interests diverge when it comes to China. The deal, which allows much freer European investment inside China, is a massive windfall for the German automotive industry. China has become one of its biggest markets in recent years, and these companies account for a sizable chunk of the annual 140 billion euros ($170 billion) of investment that flows from the EU to China. The deal removes joint-venture requirements on investment, making it easier and even more attractive to these companies.

It also seems pretty clear from the timing that the Europeans wanted to send a signal that they won’t simply return to being junior partners to the United States under the Biden administration. Strategic autonomy is here to stay, and with the possibility of a return to Trumpism in four years, who can blame them?

MK: There is not unanimity in the EU on this issue, however. Germany and France back the deal, but the Italians and the Poles are among those to raise objections, complaining that Paris and Berlin rammed it through without adequate consultation with smaller EU member states or with Washington.

I do worry that this could be a sign of things to come with the United Kingdom out of the EU. London was a key link between Washington and Brussels, but, after Brexit, I fear that Europe could become more inward-looking, less trans-Atlantic, and more strategically autonomous.

EA: Well, let’s talk about the strategic implications of Brexit. I see two big ones, both with mixed impacts for the United States. First, the most consistently pro-American major country in Europe is out of the EU. That substantially increases Germany’s and France’s power within the bloc, and it will probably make it harder for Washington to get agreement on foreign-policy questions. Though I’m not convinced that’s entirely a bad thing: European states have the potential to act as a counterweight to some of Washington’s more ambitious and problematic foreign-policy objectives, like U.S.-China economic decoupling. Biden was already—thankfully—opposed to decoupling. European pressure could act as a further moderating force on U.S. foreign policy.

MK: So, you want Europe to balance against the United States? I would rather fight with them than against them.

EA: No, I want Europeans to act as good allies and talk Americans out of their worst impulses. Seriously. You can’t have a partnership in which one partner calls all the shots. That’s not a healthy relationship. If the trans-Atlantic relationship is to continue, it needs to be an actual partnership of equals, and that means that we have to compromise.

Europe without the U.K. may well be more independent-minded and autonomous, which could drive Washington to be more moderate in its foreign-policy goals. That’s a good thing.

MK: U.S. alliances should be real partnerships, and the United States should lead. Without a leader, dance partners step all over each other. The EU is not a unified actor on most issues, and, unlike the United States, smaller European states tend to focus on their narrow (often commercial) interests and often do not see the bigger strategic picture.

What is your second implication?

EA: Financial services. That may not sound strategically important, but it is. The deal struck between Britain and the EU only covers goods, not finance. With the loss of so-called passporting (the ability to clear transactions in euros), the City of London is about to become a whole lot less important as a financial center. I’ve been saying this for a while: Brexit is a real own goal for the British—keep the status quo in trade, but undermine your world-class financial sector.

And while there are several options for where banks relocate within the EU (Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam), the most likely candidate is the existing banking hub of Frankfurt, which would further bolster Germany’s importance. Again, this is perhaps not the end of the world for U.S. foreign policy, but it’s an important shift. And it could give German policymakers more clout on questions of global financial infrastructure and sanctions, and more ability to influence U.S. policy.

MK: This will be detrimental to the City of London and further solidify Wall Street’s role as the world’s most important financial center. Although I take no pleasure in seeing the United States’ closest ally suffer, this could strengthen U.S. dominance over the global financial system.

There has been some good news already in 2021. The widely predicted Iranian retaliation on the anniversary of Qassem Suleimani’s death did not take place. So, here’s hoping that this year might just bring us more peace (and perhaps fewer global pandemics) than last year.

EA: Good Lord, the Suleimani assassination was only a year ago? It feels like a decade.

I guess one silver lining to this week’s horrifying events is that it will be very difficult for Trump to start a war with Iran before he leaves office. But when I said I wanted Trump to avoid regime change abroad, I didn’t mean he should try it at home instead.

Fingers crossed we make it into the Biden administration without further turmoil and can get back to pursuing a more sensible foreign policy over the next four years.

MK: That would be great. Let’s hope the period between now and Jan. 20 is tranquil, and then we can turn back to our heated policy debates in our next column.

My New Year’s resolution is to persuade you of what a sensible foreign policy looks like—and that Iran is not Iceland.

EA: Ha! Well, my New Year’s resolution is to live in a functioning democracy and to finally leave my house for the first time since March. I wonder which of us is being more foolishly optimistic?


Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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