‘This Is Not a Washington Tempest in a Teapot’

How the world looked on in horror during the Capitol insurrection.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The front pages of German newspapers
The front pages of German newspapers
The front pages of German newspapers are seen in Berlin on Jan. 7, 2021, the day after the storming of the U.S Capitol. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

One year after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, some of the United States’ closest allies are still fretting about the health of U.S. democracy. Many are worried about the United States’ role as a world leader should another disruptive president be elected in 2024—or if the loser of the presidential election tries to challenge the results. 

Interviews with 10 experts and current and former foreign officials, including some representing the United States’ closest friends, showcase how the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riots cast a shadow over America’s standing in the world, undermining its reputation as a global beacon for democracy and spurring fears about the health of U.S. democratic institutions in future presidential elections. 

“This was shocking. It was unthinkable for this to happen to the United States,” said one senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We Central and Eastern Europeans always look toward the United States as the prime example to follow as a leader of democracy … and this upended that.” 

One year after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, some of the United States’ closest allies are still fretting about the health of U.S. democracy. Many are worried about the United States’ role as a world leader should another disruptive president be elected in 2024—or if the loser of the presidential election tries to challenge the results. 

Interviews with 10 experts and current and former foreign officials, including some representing the United States’ closest friends, showcase how the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riots cast a shadow over America’s standing in the world, undermining its reputation as a global beacon for democracy and spurring fears about the health of U.S. democratic institutions in future presidential elections. 

“This was shocking. It was unthinkable for this to happen to the United States,” said one senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We Central and Eastern Europeans always look toward the United States as the prime example to follow as a leader of democracy … and this upended that.” 

“We are still very much worried, especially about a potential scenario, which we consider likely that there will be a repetition in 2024,” the diplomat said, referring to contested election results during the next cycle of U.S. presidential elections.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump bucked foreign-policy norms by embracing authoritarians, maligning allies, and withdrawing from international agreements and institutions. U.S. President Joe Biden sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor, declaring “America is back” in his first major foreign-policy speech as president. Although adversaries and allies alike breathed a sigh of relief about a return to business as usual, the scenes from Jan. 6 viscerally exposed the United States’ Achilles’ heel to the world and demonstrated that the grievances that led many Americans to elect Trump in 2016 had only hardened during his tenure. 

“That was an accelerant for the Europeans,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “That was something where they said, ‘holy shit, this isn’t just something that can go away. This is not a Washington tempest in a teapot.’ This is something that is much deeper, much more in the fabric, much more in the DNA of the United States.” 

Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia from 2015 to 2018, said one of his top concerns is that all the ingredients for future election violence—or false claims of election fraud—are still in U.S. politics’ bloodstream. 

“A lot of people around the world and inside the United States want to believe that Jan. 6 was just a one-off, freak event, never to be repeated. But that is wishful thinking,” he told Foreign Policy. “The divisions that caused the Jan. 6 attacks, the lies that underpinned it, the personalities that drove it, are all still there. All of us who are friends of America and American values are extremely anxious about what is looking like a growing threat to American democracy.”

Abroad, U.S. diplomats in allied countries said their foreign counterparts are still shaken by Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results—but also said allies generally still see Washington as an indispensable ally. “Our friends were shocked by Jan. 6, and it really rattled their sense of security and comfort about what they thought the U.S. stood for,” said one senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But they’ve mostly tried to ignore that and work with us on resurrecting the relationship because they know the U.S. is their essential partner and ally.”

“It seemed to me that for a lot of European politicians, it was a sort of two-track response: ‘We will try and work with this administration as much as we can and hedge where we must,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on trans-Atlantic foreign and security policy with the Brookings Institution.

The Trump presidency underscored the ability of a single president to roil the international community, leaving many to wonder what could happen if Trump, or someone with his instincts, is elected in 2024. “It’s still sufficiently far off, and the implications are so enormous that it’s somehow easier to hit snooze for a while longer,” said a second European diplomat. “Because what do you do? The implications are almost too catastrophical or too expensive to ponder.”

A third European diplomat likened the shock of watching the Capitol’s siege to the Sept. 11 attacks. “Everyone remembers where they were on Sept. 11. Everyone will also, I think, remember where they were while watching Jan. 6. I put it at the same level of psychological and symbolic impact,” the diplomat said, speaking on background so as to speak candidly about the incident. 

While the attack on the Capitol stunned viewers around the world, it struck a nerve in Europe, which has long been dependent on the United States for security guarantees. Many states in Eastern Europe also looked to the United States as a beacon of democracy and prosperity as they emerged from the end of the Cold War. 

“In Europe, they hold us on this pedestal,” Townsend said. “And we helped put ourselves up there through our own propaganda and our own, you know, shiny city on the hill. If you’re a small European country and you’ve put all your eggs in the U.S. basket, you’re going ‘holy crap.’ And so, you’re trying to figure that out.” 

Even before Jan. 6, the Trump presidency and wider trends in U.S. foreign policy accelerated European Union debate about the need to strengthen its foreign-policy and security hand as well as reduce its dependence on Washington as the United States increasingly looks toward rising competition with China.

“It’s a trajectory that we’ve been on at least since [former U.S. President] George W. Bush, where Europe has been receding a bit into the background,” Townsend said. “It’s a trajectory that we’re on that accelerated with Trump.”

The second European diplomat noted that despite growing calls for European strategic autonomy, the crisis over Russia’s military buildup near its borders with Ukraine underscored the continent’s continued deep dependence on Washington regarding security matters. “Basically, the Europeans have acquiesced in a process in which the U.S. will lead the West in discussions with Russia on European security,” the diplomat said. “When push came to shove and a real challenge came up from Russia, nobody stood up and said, ‘it’s a new world, and the EU should deal with this itself.’”

A majority of Americans also fear the violence of Jan. 6 could be a precursor for future elections. A new poll by CBS News and YouGov released this week found that 68 percent of Americans saw the Jan. 6, 2021, riots as “a sign of increasing political violence” while only 32 percent saw it as an “isolated incident.”

These trends have prompted some former foreign leaders to believe the United States’ biggest national security challenge comes from within. “The biggest threat to American freedoms today is not China or Russia,” Turnbull said. “It’s what’s going on inside the U.S.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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