January 12, 2021

IntelBrief: Black Swan or White Noise? Global Reactions to the Capitol Insurrection

Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, people listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol risked permanent damage to U.S. influence as global leaders reacted to the shocking scenes.
  • U.S. allies and enemies alike responded to the scenes unfolding, and how they reflected upon American democratic institutions and systems.
  • International partners need to consider whether this is an outlier event, or a more enduring aspect of American politics at the highest levels going forward. 
  • Allies restated confidence in American democracy; adversaries will be able to leverage these events to do harm and compromise security in the long term.

Friends and foes alike watched in consternation as the scenes of insurrection and terror unfolded in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. The violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol risked untold damage to U.S. influence and soft power as global leaders scrambled to react, with friends and foes alike responding swiftly to the unfolding scenes. Allies restated their confidence in American democracy and in the resilience of its institutions. The uncertain and unpredictable diplomacy of the Trump administration prepared many for some of the rhetoric; yet, few would have expected the President to incite his supporters to actually storm the building and threaten lawmakers. But he did. Adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran gloated, seeing in the chaos an indictment of the American political system. Between the catastrophic failure to control the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic and an administration that has enabled some of the most virulent white supremacist, anti-government, and misogynistic rhetoric to emerge since the Second World War, the image of American values abroad has been sullied. In the midst of Brexit, enabled by a strong relationship with the Trump administration, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson nonetheless condemned the ‘disgraceful scenes’ and stressed the importance of an ‘orderly transfer of power.’ French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the common democratic tradition between the countries, affirming that ‘we believe in the strength of American democracy.’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret that President Trump still had not accepted defeat. In Singapore, leaders expressed shock and dismay, and in Kenya, newspapers asked, ‘who’s the banana republic now?’ However, as EU President Ursula von Leyen noted, the date (or rather the early hours of the following morning) also ushered in confirmation that the Biden-Harris administration would be inaugurated on January 20.

As expected, traditional opponents did not miss an opportunity to exploit the moment. Disparaging the U.S. electoral system as ‘archaic,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman said that it does not ‘meet modern democratic standards’ and created ‘opportunities for numerous violations.’ In China, the leadership, buoyed by a recent trade agreement with the EU despite its reprehensible actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, wasted no time comparing American handling of crises with its own approach. Its state-run news outlet blamed the ‘never ending campaigning’ which had shifted U.S. politicians’ focus to soundbites rather than doing their jobs. Terrorist groups like ISIS reveled in the disorder, hailing the ‘great’ symbolism of the mob breaking into the Capitol ‘during a meeting of the tyrants.’

Beyond the immediate reactions, international actors will need to consider whether these events are an outlier event – a ‘black swan’ – or whether these extremist white supremacist groups will continue to be a significant influence on the direction of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, instead of receding with the end of the Trump administration. As many consider their own domestic challenges and increasingly vocal populist movements, they will consider how events in the U.S. impact them at home. For international leaders like Boris Johnson and Binyamin Netanyahu, who allied themselves closely with the Trump administration, the impact of that association will be cause for concern. Elsewhere, confidence in the United States as a trusted international partner has already been attenuated by its withdrawal from numerous international agreements on climate change, arms control, and sanctions, for example, and from conflict zones. Moreover, the unpredictability of foreign policy under Trump – that often seemed more comfortable in the company of authoritarian leaders like Kim Jong-Un than democratic partners – has left a damaging impact on close allies. Many are likely to wonder whether the incoming Biden-Harris administration will simply be a momentary pause in this trend, or whether they can again rely on America keeping its word.

The implication of these fissures for long-term security are myriad. Washington is already reeling from digital intrusions by malign states; the full scale of the impact is still unknown. Globally, citizens fighting to strengthen democracy at home and defend human rights abroad will face greater threats as authoritarian leaders, emboldened by this blight on U.S. democratic messaging, clamp down further on civil liberties and free speech. Targets once believed impregnable will be vulnerable to attacks – not just ‘soft’ ones like restaurants, markets and crowded streets which have been the focus of self-directed attacks more recently, As a very real and immediate concern, the security implications of the assault on the Capitol are yet to be fully determined – it is possible that malign actors used the chaos to access sensitive materials. Moreover, the Trump administration’s ceaseless attacks on ‘fake news’, foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns, and security failures at the Capitol have done untold damage to trust in the government, which was already low, and likely to further deteriorate as the impacts of Covid-19 cut deeper. It is possible that broad segments of the public would not even believe reports of any malign foreign activity or support a decisive response. The imminent inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration has given some international partners a sense of reprieve as they plan for a more traditional partnership with the United States. At the same time, they will need to consider developing a more robust contingency plan in case scenes from January 6 repeat themselves, as extremists continue to threaten, or they continue to provide the ‘mood music’ to politics for the foreseeable future.