January 26, 2021

IntelBrief: Beacon on the Hill? The Capitol Insurrection and its Effects on U.S. Democracy Promotion Abroad

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Bottom Line Up Front 

  • The January 6 insurrection exposed America’s fragile democracy and tarnished its credibility in promoting democracy around the world. 
  • Some pro-democracy activists lauded U.S. resilience for stopping the insurrection, but fledgling democracies may not be as successful.
  • Several U.S. adversaries are already pointing to the event as propaganda to demonstrate how long-standing democracies can fail.
  • Even before the insurrection, the strength and integrity of U.S. democratic institutions were under assault, an acute challenge for President Biden.

The Capitol insurrection made global headlines for its deadly violence and the direct threat it posed to the certification of a democratic election. While it was not able to impede the process, it did lasting symbolic damage as citizens compromised the longstanding tradition of peaceful transfer of power in the United States of America. Under the Trump administration, partisan manipulation of the electoral process, the erosion of the legitimacy of U.S. institutions, and the emboldening of domestic violent extremists contributed to the fissures in American democracy were all manifested in Washington, D.C. during the insurrection. Several U.S. adversaries and autocratic leaders are already pointing to the event as propaganda to demonstrate how long-standing democracies can fail. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, leader of Latin America’s largest democracy, still says that the U.S. presidential election was rigged and seeks to degrade Brazil’s electoral process as the country nears presidential elections in 2022. Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted that the ‘U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy,’ in response to sanctions placed on Zimbabwe because of its own democratic shortcomings.

During his inauguration address January 20, President Biden recognized the fragility of U.S. democracy, while passionately underscoring that ‘democracy has prevailed,’ and remains enduring. In many ways, the United States has long been an inspiration for fledgling democracies and activists that seek to open or preserve civic space and pluralism, strengthen fundamental human rights, and build the capacity necessary for free and fair electoral processes. America’s exposed fragility, and its impact on security and international relations, is a factor that cannot be ignored, especially as the Biden-Harris administration seeks to repair and strengthen its historic role as a credible democracy promoter and defender. Adversaries – including state and nonstate actors – may seek to exploit the exposed fissures between citizen and state to promote violent extremism and further distrust in government; allies may second-guess their partnerships with the U.S.

Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has been called upon as a credible ally by the peoples of fragile nations worldwide, with hundreds of pro-democratic movements looking to the United States to help restore political and civil liberties on the brink of collapse. While the Capitol insurrection tested the core of America’s democracy, institutions and law enforcement officials were rapidly able to overcome the mob and restore the democratic process. Leaders across political parties offered sweeping condemnations of the incident, and as a result, the House of Representatives impeached President Trump for a second time. Many pro-democracy activists abroad recognized such responses as democracy upheld; the ultimate resilience of the process may have been a more important lesson than that of its fragility. However, in less stable and resilient democracies, such a bounce back would have been difficult to achieve, and the aftermath potentially more deadly, particularly in states with weaker institutions and fewer checks on executive power. The insurrection can also be perceived by partners as further indication that America is a riskier ally to depend on for state-building support in the future; the disparaging of traditional allies and policymaking via Twitter by the previous administration already destabilized the foundations of trust.

Several countries are going through dynamic political changes that will require the support of a strong democratic power like the United States in the near term. In Belarus, Europe’s last-standing dictatorship, activists have built a strong movement following the election of authoritarian Aleksandr Lukashenko, widely viewed as lacking in credibility. Hundreds of thousands of Belarussians participated in nationwide protests to build a democratic movement to replace Lukashenko and continue to rally for change. Recent demonstrations in Russia showed a groundswell of support for recently returned opposition activist and Putin nemesis Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt in August 2020. In Sudan, following months of in-fighting, the ruling military government and political opposition are now working to implement a power-sharing agreement that could have far-reaching implications for Khartoum’s political stability. It may be difficult for countries to rely on the United States as a credible democracy defender when its own house is not in order– a risk that some of these countries may be unwilling to take. Budding democracies may defer to European partners for more consistent support until the U.S. can reaffirm its commitment to democratic and pluralistic ideals.

Even prior to the events of 6 January in the Capitol, the strength of democratic institutions around the world was under assault. According to the Freedom House 2020 report, an annual study of political rights and civil liberties, democracy deteriorated for the 14th year in a row in 2019, including degradation in every region of the world. And for the United States – described as an ‘unsteady beacon of freedom’ in the report – its rating fell 8 points over the last decade; this denoted a sizeable distance between Washington and traditional democratic partners like Canada, the UK, and France, and put it behind Greece, Slovakia, and Mauritius. Protesters around the world have taken to the streets to address racism, economic inequality, corruption, and violations of human rights – from Lebanon to Mexico to Nigeria. This scale of demonstrations is a testament to the deterioration of global political and civil rights, only made more evident by a global pandemic exacerbating inequalities. The Biden-Harris Administration will have its hands full in working to reverse democratic backsliding at home and abroad. This will include strengthening domestic electoral processes, rebuilding trust in government, and engaging with the international community to project itself again as a major democratic power to be respected and emulated. The Biden Administration can use global convenings like the proposed Alliance of Democracies as a targeted effort to unify nations around common democratic goals, but it will have to demonstrate humility as it recognizes and addresses its own domestic shortfalls in order to be fully credible.