In this Council of Councils global perspectives roundup, members of five leading think tanks reflect on the impact of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The attacks left leaders and publics in many democracies stunned, reassured, or determined to play a bigger role in preserving democratic order in the world.
Renewed Vigor in Defending Democracy
For four years, the United Kingdom has provided a captive audience for Donald J. Trump’s presidency and weighed how to respond. First former Prime Minister Theresa May, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson struggled to manage an erratic and often bullying ally without losing their own sense of national dignity. But it was Johnson and Trump’s natural alignment on Brexit, the prolonged uncertainty that hovered over the Irish border, and the UK’s intense focus on securing a U.S.-UK trade deal that left many people wondering if the U.S.-UK relationship would run into trouble with the election of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
The January 6 Capitol Hill attacks will dampen any lingering concern about what a Biden administration could mean for the Johnson government, in part by unearthing a fear in the UK that the world’s greatest democracy, and the UK’s greatest friend, could in fact descend into a prolonged period of ongoing, violent, disruptive politics. And that, if it did, the U.S.-UK partnership could be facing a lost decade.
The upshot of this is that within a day, the UK forged a clear and unified stance toward the United States that will be highly consequential in the weeks and months ahead. Johnson, Shadow Prime Minister Kier Starmer, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Lisa Nandy all responded to the attacks with strong statements condemning the violence at the Capitol and stressing their support for a peaceful transition. Biden is now set to be a unifying force inside the UK rather than one that divides. This is an about face after four years of Trump stoking division not only in the United States, but also in the UK.
The assault on the Capitol, and on the democratic process in the United States, will also accelerate the turn to a values-based foreign policy in the UK. Biden’s election and his slate of foreign policy nominees, many well known and admired across Whitehall, is critical to this.
The proposals from the United States to convene a Summit of Democracies and by the UK government to convene a “Democratic 10” (D10) will get even greater attention. These have hovered between two agendas, one that looks to promote democracy and human rights abroad, and another that wants to see democracies sharing lessons aimed at fixing democracy at home. This could turn out to be an academic debate and an artificial distinction, especially if the China challenge rises to the top of the agenda. But one thing is certain, the January 6 attacks will ensure that the UK thinks far harder about the fragility of democracy.
In Brazil, the Trump Contagion Effect
For Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump’s defeat has been an unmitigated disaster. Trump’s rise to power in 2016 not only legitimized Bolsonaro’s uncouth and aggressive presidential candidacy two years later. More importantly, Trump’s unpredictable and destabilizing foreign policy absorbed so much of the world’s attention that there was limited notice of the cost of Brazil’s radical foreign policy, which involved frequent verbal attacks against Argentina, China, France, Germany, the United Nations, and so on, though such actions are highly popular among Bolsonaro’s loyal base. Although Bolsonaro was able to swim in Trump’s slipstream over the past two years, the economic and strategic cost of Brazil’s anti-globalist foreign policy is set to increase markedly once Biden occupies the White House.
Those in Brazil who had hoped that Trump’s loss would convince Bolsonaro to embrace a more pragmatic style saw their hopes dashed within days of the presidential election in November, when Bolsonaro toed Trump’s line and mentioned alleged voter fraud in the United States. The Brazilian foreign minister, an ardent Trump fan who described the U.S. president as the “savior of the West," refused to discuss how Brazil should adapt to a post-Trump world.
Bolsonaro became the last democratically elected president to congratulate Biden and continued to speak about fraud in the U.S. election—a move many saw as the beginning of a campaign to reduce public confidence in Brazil’s own electoral system. Many analysts now believe Bolsonaro would not accept defeat in the 2022 election—with the worrisome difference that, contrary to the U.S. armed forces, Brazil’s generals have a far more ambiguous stance vis-à-vis democracy.
Bolsonaro’s refusal to unequivocally condemn the invasion of the U.S. Capitol—and his foreign minister’s decision to call the invaders “good people”—not only sets the tone for the coming years of Brazil’s foreign policy, it also lays out the roadmap for the country’s domestic politics for the next two years. For the Biden administration, Bolsonaro presents a dilemma. On the one hand, the fight against climate change—a critical pillar of the new Biden administration—is incomplete without the active contribution of Brazil, and the Brazilian government could, in theory, be a partner in limiting Chinese influence in Latin America. Yet, Bolsonaro’s commitment to projecting himself as the defender of Trumpism, as well as the many conspiracy theories associated with far-right wing groups in the United States, will make it hard to establish a productive working relationship between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest countries.
A Lesson for South Africa
Since 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, the African National Congress–dominated government has regarded the United States as a partner on some issues, but has also been highly critical of its interventionism around the world, calling it an imperialist power. At the United Nations, the two countries have often been on opposite sides of issues including sanctions and human rights, as well as on the Middle East—particularly the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran. Furthermore, the United States’ problems with race and inequality resonate in South Africa, given its own history of racial oppression.
Although the incoming Biden administration will strike a different tone to that of Trump’s, the incidents at the Capitol have eroded the United States’ standing in the world. They have reinforced perceptions of the United States as a racist society, not an inclusive democracy.
South Africa will be even more skeptical of American actions should the United States reengage in multilateralism, whether in international institutions—such as the UN Human Rights Council or the World Health Organization—or in the way it confronts geopolitical rivals such as China or Russia. In global institutions, South Africa will continue to carve what it regards as an independent position that, among other policies, opposes the use of sanctions (whether against Zimbabwe or Iran) and supports Palestinian and Saharawi rights to self-determination, the rights of countries to choose the most appropriate technologies for their development (e.g., 5G), and the urgent need to reform global institutions. Equally, South Africa would wish to avoid being forced to make a choice between the United States and China in its international engagements. Both have a role to play in helping South Africa and the continent tackle development and conflict.
However, the events of January 6 offer a cautionary tale for South Africa. First, South Africa cannot be complacent about its democracy; that needs to be nurtured constantly. Second, domestic actions matter for foreign policy because they enhance or diminish a country’s standing and the attraction of its values. South Africa has an interest in advancing democratic constitutionalism, accountability, and good governance in Africa. But it needs to be able to lead by example in strengthening its democratic institutions and accountability, tackling social inequality, and thus starving populists and chauvinists of fodder.
The Need for U.S. Re-engagement—and Humility
There are already many adjectives used for to describe the assault on the U.S. Capitol. The most appropriate word would be “shocking.” It was a scene normally reserved for other types of regimes.
Nevertheless, the pushback should also be acknowledged. Despite President Trump’s efforts to negate the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the American political system demonstrated resilience. Notwithstanding the drama of January 6, we watched how democracy defended itself in the last two months.
President-Elect Biden will no doubt prioritize healing the country, which will probably take up all his time. It is possible that he does not immediately focus on foreign policy, except for returning to the international treaties Trump left. He could let his top-notch foreign policy team run his agenda while only giving overall guidance.
The events of January 6 could make the new Biden administration more hesitant to use human rights and other freedoms as foreign policy tools. A bit of humility will help. Proving the last four years was an aberration rather than a structural change within the United States will be the most important task for the president-elect. He will have to show that the fundamentals of democracy, rule of law, accountability, and freedom of expression remain the tenets of the United States.
Like many other countries, Turkey will adapt to the new administration. The expectation is that the United States would return to a foreign policy that is familiar and predictable. Yet, the world should not expect an exact continuation of President Barack Obama’s policies, as he and his vice president differed on certain issues. Biden will undoubtedly put his own stamp on his foreign policy agenda.
Increased U.S. involvement in international organizations is also likely. COVID-19 has demonstrated the lack of global leadership that was needed, as concerted action and cooperation was missing in response to the virus. The United States’ return to the global stage through coalition-building will be welcomed by most countries.
Turkey will try to engage with the new administration in a positive and effective manner. Several issues will require creative diplomacy: Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, differences on how to fight terrorism in Syria, and the extradition request for Fethullah Gulen, who is considered the mastermind of Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, are just a few.
New Standard Bearers for Democracy?
This year began with the horrifying image of a far-right mob storming the U.S. Capitol, the high seat of American democracy. The hours-long siege delayed the ratification of Biden’s election victory and severely damaged the United States’ reputation as the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy.
The event came as a huge shock for most Indians, given that many view the United States’ democracy and its robust institutions in a positive light and often draw inspiration from it. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to social media to express his distress over the incident, calling for a “restoration of democracy and peaceful transfer of power.” Although many in India believe U.S. democracy will bounce back under the new Biden administration, there are growing concerns in Indian foreign policy circles regarding the lone superpower’s ability to lead the liberal democratic order.
In the absence of effective leadership from the West, particularly the United States, authoritarian powers such as China have pushed their agendas with little resistance. In particular, the crackdown in Hong Kong, tensions in the South China Sea, border skirmishes with India, a major economic standoff with Australia, and aggressive responses over the origin of COVID-19 have raised major concerns about China’s respect for the rules-based order.
With strategic initiatives such as the Quad dialogues gaining momentum, there is some hope for strengthening the rules-based order. Growing threats from China and the relative decline of the United States have finally pushed the once-reluctant powers Australia and India to take more assertive stances in the Quad. And although the events of January 6 are a tragedy, they could spur more autonomous regional initiatives to strengthen the democratic order and act as a check against authoritarian intervention. Outside of the Indo-Pacific, four years of Trump’s America First policies have motivated European Union members such as Germany and France to actively explore policies that bolster the rules-based order independently of the United States.
India is also actively pursuing security and strategic partnerships with major democracies such as Australia, France, Indonesia, Japan, and the UK with an eye toward China. India allowing Australia to participate in recent Malabar naval exercises is a sure proof of autonomous action. Although reliance on the United States as a vital security provider remains alive, the events of January 6 and Washington’s prolonged domestic dysfunction are likely to push other leading democracies to do more to strengthen the democratic order.