Reactions around the world are already showing that the violent storming of the US Capitol by pro-Trump insurgents severely damaged the image of the United States. But how bad? After all, the insurgents were removed, Republican leaders were able to easily defeat the unconstitutional motions of some of their members, Congress upheld a majority of the electoral college for President-elect Joe Biden, the stock market closed, and opinion polls in the days to come will no doubt show them that a large majority of Americans oppose the actions of a few thousand MAGA extremists.
But pictures are stubborn things. Photojournalist Eddie Adam’s iconic shot of a Saigon police chief executing a Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive in 1968 captured the sadness, violence, and futility of the Vietnam War indelibly. The footage of the violent Democratic Party convention that summer in Chicago for years reinforced the image of US chaos at home. Neither the American public nor the US allies were able to suppress these images from their minds, while Washington’s opponents still use them in propaganda to this day.
Historians might one day see the violent image of a mob storming the Capitol and waving the Confederate and MAGA flags as no less damaging depictions of the US’s strategic incompetence, disorder and decline. No US ally will be thrown off balance because of what happened, and Biden has an unprecedented opportunity to bring NATO and Asian allies together to address the shared challenges of Chinese and Russian forced revisionism. But as much as allied leaders applaud Biden’s leadership, they will now also face nagging questions from their own public and officials about Washington’s reliability. The fact that a ton of dead strikes overwhelmed the Capitol Police will add to the impressions of incompetence already created by the Trump administration’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Allies who rely on treaties with the United States for their security know that nothing is automatic, that the decision whether to defend them lies ultimately with the US commander in chief, and that Americans only elected a president four years ago who has just incited a mob to overthrow the results of an election. Invoking the 25th amendment to recall Trump has its value, but how daunting must that be for allies who know where their ultimate security lies in a crisis.
Opponents have already begun using these images for domestic propaganda consumption and are likely to draw dangerous conclusions themselves. Beijing was already promoting the supremacy of its authoritarian political system in response to the U.S. abuse of COVID-19, and this week’s images of chaos and disorder add even more to the fuel fire of propaganda. This is also good for Chinese President Xi Jinping personally as he prepares to accept an abnormal third term as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party at his 20th party convention in 2022. While he does not have or need any formal election promises, rest assured that he will exploit the domestic political dysfunction of China’s greatest geopolitical rival as a core part of its political platform.
China under Xi is already gaining confidence, and the official Beijing narrative of the United States as a declining power is more than a decade old. But never before has the CCP had so much practical – and visceral – evidence of democratic dysfunction and breakdown on its side. China’s efforts to label US democracy as unstable, disorderly, and unjust date back to the Mao era when propaganda efforts highlighted racial injustices and incidents of political unrest, such as the Kent state shootings and the traumatic events of 1968. But this narrative struggled against the many obvious strengths of the US system, not least the proven stability and resilience of its core democratic institutions. Unfortunately, today the propaganda only has to quote the statements of the current US president and transmit images of events in the capital of the country. If the global financial crisis of 2008 convinced Beijing and a large part of the Chinese population that the Western economic model has been broken, the Capitol uprising – along with the ongoing inability to contain the COVID-19 crisis – could spell the ultimate end Admiration for the pluralistic democracy.
Biden can of course contain some of the damage by restoring a sense of stability and predictability to US foreign policy. However, as his government ponders how and where to face China, indelible damage has already been done. Chinese negotiators will now sit across from their American interlocutors, who, in addition to their diplomacy as “wolf warriors”, have a moral sense of justice. Gone are the days when the United States was seen by Beijing as an undeniably stronger negotiating party.
US diplomats overseas have to explain some basic realities to counter these impressions. In both public and elite opinion polls, American support for international engagement, strong alliances, and strategic competition with adversaries like China has never been more robust. The US allies have never wanted such close political, economic and security ties with the United States. Not a single country in Asia wants Chinese rule. Despite the setbacks, democracy remains the most popular form of government in most of the world.
But this week’s pictures also suggest that the same caustic ethnonationalism and extremism that affects many countries around the world could temporarily switch off the global engine for democracy, prosperity and order. The Biden administration will not recover from returning to the regular order. A bold new narrative must be created of America’s commitment to constitutional democracy at home and active leadership abroad.