Capstones: A Good Day for our Enemies
The January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was a yet another day of infamy in America’s bruised and bloodied history. As President-elect Joe Biden said in his remarks, this “last best hope on earth” is “under unprecedented assault”—and “the world is watching.”
Beyond what this episode has done to how our children understand and view America, beyond the scarring these images will leave on our collective memory, beyond the trauma a right-wing mob has inflicted on a deeply divided nation—an ugly coda, to be sure, to the trauma left-wing mobs inflicted in the summer months—the January 6 spasm of political violence against America’s constitutional order will be wielded by our enemies to great effect.
In breaching the walls of the Capitol building and using violence to protest the certified outcomes of a presidential election, the marauding mob prevented constitutional officers from carrying out their constitutional duty; targeted four people in the constitutional presidential line of succession; and thus attempted what amounts to a coup. In the process, they gave the enemies of America and of liberal democracy a vast arsenal of fresh ammunition to use in the battle for hearts and minds now being waged between the free world and a growing authoritarian bloc.
On the very day of the Capitol Hill Siege, a Chinese state media outlet pointed to the “political coup…in the American continent” as proof that “bubbles of ‘democracy and freedom’ have burst.”
Another Chinese media outlet mockingly asked if the January 6 events were the beginning of a “Washington Spring”—a reference to the pro-democracy, anti-regime movement that shook Czechoslovakia in 1968 (“Prague Spring”) and similar events in the Middle East/North Africa in 2011 (“Arab Spring”).
China’s foreign ministry went so far as to mockingly suggest “the beacon has fallen,” a backhand at America’s self-styled title of “beacon of democracy.”
Reading from the same playbook, Leonid Slutsky, who chairs the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee, concluded, “The United States certainly cannot now impose electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world’s ‘beacon of democracy.’” He also predicted that the January 6 siege “threatens to turn into a crisis in the American system of power.”
“The losing side has more than enough grounds to accuse the winner of falsifications,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, chair of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house. “American democracy is limping on both feet. The celebration of democracy has ended.” He added, “America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it.
If you think such sentiment is limited to our enemies in Moscow and Beijing, think again. A state-backed paper in Egypt—a frontline nation in the tug-of-war between liberal democracy and business-suit autocracy—saw in the January 6 siege “the sacrifice of American democracy, the death of its liberty, and the plummeting of the values it has ceaselessly tried to export around the world and used as a reason to interfere in other countries’ affairs.”
“The United States has fallen to the level of Latin American countries,” sighed a Brazilian newspaper.
A pro-democracy leader in Hong Kong, where protesters have been waving the American flag and singing the “Star Spangled Banner” to galvanize their movement, says, “It’s very sad for us in Hong Kong to see mobs attacking Capitol Hill and trying to overthrow the election results.” He adds, “The most damaging part is that the democratic world has been weakened, and when that happens it strengthens the hand of authoritarian rulers from all over the world.”
Indeed, this is everything Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin could hope for and more.
It pays to recall that China has used digital and cyber technologies to spread disinformation, sow confusion and undermine confidence in liberal democracies. Recent examples include fake news that Washington was planning a national lockdown and martial law during the pandemic; claims that COVID-19 is a bioweapon produced by the U.S.; what the State Department calls “false narratives” that U.S. and European governments used the pandemic “as part of a scheme to increase government control over their populations”; propaganda arguing that China is “superior to the West in responding to global health crises”; and a concerted effort, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reported last April, “to portray NATO allies as if we are unable to…protect our elderly people or that we are not able to work together.”
Russia has used intelligence agencies and cyber-soldiers for the better part of a decade to conduct strategic-influence operations targeting U.S. political institutions; to sway public opinion via false-front organizations and via manipulation of traditional media; and to exacerbate racial tensions and religious divisions.
Xi and Putin’s goal in these operations is not to choose winners and losers in America’s or Europe’s elections, but to weaken the winners and sow doubt among the losers, to destabilize political institutions, to splinter the free world, to erode confidence in liberal democracy, and to normalize their brand of autocracy.
In short, January 6 was a very good day for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It’s a gift that will keep on giving for many years.
As Russia and China chisel away at liberal democracy, Freedom House’s most recent report reveals that 64 countries have weathered a deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties, and 25 of 41 established democracies have suffered declines in freedom of expression and the rule of law. “Acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years,” according to Freedom House.
The January 6 siege—the outgrowth of a cult-of-personality movement that elevates an individual above the institutions of America’s government—will likely accelerate this trend. And the regimes in Moscow and Beijing will use all those images of chaos and violence in America’s seat of government to fuel their assault on liberal democracy and strengthen their case for business-suit autocracy.
Xi and Putin are targeting not only their own publics, but also peoples in the developing world trying to plot a course away from authoritarianism; emerging democracies trying to transition from simply holding a free election to building a lasting liberal democracy; leaders torn between clinging to power by force or surrendering it peacefully; even groups within liberal democracies who are disenchanted with this form of government, impatient with the pace of change, tired of the burdens of compromise, unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship.
America cannot be the beacon of democracy—what President Reagan so often called “a shining city on a hill”—if American citizens don’t accept those responsibilities of citizenship: Participating in the political process, respecting the outcomes of that process, supporting the rule of law and respecting those who enforce the law, embracing majority rule with minority rights, learning about America’s founding, reading the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, respecting the right to worship any god or no god at all, using reason rather than violence to address social challenges, helping neighbors—these are the essential ingredients of citizenship in our republic.
During the Cold War, a document known as NSC-68 served as the blueprint for our struggle against Moscow, Beijing and their allies. NSC-68’s authors keenly understood that there was (and is) a connection between the health of America’s political system and the effectiveness of America’s foreign policy. And so, they urged America’s leaders to “affirm our values in the conduct of our national life.” Now, as when NSC-68 was written, these values include “freedom, tolerance, the importance of the individual and the supremacy of reason over will.”
We must reaffirm these values and live these values for our own good—and for the good of a watching world.
Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.