Capitol seat raises questions about future of democracy around the world


A Capitol under siege by crowds and an insurgent American president was a gift of propaganda to American adversaries, but it was yet another troubling moment for democracies going through the growing perils of a changing world order.
Democracy is not in danger of extinctionCongressional repuditions of President Trump’s attempt to cling to power underscored the resilience of the U.S. government – but tear gas and rage on Wednesday raised concerns in Berlin, Paris and the capitals of Latin America about what lies ahead in a time when time-tested beliefs and covenants are challenged and undone.

“It is extremely disturbing to see the siege against the height of democracy in the United States,” said Peter Beyer, the German government’s coordinator for transatlantic affairs. “Democracy will win; I’m sure… But we have seen: he can be attacked and he is vulnerable.

This vulnerability extends far beyond America’s borders: China is on the rise as other authoritarian and populist governments consolidate power further. Globalization and immigration are under siege – and the American century is a fading echo as the notion of American exceptionalism has often evolved into parody. The pandemic and its exposure to social and economic inequalities across continents have compounded a sense of global malaise.

Threats to democracy multiply as veneers have been broken and strong men maneuver to never abandon their armies and palaces. Think of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who critics say have challenged democracy to expand their personal dominance. Many viewed the melee in the United States as a disturbing message.

Nations from Latin America to Europe to Asia are asking: Can the battered United States now reaffirm its global position as Trump heads to golf? Or do recent events portend a prolonged decline for a fettered superpower still viewed by many as a model, however imperfect, of democracy? And the agonizing question in many capitals is: Can it happen here?

“My phone has only exploded with questions and expressions of horror from Latin American politicians, business leaders and ordinary people who cannot believe this has happened in the United States” said Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly magazine. “They fear that if we have these kinds of problems, it will embolden the authoritarians among them.”

President Trump greets Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro last March at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Concern is particularly pronounced in Brazil, the most populous country in Latin America, where right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro has been the region’s main cheerleader for Trump.

Brazilians “see the shadows of what is happening in their own country, where Bolsonaro has imitated Trump every step of the way,” said Winter, who added that some Brazilians watching recent events in Washington are wondering, “This will- does it happen to us? But even worse, because we don’t have the institutional strength that Americans have?

In Europe, amid widespread concern over the rise of right-wing populism in countries like Hungary, Poland and Italy, the recent spectacle in Washington and the underlying polarization of the American body politic have sparked l ‘apprehension. For all of its many flaws – and catastrophic debacles in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere – the United States has remained for many a pillar in a precarious world, the nation that has led Europe through the ruins of an era of post-world war which would be defined by the Cold War, and later by terrorism.

“The lesson could not be clearer for Western democracies,” an editorial in the Spanish daily El País said Wednesday. “The price of polarization is extremely high. It would be a mistake to underestimate him. ”

The wave of loud pro-Trump activists, some dressed in camouflage gear or medieval-style gowns, desecrating the halls of the Capitol – a global emblem of democracy – was as fascinating as it was unfathomable to many in Europe and elsewhere.

“We grew up and grew up in West Berlin with the idea that the United States was a force for good,” said Judith Hackenberger, a Berlin doctor who grew up in the western half of the divided city. -war. “We have always trusted the United States and its democracy. This faith has been shaken.

Germany, with its own historic demons, is grappling with the resurgence of far-right political forces. Authorities blamed extremists last summer when several hundred people protesting the country’s coronavirus restrictions attempted to break into the Reichstag, the federal parliament building in Berlin. Unlike what happened in Washington, however, police stopped German protesters from violating the legislative center.

A man walks to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. Germany, whose demons include the Holocaust, is once again grappling with far-right political forces, this time alongside the United States.

(Jim Hollander / EPA / Shutterstock)

“In this country, too, there are a growing number of people who, like many Trump supporters, have drifted into parallel worlds full of populism, conspiracy theories and fake news,” German newspaper Neue Osnabruecker noted. after the assault on the US Capitol. .

To be sure, the allies quickly rallied in support of the United States, dismissing the chaos as some kind of aberration, a one-time manifestation of the agony of the toxic administration of a ruler widely maligned in Western capitals.

“What happened today in Washington, DC is not America,” French President Emmanuel Macron said, switching to English at the end of a video message posted on Twitter Wednesday. , and speaking against a background of American, European and French flags. “We believe in the strength of our democracies. We believe in the strength of American democracy. ”

But reassuring dispatches from Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders also smacked of wishful thinking that some sense of normalcy would return to Washington once Trump leaves. Others were less optimistic that the eerie genius of US volatility so palpable in recent years would be easily put back into the bottle.

“This is the widely expected outcome of Trumpism,” tweeted Pierluigi Castagnetti, a former center-left politician in Italy. “And, unfortunately, it will not end today. … When politics is replaced by deception and popular fanaticism, drift is inevitable.

Yet it is plausible that the theater of the siege of the Capitol – and the tumultuous storm and stress of the Trump era – may have inflated the perception of a transcendent threat. The United States is, after all, a nation that has refined its democracy for more than two centuries, through territorial expansion, civil war, two global conflicts, ethnic, racial and economic uproar, and various other challenges.

“It’s not an American Weimar moment like it was in 1933, but rather a moment of empowerment in the media age, with live broadcasts and selfies of those involved,” said Joern Leonhard, professor of history. at the University of Freiburg, referring to the collapse of Germany. Weimar Republic and the ascendancy of Hitler’s Nazi movement. “No vacuum was created and the institutions continued to function.”

The fact that Trump finally conceded electoral defeat on Thursday allayed some of the transnational angst. A peaceful transfer of power – a fundamental characteristic of democracy – validated US guarantees against the emergence of a despotic regime, which for decades has been a lesson for other democracies.

In the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere, authoritarian regimes have retained their grip by crushing dissent, rewriting constitutions, sterilizing electoral supervisors and courts, and calling in troops. Although he admires leaders like Putin, Trump ultimately had much of the power of his personality – not enough to overcome the checks and balances entrenched in the American system.

“Democracy is based on people sharing a common set of rules,” noted Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The price to pay for not sharing strong institutions and a common set of rules can be seen in the Middle East. There, the political landscape is marked by civil wars, sectarianism and strong men.

Joe Biden speaks as president-elect of Wilmington, New York, a week after the November election.

Joe Biden is speaking as president-elect from Wilmington, Delaware, a week after Americans voted for him in place of President Trump – a defeat Trump has just begun to recognize.

(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

For many foreign leaders, President-elect Joe Biden recalls a more traditional era of American democracy and governance with which they are comfortable. The question, however, is whether Biden can erase the evils caused by Trump and rekindle confidence at a time when the world has changed a lot from four years ago.

“Repairing the significant damage to the image of the United States in the world and regaining credibility on issues of democracy will be difficult and will take time, even in the best case scenario,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based study. group. “The problem is not so much Trump himself, but rather his enablers and those who have remained silent and complicit in his blatantly undemocratic rhetoric and behavior.

And after? This is the question that resonates in capitals around the world fixed on their own twists and turns and the tremendous reality show that takes place daily in Washington.

“It is impossible to know what will happen after these events, which seem to come from the imagination of a screenwriter from [Hollywood] blockbusters ”, wrote columnist Pascal Beltrán del Río in the Mexican newspaper Excélsior. “Where is all this going? It is too early to tell.

Times editors McDonnell and Linthicum reported from Mexico City and Special Envoy Kirschbaum from Berlin. Special correspondents Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City and Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.


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