The violent riot on the grounds of the US Capitol that interrupted the Congress’s certification of the Electoral College results and left five people dead was perhaps the strongest sign yet of an America in domestic crisis, with significant implications for foreign policy and international relations.
The armed attack on the Capitol Building—coordinated online and executed with an inadequate response from security—has been met with a mix of reactions across the world. The country’s democratic allies were disturbed by the images of violence and destruction, interpreting the insurrection as an attempt to undermine the peaceful transition of power, while authoritarian regimes in China and Russia used the scene to bolster their position that democracy is itself a problem, creating chaos and confusion, and that the US system is not one to be emulated.
The rioters, radicalized by conspiracy theories and lies disseminated online, showed the dark side of an electorate highly susceptible to inflammatory rhetoric and a social media ecosystem that aids extremists in forming communities and actualizing their plans on the street.
The theme of our December conference on America’s Role in the World® was Foreign Policy Begins at Home, and the numerous crises of recent years have raised questions about the extent to which the US will be able to marshal allies to solve global problems like climate change and the refugee crisis. In a context in which China is attempting to remake the world in its authoritarian image, the difficulty of allies to trust the US makes China’s rise that much more inevitable and dangerous.
When the Biden administration takes the reins, several questions become imperative. To what extent will the US’s allies be able to trust the US to keep its word and lead on crucial issues? To what extent can the US’s own system of government be improved to serve as a model for democracy activists in Hong Kong, Russia, and elsewhere? How can platforms that lead to radicalization—social media perhaps chief among them—be reformed so that the information age does not become the conspiracy theory age?
Despite its turn inward, the US remains the world’s most powerful country, and allies still look at the US for hope and leadership. If the US can make progress on the serious issues facing its democracy—issues that many other democracies face—and rebuild a measure of social cohesion, it will serve as a template for how other democracies can respond to their own democratic crises if and when they occur.
A certain amount of skepticism and even pessimism is warranted, but progress is just as clear. The current House is the most diverse in history. Despite the pandemic, the 2020 election had the largest voter turnout ever. And despite restrictions in travel, cultural exchange between the US and the rest of the world is as high as ever, as popular TV, movies, and music from abroad filters into US households via streaming platforms, giving Americans an appreciation for both the similarities and differences between people.
Ultimately, how a nation responds to a crisis means as much as the crisis itself. Now is a time for domestic reform and global engagement—reaching across borders to learn, strengthen democracy, solve problems, and value other cultures.