America’s allies worry about U.S. democracy amid Jan. 6 hearings

Three European diplomats opened the door to the ambassador’s residence and offered a cognac and a request for anonymity.

Years ago they might have liked to speak candidly about American democracy, the core of the superpower’s “branding” on the global stage, as one of them put it. Now it’s a subject of uncertainty and controversy. The mark is tarnished as former President Trump, who tried to overturn the 2020 election, announces a political comeback and President Biden, the man who replaced him, is struggling politically.

“It’s not about Trump,” said one of them. “It’s a lot deeper than that. And that’s a lot more concerning.”

Many of the TVs in Washington’s embassies were tuned in to the Jan. 6 committee hearings and the flood of testimonies detailing Trump’s plan to subvert the will of voters with the help of an angry mob of his supporters.

But concerns that America was drifting grew ahead of the hearings, as Western allies saw the rise of nationalism and isolationism and a sense of disenfranchisement among voters that spread to their own countries, according to interviews with American foreign policy veterans and diplomats from those was asked to remain anonymous in order to speak openly about an ally’s problems.

“It weighs very heavily,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official who had just returned from a tour of European capitals and has been repeatedly asked by foreign officials about the US midterm elections and the possibility of Trump’s return.

Conley, who heads the German Marshall Fund, a US-based organization focused on transatlantic and other multilateral ties, said officials fear Biden’s attempts to mend a broken system are temporary, like glue the one holding the broken vase together.

A diplomat speaking to The Times pointed to the months immediately following Jan. 6, 2021, when Republican lawmakers sided with Trump’s condemnation. The period is crucial, he said, because it shows that the pressure to fall behind Trump comes from the bottom up.

“This is terribly worrying,” he said. “Because it means democracy is sick among the voters, not just the system, the institutions, the politicians.”

Despite the red flags, several diplomats said they viewed the transition to Biden, however rocky, and the accountability brought by the Jan. 6 hearings as a sign of resilience. An ambassador noted that America has similarly emerged from the damage done by disruptions such as Watergate and the Vietnam War.

“Things have never been very stable in this country,” he said. “There is always something going on”

Though diplomats disagree on the seriousness and extent of America’s problems, most are concerned that the country’s increasing polarization is eroding its reputation and reliability. They cite several contributing structural problems, such as paralysis in Congress, partisanship in the Supreme Court, restrictive state-level election laws, and fragmented news media. Some also accuse Democrats of pursuing power politics and long-term abandonment of low-income white voters, leaving many disillusioned with the political system and vulnerable to Trump’s populism.

America is a place where “two different worlds coexist but don’t speak to each other,” according to one diplomat.

America’s size, power, and self-proclaimed moral standing make its problems out of proportion. Spillover effects include instability in European governments, turns to authoritarianism elsewhere, and encouragement from China and Russia, confirming President Vladimir Putin’s contention that liberal democracies are waning.

“Democracies are being challenged, both internally and externally,” said a European diplomat. “It’s a real problem and we see it in the United States; we also see it in our countries.”

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron struggled to assemble a government after a far-right nationalist party surged in June’s elections. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who came to power because of his opposition to a united Europe, has agreed to step down after a series of scandals. And Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a far-right nationalist, recently said that Hungarians should resist becoming “mixed-race peoples,” echoing the rhetoric of racial purity that many Europeans hoped to bury after the Holocaust.

In Latin America, several countries have turned to more autocratic or anti-US governments while developing stronger ties with China. In June, Biden failed to persuade some of the invited Western Hemisphere governments to attend a major regional gathering, the Summit of the Americas, which the US hosted for the first time in three decades after his administration barred some countries.

Ahead of that meeting, held in Los Angeles, Earl Anthony Wayne, a former US ambassador to Mexico, Argentina and deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, said America would no longer win the war of ideas against China.

“Public opinions about how effective democracy is are declining,” Wayne said. “You look and you see that the United States has had some of the same problems. It’s not a shining example of success in the North.”

Biden’s promise that his election would mean “America is back” on the world stage hasn’t convinced many leaders it will stay there, said David Gordon, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration who is now an Analyst at Eurasia Group, a consulting firm focused on political risk assessment.

“Biden had a simple act to follow. He’s known all these guys forever. But they watch as he physically fades before their eyes. You’re comparing President Biden to Vice President Biden, and it’s not the same guy,” Gordon said. “They worry about what the future will bring. Will Trump come back or someone else leaning towards the America First agenda?”

As one European diplomat put it: “You have to be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. US elections can change things again.”

Meanwhile, some Biden see a compromise on some of his promises to put human rights at the heart of his agenda, including a pledge to pariah Saudi Arabia over the brutal assassination of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other attempts at dissidents to silence. Some also say Biden failed to call allies like India and Israel when they committed alleged abuses, and he was widely pilloried over a messy and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In a way, almost all of America’s allies view their relationship with the US as strategic rather than ideological or moral. The balance of these priorities depends on the country and on who should weigh them.

Michael Green, a former national security adviser for Asia in the George W. Bush administration, said this was especially true for allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Intellectuals in these countries tend to see American leadership in the same light as European allies, and fear that a Trump return to the White House would further undermine democracy.

But many people in the political arena in some of those countries viewed the Trump years through safety glasses, often agreeing with Trump’s advisers on how to approach China, said Green, who now heads the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

“The people who were running foreign policy when Trump wasn’t paying attention, which basically was most of the time, were basically hard-line conservative Republicans,” he said.

But a second Trump term could turn that calculus on its head. Many of those same allies, for example, fear Trump would fulfill his stated desire to withdraw American troops from South Korea while forgoing what they see as a stabilizing force for the region.

Other governments, including those that have turned to their own populist authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Orban, see a possible return of Trump as a boon, said Conley of the German Marshall Fund.

“They are playing – unwisely – on our polarization and hoping it works for their side,” Conley said. “It’s very, very risky.” America’s allies worry about U.S. democracy amid Jan. 6 hearings

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