Even Boris Johnson, who nurtured a long-time mutual admiration with Donald Trump, couldn’t restrain himself Wednesday as he bemoaned the images streaming around the world of America’s Capitol under siege. “Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress,” the British prime minister tweeted while Congress was still being invaded. “The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.”
Sadly, for much of the world, there didn’t seem to be much left of democracy in Washington for America to stand for. The centuries-long position occupied by the US as the shining pillar of rational government was being sacrificed to the hubris of one leader on his way out.
As NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted about “shocking scenes in Washington,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas compared the scenes in Washington with the Nazis taking advantage of the 1933 burning of the Reichstag parliament building to boost the rise of Adolf Hitler. “The enemies of democracy will rejoice at these inconceivable images from Washington DC,” Maas tweeted. “Seditious words turn to violent actions — on the steps of the Reichstag, and now in the Capitol. Contempt for democratic institutions has devastating effects. Trump and his supporters should finally accept the decision of the American voters and stop trampling democracy underfoot.”
There have been other instances of efforts by mobs abroad to assert their control over democracies. In May 1968, French students followed by vast throngs of workers took to the streets of Paris for seven weeks to protest capitalism, consumerism, even American imperialism. But never did they challenge the fundamental pillar of democratic institutions — rule by a majority of citizens — so fundamentally and violently as in Washington on Wednesday.
And this was what so horrified leaders and media around the world — images of a protester slouching into the chair of the Vice President of the United States on the dais of the Senate, another hanging from a balcony over the Congressional floor, tear gas drifting through the marble corridors of power.
Richard Ferrand, president of the French National Assembly, only six years old when the 1968 protests erupted and clearly moved by what his American counterparts were enduring, tweeted his own “democratic and friendly thoughts to the lawmakers of the United States, prevented from sitting. I express my support and friendship to the President of the House of Representatives [Nancy Pelosi].”
But sentiments of support and friendship seem thin gruel to bridge the huge gulf that seemed to be opening between the United States and so many of its allies and friends abroad and that, as difficult as the last four years have been for many, seems only to have broadened suddenly in the recent days. Shortly after the election of Joe Biden two months ago, a French diplomat suggested to me that with the arrival of the new president and especially such stable, sensible members of his national security team as Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, order and rationality were on the cusp of being restored to American democracy.
But in the horrific hours that tore Washington apart on Wednesday, that vision may have been shattered for many abroad just as rapidly.
The world watches Washington with horror The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ CNN.