Thirty years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in his essay “The End of History?” that the U.S. liberal democracy epitomized the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution, the superior and final form of government.
But one year after the deadly siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, Fukuyama — now a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies — says that the example of America as a global beacon of democracy is deeply tarnished.
“The U.S. could not effect a peaceful transfer of power after an election, and that is a precedent that has already reverberated around the world,” he told VOA.
On the anniversary of the Capitol siege, VOA spoke with other observers who are also giving ominous warnings about the global legacy of Jan. 6 and the decline of American democracy.
Authoritarianism as an alternative
The events of Jan. 6, Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, and the persistent unwillingness of the Republican Party to repudiate them serve as “useful talking points for autocrats — both actual and aspiring — who claim that democracy as an ideal is at once fanciful and misguided,” said William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
They create setbacks for democracy reformers abroad who have looked to the U.S. for guidance and inspiration, Howell added.
Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for U.S. defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a global think tank, agreed.
“Although liberally inclined countries by default may still look to America for political support, authoritarianism is increasingly seen as a viable alternative,” Stevenson said, adding that the degradation of American democracy is not the only cause.
The rise of China, the “performance legitimacy” of illiberal leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and the broadening appeal of populism prompted by disappointment in democratic governments are also major factors, he added.
“But January 6 has certainly increased American democracy’s burden of ideological persuasion,” Stevenson said.
Meanwhile, Republicans’ embrace of 2020 election lies has made allies deeply nervous about America’s dependability, said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“They now have to ask: If America moves in an autocratic direction, will it be there to stand up to other autocrats?” he said.
Still, America remains a country without peer in the key realms of geopolitics and, despite countries’ increased hedging and forming ties with other powers such as China, most are still looking to maintain strong working ties with the United States.
“The insurrection has left a mark on America’s standing in the world, but it hasn’t yet fundamentally undermined America’s overall position,” said Brian Katulis, Middle East Institute’s vice president of policy. “The fact that America still has the largest and strongest economy and military in the world — and much of its soft power in technology and education — is held in high regard.”
Salvaging American democracy
As president, Joe Biden has sought to salvage U.S. standing and framed his foreign policy in the context of democracies versus autocracies. In December, he brought together more than 100 countries in a virtual Summit for Democracy to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.”
To commemorate Jan. 6, Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks with a focus on sustaining democracy and countering threats to democratic processes. His aides say that Biden believes the most effective way to combat Trumpism and election denialism is to prove to the country and the world that democratic governments can work.
“Political cohesion, political stability, a common commitment across party lines to the basic institutions of American and values of American democracy. Those are the kinds of things that would actually provide the kind of national-security propulsion that we really need to be able to serve our interests abroad effectively,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan in a recent Council on Foreign Relations event.
With deepening polarization and continuing attacks on America’s democratic institutions, that may be a tall order. In rallies across the country, Trump continues to push what critics call the “Big Lie” — the narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — and most Republicans believe him.
According to a new USA Today/Suffolk University poll, 58% of Republicans say Biden was not legitimately elected to the White House — this despite numerous audits and investigations debunking Trump’s claims of voter fraud.
Fueled by “Stop the Steal” and other election fraud conspiracies, Republican lawmakers in states across the country have passed or tried to pass legislation that would assert more control over election systems and results, locking out Democrats in the process.
Advantage for adversaries
Adversaries, including Russia, China and Iran, have used the siege to their advantage, a fact acknowledged by Sullivan.
“January 6 has had a material impact on the view of the United States from the rest of the world,” said Biden’s top adviser. “Allies look at it with concern and worry about the future of American democracy. Adversaries look at it, you know, more sort of rubbing their hands together and thinking, ‘How do we take advantage of this in one way or another?'”
Chinese officials often questioned how American Democratic lawmakers could condemn the protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol while championing those who broke into the legislature in Hong Kong. Iranian leaders have pointed to the siege and ongoing American political divisions in their own propaganda to bash the U.S.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn moral equivalence between the prosecution of the Jan. 6 rioters and the suppression of his political opponent Alexey Navalny.
“These arguments may be simplistic and tortured, but they are not ineffective,” said Stevenson of IISS.
Moscow has also lobbed “whataboutisms” about American democratic backsliding in response to U.S. statements on Russian democracy. The goal, said author of How to Lose the Information War and global fellow at the Wilson Center Nina Jankowicz, is to undermine the legitimacy of criticisms that the U.S. has had of Russia in recent years regarding human rights and the right to free expression.
It should come as no surprise that adversaries have used U.S. democratic backsliding as an excuse to defend their own undemocratic systems. “When the U.S. undercuts its own liberal values at home, it creates a sense of entitlement, or even permission, for leaders with autocratic instincts to trample all over freedoms of free and fair elections or the right to protest,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at the London-based Chatham House.
Vinjamuri added that there is currently a pervasive sense in Europe, rightly or wrongly, that “America may still have the power to lead but that it no longer has the interest in reaching beyond its borders to provide for the kind of liberal or moral order that it once did.”
A lot is riding on the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential elections and whether Americans can deliver relatively stable elections without the drama and violence of 2020.
“It seems to me that the next two years will determine whether the U.S. remains a credible world power,” said Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, an assistant lecturer at CY Cergy Paris Université. “If January 6 remains a one-off, then there is hope. But if it’s only the beginning of something, well, then, all hell might break loose.”
Other observers offer an even bleaker point of view.
“By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence,” said Thomas Homer-Dixon, executive director of the Cascade Institute at Canada’s Royal Roads University, in a recent opinion piece. “By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.”
The scholar of violent conflict urged his fellow citizens to prepare for the unfolding crisis in the United States, which he characterized as a “political and social landscape flashing with warning signals.”