Riot weakened Congress’ soft power abroad, experts say

By Rachel Oswald
CQ-Roll Call/TNS
Barbed wire is seen atop security fencing with the dome of the U.S. Capitol in the background Jan. 16 in Washington.

WASHINGTON - The glass has been swept up, the graffiti cleaned off, and authorities continue to identify and arrest rioters who participated in the violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But the international hit to Congress’ reputation from the siege will take much longer to set to rights.

In the buildup to Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial this week, many Republicans, including some of the party’s top leaders, tried to move beyond the attack, made excuses for it, trivialized it, or at least didn't lay it at the feet of former President Donald Trump. That is not helping to rebuild Congress’ image abroad, experts say.

“How can I go and talk to any of these other dictators around the world, these other authoritarians around the world, as I will have to do as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and talk to them about their bad acts and actions and we don’t hold our own accountable,” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., told reporters last month.

Péter Krekó, a social psychologist who directs the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, said what happened on Jan. 6 serves as an important reminder for pro-democracy forces everywhere about the fragility of the political system, even in the world’s most well-known democracy.

“What happened in the U.S. Capitol for me is, unfortunately, the textbook case of how tribal rhetoric and this division between good and evil that frequently appeared in Donald Trump’s speeches, how the ongoing polarization trend in the U.S. for almost two decades, and how the conspiracy theories such as QAnon can finally catalyze violence and how it can undermine democratic values,” said Krekó, who is researching democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe as a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the U.S.-government funded National Endowment for Democracy.

Even as Trump’s incitement of the violent mob may have dimmed his prospects for a political comeback in 2024, it’s an open question what the political futures will be for the nearly 150 Republican representatives and senators who voted to challenge the certified election results.

Among this group are two senators - Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri - who are widely seen as likely Republican presidential candidates. On the House side, this group includes numerous lawmakers with leadership roles, including on national security-related committees. It includes multiple senior House appropriators including the top Republican overseeing the foreign aid budget as well as the top Republicans on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, and five out of six of the ranking members of the Armed Services subcommittees.

As this large group of Republicans mostly remains silent about Trump’s attacks on U.S. democracy or even tries to shift the blame to Democrats and last summer’s anti-racism protests, democracy scholars see the potential for lasting damage to one of Congress’ most valuable but intangible assets: its global soft power.

Persuasion overseas

Much has been written about U.S. soft power - broadly defined as the U.S. government’s ability to persuade or influence other countries and international organizations into adopting its preferred policies through leading by example and cultural and historical ties, instead of resorting to military or economic coercion. But less well understood is how congressional soft power operates within the broader framework of U.S. global influence.

When a U.S. congressional delegation visits a foreign country, especially if the group includes leaders of a committee or subcommittee that can steer U.S. foreign and defense aid, the lawmakers frequently receive the red-carpet treatment. Meetings are arranged with top ministers, even heads of government, while local business leaders and civil society groups vie for the Americans’ time.

Signed letters from U.S. lawmakers that draw attention to political dissidents overseas are coveted by democracy activists because they can help pressure foreign governments into treating them better. Even better for human rights activists is when lawmakers introduce or pass a symbolic resolution that presses the importance of free elections, respect for human rights and good governance.

And being invited as a foreign head of state to give an address to a joint meeting of Congress is viewed as a rare honor and an important opportunity to drive news headlines around the world.

So while the White House, the State Department and other key U.S. national security agencies wield the lion’s share of government tools to set foreign policy and shape world affairs, Congress has its own distinct soft power that lawmakers can draw from in addition to their hard power of passing bills that authorize military interventions, impose sanctions or direct billions of dollars in foreign assistance.

It is not yet apparent how the Jan. 6 terror attack affected Congress’ reputation as the world’s most famous legislative body. But current and former congressional staffers, lawmakers and democracy experts all say serious reputational damage has been done.

Military coup in Myanmar

“I think it’s very hard for Republicans who argued to overturn the 2020 election to be credible voices for democracy abroad,” Senate Foreign Relations member Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut said in an interview. “I just don’t know that it makes our case credible.”

Following last week’s military coup in Myanmar, the Biden administration and lawmakers have been united in denouncing it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has long been a supporter of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was overthrown by a junta and is once again in detention.

McConnell told CQ Roll Call last week he was hopeful following conversations with President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that they would be able to “speak with one voice” in condemning the coup and impose “every possible sanction” as a consequence.

But the Kentucky Republican went silent and did not respond when asked whether congressional credibility in condemning the Myanmar coup has been damaged after so many elected Republicans voted on Jan. 6 to challenge the results of the U.S. elections.

In an interview, Hawley said the coup in Myanmar was “extremely disturbing” and “a very bad turn of events,” which he was considering how to best respond to. He denied that his credibility to speak out on the issue had been damaged by his leadership role in voting to challenge the results of the U.S. presidential election, asserting “I didn’t support overturning the results of the election.”

Cruz, meanwhile, in recent weeks has been criticizing China over human rights abuses. In recent TV interviews and videos produced for his Twitter account he has criticized several Biden foreign policy nominees over what he says are insufficiently harsh stances against the Chinese Communist Party.

Last week, Cruz delayed a Senate Foreign Relations confirmation vote on Biden’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on the grounds that a 2019 speech she gave at a Confucius Institute event at a college in Georgia was too soft on Beijing. “Did you have even a word of criticism about the Chinese Communist Party about its murders, about its tortures, about its concentration camps, about its genocide?” Cruz asked Thomas-Greenfield at the hearing. She responded that she did bring up China’s human rights abuses when she was questioned by students and has talked publicly about China’s human rights problems throughout her career.

Murphy, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Europe subcommittee, said having the likes of Hawley and Cruz speaking out right now about human rights abroad could be counterproductive.

“The people who tried to overturn the election should probably just sit out these conversations about global democracy promotion because it weakens my case in a place like Myanmar or Ukraine if I have at my side somebody who was trying to overthrow the U.S. election,” he said. “I think right now it’d be better if people like Sen. Hawley and Sen. Cruz just kind of stayed on the sidelines of democracy promotion.”

Leading by example is tough

The presence of Cruz, Hawley or House GOP members who appeared to encourage the insurrection, such as Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, on congressional delegation trips going forward may be counterproductive if it leads to the group being treated differently by foreign governments, said Charles Stevenson, a former longtime Senate staffer who now teaches foreign policy courses at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“It’s true that some people who might have jumped on the human rights bandwagon in earlier years are now damaged on that issue because of their performance on Jan. 6,” Stevenson said. “A lot of normal interaction outreach [to foreign countries] now has some glitches in it because of this.”

Sarah Bush, a political science professor at Yale University who focuses on the challenges around global democracy promotion, agreed it would be “highly problematic” for lawmakers like Cruz and Hawley to try to position themselves as champions of global democracy.

“I think that it is very difficult for any politician to, for example, stand on the side of dissidents or condemn a government abroad for conducting an unfair election … it is very difficult to do any of those kinds of things in terms of foreign affairs when you are questioning the results of an election result at home that there is no credible evidence [that it] lacked integrity,” Bush said in an interview.

Indeed, the Jan. 6 attack has led longtime U.S. allies and partners to question not just the reliability of U.S. security protection but of the entire U.S. democratic system.

“For U.S. partners in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, however, Washington’s priorities on the world stage must now be interrogated, and any conclusions reached must be held with qualifications rather than confidence,” Jonathan Kirshner, a political science and international studies professor at Boston College, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “From now on, all countries, everywhere, must hedge their bets about the United States.”

The millions more votes Trump received in 2020 compared to 2016 “put to rest the comforting fable that Trump’s election was a fluke,” said Kirshner, arguing that foreign countries are likely to act in a more pragmatic, even transactional manner toward Washington going forward as they “don’t have the luxury of clinging to some idealized version of the United States’ national character.”

In a recent interview with Axios, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was “very shocked” by the attack on the Capitol and called it a “strong blow” to U.S. democracy going forward.

In 2019, Zelenskiy saw the longtime bipartisan congressional support for foreign aid to his government thrown into doubt after Republicans hesitated to condemn Trump’s efforts to hold hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally directed security assistance to Ukraine hostage to his demand for Zelenskiy to order an investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter.

“We’re used to seeing in books, in films, in television, we are used to believe that the United States has the ideal democratic institutions, where power is transferred calmly, without war, without revolutions, power is passed from one presidency to another,” Zelenskiy told Axios through a translator. “After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy.”

Impact on U.S. democracy promotion efforts

The United States can best repair its global image and reassure key allies of its commitment to democratic values by holding accountable those who perpetuated the Capitol attack and by strengthening its own democratic culture and election systems, experts and global democracy activists say.

“The most important thing Congress can do to strengthen the credibility of U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad is strengthening democracy in the United States and that should be the overriding priority of members of Congress,” said Jordan Tama, an American University professor who focuses on U.S. foreign policy institutions and tools.

He called out the Electoral College as a particularly outmoded and undemocratic institution that is out of sync with international standards for democracy.

“The U.S. is an outlier in having a president elected through a system that is not based directly on the popular vote totals,” Tama said. “The idea that someone can become president without having gotten the most votes in a presidential election is hard to justify and certainly hard to explain to other countries.”

But it would be a shame if the Capitol attack causes policymakers to conclude the United States has so badly tainted its reputation as a democracy that it has no place doing promoting democracy around the world, these advocates argue. For one thing, that would leave democracy activists and political dissidents more vulnerable than they already are amid a global trend of democratic backsliding in places such as Turkey, Poland and Hungary and worsening authoritarianism in Venezuela, Russia and China.

“The last thing that small ‘d’ democrats would want to see around the world is the United States retreat,” said Ken Wollack, chairman of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. “There isn’t an inconsistency with working on our own democratic system and helping others who are engaged in promoting or sustaining their democratic systems.”