Commentary

US Chaos Shocks the World—but Tomorrow Never Dies

By Aung Zaw 12 January 2021

US President Donald Trump is just days away from his political eclipse, but the damage he has done to America will take time to repair. Will the administration led by incoming President Joe Biden be able to undo the harm his predecessor has caused?

America’s traditional allies, friends, foes and rivals alike all looked on in disbelief as the violent tumult unfolded in Washington last week. The world’s superpower is now in deep trouble, helplessly polarized, gripped by chaos and insurrection. Days after rioters loyal to Trump rampaged through the halls of the Capitol, images of their violent revolt continued to be replayed around the globe, and world leaders continued to respond with bewilderment and alarm.

Some European allies of the US decried the riot as an assault on democracy. Condemning the violence and insisting that the outcome of the election be respected, they called for a smooth transition, maintenance of the rule of law and respect for the democratic process.

Sound familiar? In Myanmar in decades past, many of us grew used to hearing such catchphrases and stock language expressing “concern” from foreign governments including the US. It is impossible not to see the irony as governments and leaders the world over impart to Washington the same admonitions and calls to uphold democracy that the US has so often directed at others.

It is hardly surprising to see this kind of violence erupt in Trump’s America—which has been characterized by the breakdown of the country’s political system and the rise of white supremacy.

Many would doubtless prefer to believe that what they are seeing on their screens is happening not in America but somewhere else—in Central Asia, Africa, China, Hong Kong or Southeast Asia, where we are accustomed to seeing scenes of turmoil and images of thugs in faux-military, clownish costumes and violent radicals. The fact that this time the thugs were invading the US Congress came as a profound shock. America is not supposed to handle its problems this way.

In response, think tanks around the globe are warning that it is time for pompous American policymakers—so used to pontificating about what other democracies should do—to look within.

Hong Kong people stage a protest against a new extradition bill in June 2019. / Flickr

Inevitably, America’s rivals, China and Russia, are having a field day, taking obvious satisfaction in the turmoil. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “We hope that the American people can enjoy peace, stability and security as soon as possible.” Of course, in the past, Beijing was frequently on the receiving end of such diplomatic voicings of concern for the welfare of China’s people. The Chinese have wasted no time in turning the tables on Washington.

In Moscow, after initially stating that the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters was “an internal US affair”, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented that the political set-up in the US was to blame.

She offered the blunt assessment that “The electoral system in the United States is archaic; it does not meet modern democratic standards, creating opportunities for numerous violations, and the American media have become an instrument of political struggle.” Zakharova went on to conclude, “This is largely the reason for the split in society now observed in the United States.”

Taking sweet revenge on America’s support for Hong Kong, Beijing’s propaganda mouthpiece the Global Times chided: “Chinese web users still remember the distress and anger they felt when they saw rioters in Hong Kong storming the Legislative Council Complex, scrawling graffiti, smashing and robbing items, and, instead of condemning the violence, US politicians hailed the ‘courage’ of these mobs.”

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said US democracy was “obviously limping on both feet.”

“America no longer charts the course and therefore has lost all right to set it. And even more to impose on others,” he said.

Not to be left out, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Trump a “sick person”. In normal times this would be dismissed as typical hyperbole from Tehran. But this time many would agree—even in Washington. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself condemned Trump as “deranged”.

The veteran Democrat also called for Trump’s removal from office. “Sadly, the person who is running the Executive Branch is a deranged, unhinged, dangerous president of the United States. And we’re only a number of days until we can be protected from him,” Pelosi said. Indeed, many would agree that Trump is the “inciter-in-chief”.

Worryingly, despite the many indications that such a crisis was on the horizon, some 70 million Americans voted for Trump in November. And there are many Trumps around the world.

In Southeast Asia—not least in Myanmar—we have a history of weak democratic systems and brutal and corrupt military and autocratic regimes. But after seeing the tumult on Capitol Hill, some Myanmar pro-democracy activists joked on social media that they will send an army of advisers to America to provide training on community-based reconciliation, peace building, conflict sensitivity and seminars on democracy.

Belatedly, Twitter banned Trump permanently—but what took them so long? He should have been banned a long time ago. He has been inciting hatred and violence and stoking mobs for years; why is social media only deciding to act now? Nonetheless, it is a relief to learn that Trump can no longer govern America by tweet.

The social media giants, including Facebook and Google, are in fact part of the problem and should be held accountable. Such is their power, they have become de facto global censorship boards, in some cases taking down content or banning people, and in others allowing hate speech that incites violence. And they have made fortunes doing so. Appropriately, in many countries a debate has emerged about whether and how the three social media giants should be more tightly regulated.

It is important that Washington begin to repair its credibility abroad and convince its allies that America is resilient, while reminding bad actors and the many Trumps around the world that the US can overcome this crisis. Why? Since World War II, to both friends and foes, and through triumphs and crises, the United States has stood as the standard of democracy and freedom. It inspires a mixture of love, hate and resentment. America is still the necessary superpower providing a vital counterbalance against other would-be global hegemons.

Under the Biden administration, let’s hope the country takes a different path—in unity and humility—and restores its crown as the leader of the free world.

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