What happened at the Capitol is as jarring for those who focus most of their attention on foreign affairs as it is for other Americans. It ought to be. The underlying attempt by an incumbent president to reverse the result of an election and retain power through irregular methods represents the greatest threat to representative democracy in America since the Civil War era.
The sickening events on Capitol Hill also have more pointed lessons for foreign policy wonks. One involves putting into perspective the kinds of threats that foreign and national security policy are supposed to meet. The events make one realize that many of the threats, and supposed threats, that are the subject of much debate are much less important to the United States than the length and vehemence of the debates would suggest. Compared to what Donald Trump has incited his followers to do, how much damage could, say, the Taliban or the Iranian regime do to the social and political fabric of America?
So, benefitting from this sort of perspective, the first lesson to draw is to apply a proper measurement to foreign threats when weighing the costs and risks of measures ostensibly designed to meet them—including, but not limited to, military measures. Some supposed threats are simply not worth the costs and risks.
Another lesson concerns the nature of national security. Too often it gets treated as a sort of geopolitical board game in which wins and losses are scored as this or that power occupies squares on the board. And too often policy discourse loses sight of the relevance, if any, of the squares to what U.S. national security really is about, which is the security, health, and well-being of the American people.
The bedrock on which everything the U.S. government does to promote the security, health, and well-being of the American people is the ability of the people to choose in free elections those who will govern them and make the policies. Thus, the attack on the ability of the American people to so choose their leaders—of which the physical attack on the Capitol was a violent punctuation mark—is in a fundamental way an undermining of U.S. national security.
More specific implications certainly can be drawn regarding matters that are commonly thought of as part of national security. Professionals at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security had already realized that extremists on the right, specifically of the white supremacist variety, constituted the greatest threat of domestic politically motivated violence. The Trump administration’s resistance to acknowledging that fact has resulted in some watered-down warnings and advisories that might have played a role in the gross security breakdown at the Capitol.
Politics underlie the difficulty, in another respect, of meeting domestic terrorist threats. The FBI has a better chance of monitoring and neutralizing named, organized groups than it does with disorganized individuals responding to a demagogue’s incitement. It appears such individuals did most of the vandalism of the Capitol.
It has been observed often during the past four years that the damage the Trump and his acolytes have inflicted on the republic is less than it might have been because their malevolence has been matched by their incompetence. Something similar could be said about the mob on the Mall. Improved organization and skills on their part could spell a greater security threat in the future.
Circling back to the foreign side leads to two further observations about the insurrection and U.S. foreign relations. The domestic blows being inflicted on American democracy weaken the United States in any competition with other great powers. When the Russian interference in the 2016 election came to light, a much-discussed question was whether Vladimir Putin’s principal objective was to elect Trump or to sow chaos in America’s democracy. The distinction between the two objectives was erased some time ago. Trump is Putin’s best chaos-sowing weapon. Observing the chaos at the Capitol and everything Trump has dome to discredit another election, Putin must be smiling.
Then there are the effects on the perceptions not just of foreign governments but of foreign publics. America’s soft power and especially its longtime status as the most salient liberal democracy in the world has been an important asset for the United States and ultimately for U.S. national security. That asset now has been tarnished if not shattered. This is not to say it can’t be rebuilt, but the rebuilding will begin from a very low base.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.