Even by the standards of the past four years, the dismay among U.S. allies came strong and fast on Wednesday, as the chaotic—even terrifying—footage of Trump supporters breaching the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., blew apart regular programming across the world, and millions sat glued to their televisions for hours, aghast as the events unfolded.
Leaders across Europe took to Twitter to express their outrage at what they were seeing. “Shocking scenes,” tweeted Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, headquartered in Brussels. “The outcome of this democratic election must be respected,” he said. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Stolberg called the scenes “unbelievable,” and “a totally unacceptable attack on democracy. A heavy responsibility now rests on President Trump to put a stop to this.”
To many of Washington’s closest allies, the sight of pitched battles between protesters and police, in what they have always regarded as one of the most tightly secured cities in the world, was not only astonishing. It also raised the chilling possibility that their enemies might well be relishing the specter of such an upheaval—and perhaps gaining insights about the security vulnerabilities of Western capitals.
“The enemies of democracy will be happy to see these incredible pictures from Washington, D.C.,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted, reminding his 432,000 followers that far-right protesters aligned with QAnon had tried to storm the German parliament Reichstag building in Berlin in August. “The disdain for democratic institutions is devastating,” Maas tweeted.
While many leaders and politicians have attempted to remain on polite terms with President Trump during the past four years, that civility collapsed on Wednesday night. Many openly blamed him for stoking the violence in Washington—perhaps a sign of Trump’s waning importance to them. “We must call this out for what it is,” tweeted Irish Foreign and Defense Minister Simon Coveney. “A deliberate assault on democracy by a sitting President & his supporters, attempting to overturn a free & fair election!”
That blame was widespread in Europe. “President Trump and many members of Congress have a great responsibility for what is happening now,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven tweeted, while the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte made an open appeal to the U.S. President, tweeting, “Horrible images. Dear Donald Trump, recognize Joe Biden as the next President today.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who—like many other world leaders—has wrestled with an often tetchy relationship with Trump, told a journalist in Vancouver that he was “watching minute by minute.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the scenes at the Capitol building were “disgraceful.” “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,” Johnson said. And Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he was “extremely troubled by the violence.”
European leaders have barely disguised their intense relief—even glee—at President Trump’s electoral defeat in November, after years of tensions over the European Union, NATO, climate, and other key issues. French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian said after Joe Biden’s victory that relations with the U.S. would likely not return to their previously warm state before Trump’s presidency, in which EU leaders looked to the U.S. for global leadership. “The world has moved on after these four years,” he said at the time. “Europe has emerged from its naïveté.”
That wariness seemed to dissipate in the past few weeks, as Biden began naming key cabinet appointees—including his nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who spent some of his youth in Paris, and speaks native French.
But Wednesday’s scenes in Washington brought back deep unease among some Europeans, wondering if the turmoil and nativism in the U.S. would outlast Trump’s presidency.
Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to Washington, said on France’s BFM Television on Wednesday night that the chaos around the Capitol building seemed to be a mix of “sedition, riots, extremists of the right, and the incredible incompetence of the security forces.” He wondered, he said, whether the police action was in fact incompetence, or perhaps a sign of darker political forces. “It is absolutely astonishing,” he said.
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