The ceremony sent the world a message. In its language of democratic renewal, in its parade of household-name stars, in its diversity of faces and voices, and in its absence of incident, the inauguration of President Joe Biden tried to show off a United States that had returned to normal.
But it could be a long time before the world fully believes that message. For all its moving rhetoric and poetry, the return of a more conventional and human politician to the presidency was never, in itself, going to look to the world like a return to the U.S. status quo. Unlike after the inauguration of Barack Obama a dozen years ago, the United States will not quickly return from a period of chaos and divisiveness to being an example of stable democracy or a reliable partner in global endeavours.
Four years of president Donald Trump, and two weeks consisting of shocking violence followed by fear, have turned the United States into quite another kind of example.
“Here’s my message to those beyond our borders,” Mr. Biden told international audiences during his inauguration speech. “America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it; we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
As he spoke, though, it was clearly visible to anyone watching the inauguration on the world’s screens that the United States is nowhere close to being the same place it was in 2016.
Behind Mr. Biden was the eggshell dome of the Capitol, its interior still being repaired from a violent mob incursion instigated two weeks ago by Mr. Trump that shattered its security and interrupted the democratic process. In front of him was a Washington Mall nearly denuded of civilians by a massive force deployed to prevent a second attack by Trump loyalists amid a pandemic that Mr. Trump allowed to spiral out of control and kill more than 400,000 Americans.
It seems likely that Mr. Biden and his Democratic Party’s twin congressional majorities will be able to overcome many of those challenges within the United States. But the fact that these preventable catastrophes have happened, and that Mr. Trump was able to overstep the bounds of behaviour, decency and morality in democratic rule, means that partner countries such as Canada will have to assume, for decades, that this sort of democratic collapse is always possible in the United States. Authoritarian leaders will be able to strengthen their legitimacy and public appeal by pointing to the past four years of U.S. history as the sort of catastrophe democracy can bring.
This is reflected in international public opinion. Even in conventionally pro-American parts of the world, recent surveys show that citizens and leaders are no longer willing to automatically trust the United States over other major powers, or view its democratic system as a barrier to it becoming a dangerous country.
“The majority of Europeans endorse Biden’s agenda, but they fear that the divided American nation could prevent Biden from realizing it,” Ivan Krastev, head of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, said in an interview from his office in Sofia, Bulgaria.
On Tuesday, Mr. Krastev and his colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations released a major survey of Europeans that they said showed most people on the continent “do not think [Mr. Biden] can help America make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader.” In a major change of opinion, most Europeans no longer believe Europe should rely on the United States for its defence and believe the U.S. political system is permanently broken.
Leaders and citizens in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere are hedging their bets by looking to China and other non-democratic countries as major partners. This is not because they believe China’s increasingly repressive leadership is a model, but because a totalitarian communist regime appears to be more stable and reliable in the long term than a United States that might be vulnerable to another explosion of self-isolating populist extremism.
That was evident this month as the European Union rushed to conclude a free-trade agreement with China, before Mr. Biden’s inauguration, whose existence could stymie the new President’s efforts to bring dozens of countries together in a multilateral approach to confronting China. In a turn to self-interested realism, the bloc’s 27 countries viewed China and the United States as gambles with equal odds.
This did not go unnoticed by Mr. Biden and his staff. In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Biden strove to win back the world’s affections with a phrase he has used in many speeches over the years: “We’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
It was all too apparent, as his audience departed through a deep security phalanx, that doing so will not be easy or quick.
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