Skip to main content

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.John Minchillo/The Associated Press

The scenes were familiar, even as the location was a shock. Images of a mob of Donald Trump supporters, some of them armed, storming the U.S. Capitol building recalled the type of political unrest that occasionally plagues parts of Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Usually, it’s the U.S. government that leads the calls for calm in such situations, often demanding that all sides respect the result of an election. But on Wednesday, the chaos filling TV screens was emanating from Washington – a fact that generated statements of alarm from U.S. allies, and something bordering on glee from some of the countries used to being on the receiving end of American lectures about democracy.

Veteran diplomats and journalists took to social media to debate which previous crisis was best evoked by the violence at the Capitol building. Did it look most like Baghdad, Belgrade or Bishkek? To some, the anarchic scenes of rioters briefly capturing the heart of U.S. government best mirrored the seizing of government buildings in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, by Russian-backed fighters five years ago.

Trump supporters engage in historic attacks on U.S. democracy on a day reserved to celebrate it

The clearest snapshot of a world turned upside down was provided by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, which reported, while guns were drawn and shots were being fired inside Congress, that “Turkey invites all parties in US to use moderation, common sense to overcome this domestic political crisis.”

The wording wasn’t too different from that used by the U.S. State Department in 2016, in the wake of a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That response infuriated Mr. Erdogan, who saw a U.S. hand behind the move to oust him from power.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, whose country has frequently been the target of U.S. criticism over its lack of democracy, joined the outpouring of officially sanctioned satire with an official statement.

“Venezuela expresses its concern for the violent events that are taking place in the city of Washington, USA; condemns the political polarization and hopes that the American people will open a new path toward stability and social justice.”

In China, where Beijing regularly links democracy with chaos, the violence in Washington underscored a sense that the strength of the world’s pre-eminent superpower is waning.

“The behaviour of Trump supporters shows people that the United States is very fragile,” Zhang Yiwu, a literary scholar at Peking University, wrote on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service. “This event is hugely symbolic.”

A pro-Trump protester carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Roturnda of the U.S. Capitol Building.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, expressed similar sentiments. “The riot and violence at the Capitol serves as a reminder of the level of chaos now taking place in the U.S.,” said Prof. Shi, also an adviser to the State Council of China, the country’s cabinet.

“The fact that Republicans and Trump supporters are publicly protesting in ways that violate the law is a testament to the appalling extent to which American internal politics is divided and chaotic.”

Chinese internet users on Thursday morning jeered the images from the U.S. Capitol as a “beautiful sight,” reprising words from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in June, 2019, described mass protests in Hong Kong as “a beautiful sight to behold.”

A supporter of Donald Trump carries a Confederate battle flag on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol near the entrance to the Senate.MIKE THEILER/Reuters

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, openly compared the tumult in Washington with an occasionally violent revolution in Ukraine seven years ago – an uprising that the Kremlin believes was orchestrated in Washington.

“Quite [the] Maidan-style pictures are coming from DC,” Mr. Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter, referring to the public square in Kyiv that was the hub of the revolution. He went on to joke about whether there would be someone who would “distribute crackers to the protesters,” as U.S. diplomats had delivered food to demonstrators seeking Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.

“My guess is that chances are meagre, there is no US Embassy in Washington!” Mr. Polyanskiy wrote, ending his tweet with a winking emoji.

It wasn’t just Kremlin emissaries who were enjoying the moment. “In Moscow, the night is a festive one,” Elena Chernenko, a journalist with the Kommersant newspaper, wrote on Twitter. “And not only because it is the Orthodox Christmas. Schadenfreude is also a way of happiness.”

There was no such mirth in Western capitals. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who heads a 30-country alliance heavily reliant on U.S. leadership, called the scenes in Washington “shocking” and – referring to Mr. Trump’s election defeat in November at the hands of Joe Biden – added that “the outcome of this democratic election must be respected.”

Supporters of Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber.Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press

Many Western leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, were similarly careful not to point the finger at Mr. Trump – cognizant that the unpredictable President still has two weeks remaining in his term before Mr. Biden’s scheduled inauguration.

“Obviously we’re concerned and we’re following the situation minute by minute,” Mr. Trudeau told Vancouver’s News 1130 radio station. “I think the American democratic institutions are strong, and hopefully everything will return to normal shortly.”

Conservative opposition Leader Erin O’Toole said the scenes at the Capitol building amounted to “an astonishing assault on freedom and democracy.” He added that he was “deeply saddened to see chaos grip our greatest ally today.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a similar tone, saying the storming of Congress had been “disgraceful” and pointing to the importance of the transfer of power to Mr. Biden – but avoiding naming Mr. Trump as the instigator. “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.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – whose government, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, has frequently clashed with Mr. Trump’s administration over issues ranging from refugee issues to military spending – was one of the few to name names.

“The enemies of democracy will find these incredible images from Washington, D.C. pleasing,” he wrote on Twitter. “Trump and his supporters must accept the decision of American voters at last and stop trampling on democracy.”

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was another: “This is an assault on democracy,” he said in a statement. “President Trump and several members of Congress bear substantial responsibility for developments. The democratic election process must be respected.”

With a report from Nathan Vanderklippe in Beijing

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.