US rivals are looking to use the Capitol siege to their advantage

  • The US's rivals are likely calculating that the US, distracted by the Capitol Siege of January 6, will be ill-equipped to respond to provocations.
  • The thinking likely extends to strategic rivals like Russia and China as well as regional actors and even US allies who want to make moves that the US might otherwise push back on. 
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US adversaries are likely to see the recent Capitol siege as an opportunity to quickly take action against US interests ahead of Inauguration Day, calculating that a distracted Washington will be ill-equipped to respond to provocations that may strengthen their negotiating leverage with President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.

Since January 6, multiple key national security officials have announced their resignations, reducing the cadre of security experts who have longstanding relationships with President Donald Trump.

To avoid anything close to a repeat of the January 6 siege, national security officials in Washington will be laser-focused on guaranteeing the safety of the events surrounding Inauguration Day on January 20, though doing so will risk diverting resources and attention from potential foreign threats.

  • Government officials who have so far resigned in the wake of the January 6 siege include Trump's deputy national security adviser (who is a key China aide), as well as five senior directors at the National Security Council whose areas of responsibility spanned the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, weapons of mass destruction and defense policy. The departures add to a long list of vacancies and turnover that have hobbled the Trump administration.
  • The remaining top officials in the Trump administration will likely spend their final days preoccupied with their own resignation calculus as they weigh their decision against implications for their post-administration employment potential.
  • Leaders in the US Defense Department will also have to confront widespread criticism about the slow mobilization of National Guard units to the Capitol. Officials at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, will have to deal with critiques that they ignored the domestic threat of right-wing violence, which could further shift their attention away from potential foreign threats.

US adversaries have widely characterized the chaos at the Capitol as evidence that Washington does not have the right to lecture other countries about their behavior. They've also claimed false equivalencies between the Capitol rioters and activists in their respective countries to justify their own recent crackdowns on dissent.

Some adversaries are likely to use the Capitol siege as a catalyst to take new malign actions, while others will instead use the events of January 6 to justify their existing destabilizing behavior.

  • Iran, whose aggressive behavior escalated in the first week of the new year, could take a series of steps against the United States, such as conducting more provocative maritime actions in the Persian Gulf or encouraging its proxies to target US forces and interests in the region. Tehran may calculate that there would be little to no cost in doing so, and that such moves could bolster its negotiating power with the incoming Biden administration, which has made clear that it will prioritize negotiations with Iran upon taking office.
  • North Korea, though likely to refrain from any big moves before Biden takes office, could engage in verbal intimidation tactics, particularly if leader Kim Jong Un perceives that even a rhetorical provocation could reinforce his domestic position in the wake of his recently admitted economic failures.
  • China, which has likened the Capitol rioters to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, could use the chaos in the United States to justify further escalating its ongoing crackdown on dissent in the city — drawing baseless parallels between the siege of the US Capitol and the storming of the Hong Kong Legislative Council by protesters in 2019. Beijing could also make a show of force in hotspots like the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait. Chinese state media has widely characterized the Capitol siege as reflecting a failure of the US democratic system, with the Global Times calling it a sign of "internal collapse."
  • Russia, whose politicians and media have reveled in the events of January 6, could make repressive moves at home or provocative actions in various operating theaters abroad, such as in Syria or Ukraine. Russian naval or air assets could also probe defenses near sensitive areas like the North Atlantic or Alaska. Russian leaders have eagerly used the violence at the Capitol to lampoon American democracy and portray the events as the clearest sign the United States should not dictate global norms.
  • Even US allies, such as Egypt and Israel, could make destabilizing moves in the coming days, as they believe they are likely to face little resistance from a more sympathetic Trump administration compared with its imminent successor. Cairo could escalate its domestic repression before a more skeptical US administration takes over, while Israeli politicians may pledge to annex or construct more settlements in Palestinian territory, particularly as Israel enters a new election season that will empower nationalists.

Over the longer term, US adversaries will likely leverage the events of January 6 to thwart the Biden administration's efforts to reinvigorate democracy promotion abroad, enforce global norms and penalize bad behavior, as well as broader efforts to rehabilitate American credibility and influence on the world stage.

Adversaries are also likely to consider how they can exploit the extreme societal divisions on display on January 6, including via further online disinformation efforts, some of which helped spur the Capitol siege in the first place.

Numerous US adversaries — ranging from superpower competitors like China and Russia, to regional actors such as Iran and North Korea, and even local ones like Belarus and Zimbabwe — have publicly portrayed the Capitol siege as proof that the United States is unfit to lead the world. The violence at the Capitol will also feed revisionist narratives from countries such as China and Russia that the US-led Western system of democracy is inherently flawed compared with the governance and alleged stability of authoritarian regimes.

  • In a social media post, the leader of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian legislature's upper house wrote: "The celebration of democracy has ended. It has, unfortunately, hit rock bottom … America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it. And, even more so, to impose it on others."
  • Zimbabwe's president has also called for an end to sanctions on his country, saying that the United States has "no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy."

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