The Doorstep: Capitol Chaos, Power Vacuums, & a Global Reckoning

January 8, 2021

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome. This is The Doorstep. I'm Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow at Carnegie Council.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good morning. I'm Nick Gvosdev, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, and co-host of The Doorstep. Welcome to 2021.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What a week it has been, Nick. In our last episode of 2020 we made some predictions for 2021, anticipating lots of changes in our administration and how that is going to connect the world to everyday concerns of our listeners and U.S. citizens and how we are going to get through 2021 with a new administration and a new philosophy.

I don't think any of us, though, expected what happened this week, neither here in the United States or abroad. I am wondering, as we look forward to the next couple of weeks and take this day by day, what do you think the world is saying after what happened at the Capitol? We began looking at China and Russia in the early days of The Doorstep and how they were looking at our elections and anticipating a potential changeover in power, but I don't think either of them expected what happened this week, do you?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think everyone was taken by surprise by what happened. Normally the certification of the Electoral College voting, which is done once the new Congress has been sworn in, is a nondescript event. Until this year, I think most people were unaware of the process, and it did not have much of an impact. There was certainly in 2005 a little bit of an issue regarding Ohio, and then of course there were protests in 2017, but the idea of the Capitol being essentially stormed by protesters, or, as some people are calling them, insurrectionists, to try to force a change in essence to the election, which is to have the election overturned or to at least send it back to the states or rerun it—this is a consequential shift.

I know there are some people saying, "Well, this is just theater, and this past year has been a year of protests," but this is one of those guardrail moments. We talk about "guardrails" that keep a democratic system in check and keep it functioning, and this was a breach of those.

There are two connections to The Doorstep as well that I think are very important as we move forward. The first is a piece that appeared today in Foreign Policy by Emma Ashford. She looked at what happened on Wednesday and said we need to refocus how we do foreign policy. The United States is going to be promoting all of this change overseas while its domestic institutions may be a lot weaker and more hollowed out than we think they are. She doesn't use the term "doorstep," but it is implied that we have to come back and look at our own system.

Another thing comes to the mission of The Doorstep. What was striking reading some of the media accounts of people who were embedded with the protesters—insurrectionists, rioters, or whatever; of course all of these terms are now being thrown out and used—was that in the past we used to assume that we could have debates because we were all working off the same set of facts. We might disagree about the interpretation of those facts, we might disagree about the implications, we might disagree about solutions. But we all were observing the same reality.

Reading and listening to some of the reporting coming out from what happened at the Capitol from the people who were there is that they and the people inside the chamber and the people who disagree with them were no longer operating off of a single set of facts. We are operating in essence in different news and media realities, and in turn that is leading to a sense where people are moving away from "I want to have facts communicated to me" to "This is what I feel, and what I feel becomes reality." That has real implications for domestic policy, foreign policy, and the like. Our mandate here at The Doorstep is to connect international and global news to the doorstep, but it is also about ensuring that people get a slice of what is actually happening and that we are operating off of that phrase.

Finally, going back to your point that we opened The Doorstep looking at other major powers—we have been looking at Russia, we have been looking at China—Al-Monitor's story on the reaction in Turkey is quite instructive. The piece in Al-Monitor today was essentially the schadenfreude in Turkey of saying: "America, your democracy is not as strong as you would like everyone to think. Your example perhaps is not one that should be followed." Indeed there is a sense of: "Now you're getting to experience a bit of what the United States in its foreign policy has been a little too cavalier in doing over the last couple of decades," which is, you're seeing the results of what happens when you have domestic foment.

Let me end on one last point—and this goes back to Emma Ashford's piece—which is that I hope that some of the policymakers moving forward will have a greater sense of humility. I opened one of my classes yesterday by saying that every American who has chuckled tonight—I include myself as part of that. I have always chuckled over the last number of years watching some of the antics that occurred in La Rada in Ukraine, whether it was the smoke bombs, egging the speaker, or fistfights. Between what happened in the Capitol and what happened in the session of Congress yesterday, where we almost had fisticuffs, is a reminder, as my colleague Andrew Michta likes to say, that we don't necessarily have the moral standing to lecture others about how they conduct their democracy or how they conduct their democratic procedures. I would hope that particularly the new team coming in with the Biden administration has a dose of humility about America's ability to lecture or to say, "Here is the model that we want you to follow."

Sorry. A long mouthful of things, but I am also interested, Tatiana, in your reactions.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You bring up a host of issues, and I guess I will start off with the last point and then move through many of your points, because I do think they are all important, and we have been talking about them through the fall and will continue this spring. I am really excited with our line-up.

First and foremost is, what is America's role in the world, and what do we as U.S. citizens expect to be when we go out there, when we can finally travel? How people are going to look and react to us is so important. To your point, the Turkish papers, lots of the papers had lots of comments. Many leaders in Europe came out saying, "We can't believe this is happening," in different words, all the European and Latin American papers using words from "protest" to "mob violence" to "insurrection," but everybody expressing concern about the state of our democracy and our leadership role in the world.

I saw a lot of tweets from Chinese papers and diplomats saying: "Wow! You lectured us about Hong Kong? Here, come give us some advice when you are coming in." Of course, many people were pointing out that what happened in Hong Kong was protesters asking for legitimate elections, not insurrectionists, if you will, trying to overturn a legitimate election.

But I do think that China now—and we talked about it through the fall—has taken strong positions in Latin America and Africa. It has a vaccine that Venezuela just tested that is super-effective and that is expected to be given out in Third World countries where Europe and the United States have not stepped up and have been very insular in taking their vaccines.

So China is taking the lead in saying "Ha ha!" from what I'm reading: "Look at you lecturing us about our system and lecturing us about what's happening in Hong Kong. Well, who is having super-raves in China right now? Who has the virus under control?" Frankly, the citizens are letting this Chinese state control and surveillance take over a little bit.

I do want to mention since we are talking about China the fact that super-billionaire Jack Ma from Alibaba disappeared from view right before he was supposed to take his Ant Group public because of comments he made. The Chinese do have super-control, and their economy is set to surpass the U.S. economy. I think what has happened in the United States has put a dim light on our leadership in the world. We talked about how China had taken that leadership role in the fall, and maybe 2021 is the year of China.

I want to lead with that and say the same comments were coming out of countries like Venezuela and Russia in particular, all saying: "Ha ha! You said the same thing to us about Maidan." Of course, Ukraine is a totally separate country. Russia still thinks it belongs to them. Why they made the Maidan reference is beyond me, but they did.

So I do think we enter 2021 weaker relative to these powers that are economically surpassing us, leadership-wise surpassing us, and disinformation-wise surpassing us in Russia's case. I don't know that, with this power vacuum that is being created, all of these officials stepping down—as of this morning I just saw two cabinet officials and a host of national security advisors and other advisors, press secretaries, stepping down, but who knows what we will see in the coming weeks? Will we see the president impeached?

This period of time is creating I think instability also as the world looks at us. Why does our transfer of power take so long? In the United Kingdom the next government steps in the next day. I think this power vacuum is truly problematic and something we didn't anticipate in the fall when we were talking about all of these countries and their rise.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's a great point, talking about the power vacuum, Tatiana. Again I think a lot of people don't focus on that. Even in the best of times the way that the United States structures its transitions is very chaotic. It leaves gaps. It leaves a whole host of issues.

With all of these Trump appointees stepping down and resigning, you're saying: "Well, what does it matter? It's 13 days before the inauguration." Except they are not there. When the Biden people start coming in—and as you said, Biden won't have a government fully staffed and ready to go on January 20. It's going to take months. Meanwhile, the caretakers from the Trump administration that would be expected to continue that are leaving or stepping down. We are seeing these resignations in the National Security Council staff and obviously several cabinet secretaries stepping down. That is part of the normal process, but those next levels of people exiting early leads to that degree of instability.

There is a reason I think why the Europeans and Chinese concluded their trade agreement and wanted to wrap it up by December 30 after taking several years to negotiate it. There is that sense of locking it in.

But again, I think also this idea—and this comes back to the coverage—is that it is not simply "Oh, this was a disturbing event," and some of the pictures obviously are quite striking—some of the people who were involved in the rush on the Capitol were certainly colorful characters to say the least—but again the longer-term impacts, which then have doorstep implications.

Interestingly enough, the currency markets took this in stride. It was, "All right, this is an incident," but they are looking at questions of: Well, with the Senate now being under Democratic control as well are we going to see a new stimulus pass, are we going to see more economic assistance and the like, and what will that do to consumption and helping people?

But over time these things again erode those invisible or not-to-the-surface issues of: Well, am I going to pay a higher rate on my mortgage? Am I going to be able to refinance my car? What's the availability of credit if I want to borrow to restart a business or get a business going again? All these things over time, if you have people looking and saying the United States is kind of absent, the United States looks a little more unstable, these are bit-by-bit things that happen, that Greek proverb of, "Bean by bean, the sack is filled." As you keep having these little incidents and people say, "Well, what does it matter?" Over time they can become an issue, and then suddenly five or ten years down the road, when people say: "Well, wait a minute. Why are the interest rates so high?" Well, we're borrowing a lot more and borrowers want to have a higher interest rate because they don't trust that the American currency is going to be worth as much as it was in the past or things like that.

So again, I think connecting this, why this matters. Part of what we're trying to do with The Doorstep but also what we are in our small way trying to do is to prod policymakers and politicians—you need to make these things more explicit in your statements, in how you communicate with your constituents. Yes, there are consequences when these things happen, and these are not just consequences that happen far away. They are consequences that come back to you ultimately.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Although I think what you are saying is super-interesting, I want to read you a quote from an analyst: "Markets see the U.S. government as ultimately a stable-enough set of institutions even if things go occasionally pear-shaped. Politics plays second fiddle to economic and corporate fundamentals when it comes to setting asset prices. The country's economic future coming out of the pandemic remains promising."

Yesterday and today markets opened higher, not just in the United States but around the world, so it will be interesting to see as we go into 2021 and keep discussing the world and the impact here at home, that this idea that people are hopeful that the pandemic will be managed, that the vaccine rollout, though slow, is happening around the world, that even though Tokyo is locked down and the United Kingdom is locked down, the vaccines are here, and they are getting disseminated, and even though we as policy wonks are completely paranoid about what happened this week in Washington, DC, over on Wall Street there is optimism. I do want to make sure that we balance those two issues. A lot of people saying because nobody went anywhere there is a lot of savings around and that once people can get back out there we will rebound.

Although we are a little doom-and-gloomy I do want to throw that in. We are talking about Korea, Japan, the world indices are up. Elon Musk just beat Bezos as the world's richest person. It is interesting to see that this elevation is going up, although you can also counter it and say: "Well, wait a minute. Is it also a disconnect between the haves and the have-nots?" That is something we have talked about at The Doorstep, that there is this element of people who aren't being uplifted, either politically or economically, and maybe this is why we are seeing these protests and this insurrection, that there is this element—economic, racial—of people dissatisfied and unheard, both here in the United States and around the world.

We talked with Nahal Toosi in one episode about Europe's refugee crisis, and certainly there is a whole host of problems around the world with underserved citizens that I think we need to look at as we go forward in 2021. Though it appears that the markets are positive, there are issues we need to look at that we have spoken about at The Doorstep—food insecurity around the world and other economic issues that you alluded to in the long term that might change once we realize how much it costs us to give those $2,000 stimulus checks.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that ties into something we tweeted out on The Doorstep podcast Twitter account a few days ago, the Andrew Michta article about the pandemic opening up these cleavages between haves and have-nots, between those who are prospering or who have found a way to make the pandemic storm "blow their windmill" and those that instead have had that storm blow their house down. How do governments respond? How do politics respond? Do people feel that the system in whatever country is responsive to their needs, and how does that play out?

That comes back again to the importance of good information. You need to have a sense of: Well, what is actually happening? Is it reliable? Has it been sourced correctly? Is it skewed, or is it based on "Well, this is what I feel to be true" as opposed to "This is what I have observed to be true?"

Again, these are issues that are going to last beyond what happened this week. I do think there is some element of irrational exuberance that somehow after the inauguration a lot of things go back to "normal." We will see. I think the new administration and the new Congress are going to have a lot of their plates, and we will see how they are able to cope with it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do want to end with your idea that facts are not always the same to people looking at them, and it is one of the issues I do want to look at as we go into our spring term, this idea that Judah Grunstein said in our last episode in 2020 of the "splinternet" and how technology and cable shows have allowed us to have these alternate realities.

I think what we saw this week might be a changing of perceptions with Facebook and Zuckerberg locking out Trump from his Facebook and Instagram, Twitter locking Trump out for 12 hours at least initially and then becoming more aggressive about their rules and regulations of how people communicate on their platforms. Now people are questioning cable companies and why they allow right-wing media like One America News Network or Newsmax to produce the content they do. With the Democrats now holding both houses and the presidency will there be more regulation on cable news companies and on tech companies?

What will happen in 2021 is something we started to talk about, but it also has implications for our First Amendment rights and for free speech around the world, and I think 2021 is going to be a big year for free speech movements and for our discussion of what is the responsibility of tech and what is the responsibility of media companies overall to this idea of free speech versus true information. I think this is what is going to be important as we go forward: Do you give platforms to rulers?

It is not just here in the United States; it's around the world. It goes back to how we started our discussion today: What is the U.S. role around the world? Do we still have that moral authority to say: "Well, yes, free speech is important, yet, oh, I'm going to lock you out of your Twitter account." I think these are important issues that we are going to continue to talk about throughout this next cycle of The Doorstep, important issues to our listeners.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You have talked about using your Gen Z students as the vanguard of this: How do they communicate? Where do they get information from? To what extent are these platforms private business entities that can regulate? To what extent are they now becoming utilities? We used to have doctrines about regulating the airwaves, public access, and the responsibility of broadcast outlets to make sure that a wide variety of voices were represented. Are we going to see something similar here?

Also, this idea of who regulates speech, who creates the guardrails of what is considered acceptable—when does it tip over into incitement, riot, hatred, and therefore becomes a danger? I think again we are going to have lots of these issues to look at.

Coming back to the Gen Z question, how are they going to react in a post-Trump era? For Gen Z Donald Trump is their first president. They perhaps have some memory of the second term of the Obama administration, but this group has really started to come to political maturity in the age of Donald Trump. What will that mean? We have seen some disturbing surveys that support for democracy drops the younger you go and support for free speech drops in younger cohorts. What does that mean for an informed citizenry that is expecting to take part in politics? Will we see youth engagement continue?

I know you and Tom Nichols, who was our guest on the fourth Doorstep, went back and forth on this, the level to which youth engagement is increasing or not increasing. The Biden administration at the top is Boomer-heavy perhaps, but what will be happening not simply at the federal level but at the local and state levels of new generations of people coming in, and again, where are they drawing their news, what are they seeing as the critical issues, and, coming back to this last question, what role do they think America should be playing in the world?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think we will be looking at that throughout the course of this next few months. We are starting out with Ash Jain from the Atlantic Council talking to us about building new transatlantic relationships and which countries are going to rise over the next few months as the United States takes on a new president, new leadership, new ideologies, and new philosophies.

I am excited to see how this pans out and to talk with you, our listeners. Please visit us on our Twitter feed and tell us what you think and what you want to hear from us over the next few months.

Thank you, Nick.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

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