World leaders are aghast at ‘disgraceful scenes’ of Trump supporters storming U.S. Capitol

January 6, 2021, 11:07 PM UTC

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 around 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.”

On Thursday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech that the images of the scene “angered and saddened me”, and added that she was “certain that American democracy will prove much stronger than the invaders and rioters.” French president Emmanuel Macron also released a statement, tweeting “We believe in democracy” and declaring that the siege on Congress was “not American.”

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 Jean-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.

The sentiment of European officials echoed on the other side of the globe on Thursday, as leaders there started their days.

“Like so many others, I’ve been watching what’s happening in the United States. I share the sentiment of friends in the U.S.—what is happening is wrong,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tweeted. She said she was “devastated” by the events in Washington, adding: “I have no doubt democracy will prevail.”

Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the scene at the Capitol “very distressing” and said he looked forward to “a peaceful transfer of government to the newly elected administration in the great American democratic tradition.”

New Zealand and Australia are key U.S. allies because they make up the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance along with the U.K. and Canada.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had an especially friendly relationship with Trump; they share nationalist tendencies and a strongman appeal and held parallel rallies for one another during Trump’s presidency. But Modi too was quick to condemn the Capitol riots put on by Trump supporters. “Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue,” he tweeted. “The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests.”

By mid-day Thursday, there was no official response from the U.S.’s chief geopolitical rival, China, but some state-run media outlets covered the developments, including the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid backed by China’s Communist Party. It published a story on how Chinese social media users were relishing the turmoil in the U.S., in part, because they saw it as payback for Americans’ support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Chinese state media has long highlighted tumultuous events in American politics to advance its narrative that China’s political system is more stable than the U.S.’s, as evidenced by China’s relative containment of COVID-19, the George Floyd protests that engulfed U.S. cities this summer, and now by Washington’s unrest.