During Thailand’s political crisis in 2013-14, US Secretary of State John Kerry was a frequent commentator. After violence occurred in February, Kerry declared: “Violence is not an acceptable means of resolving political differences. We are also concerned by the employment of other tactics that undermine Thailand’s democratic values and processes.”
In the wake of the 2014 military coup, Kerry again did not mince words. “I am disappointed by the decision of the Thai military to suspend the constitution and take control of the government after a long period of political turmoil,” he said, “and there is no justification for this military coup.”
And so it was with a little surreality to read, a little under seven years later, a tweet (later deleted) from a spokesman at Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “I am saddened by the violence and the fatality that took place on the Capitol Hill today. I expect that law and order will prevail and the democratic transfer of power will proceed as expected.”
Words typically reserved for American diplomats counseling calm in developing countries have had to be used in reference to the United States itself.
That is stunning, to put it lightly.
The peaceful and democratic transfer of power — a hallmark of American political traditions and an example sought for emulation by so many other nations — came under unprecedented strain. Indeed, as David Frum wrote in The Atlantic, this is the first time since the Civil War that this transition cannot be described as peaceful.
For that reason, a country that typically lectures others on democracy now find others rushing to ensure America can sustain its own.
The shining city on a hill? Well, yes — everyone in the world will have seen the photos of a lit-up Capitol Hill being suffocated by tear gas as police were overrun by a mob determined to overturn an election.
Many Thai observers of American politics have felt that the United States has followed what seems like an eerily familiar story over the past few years, months and weeks. Deepening polarization? A populist, billionaire “outsider” who wants to make his country great again? Or whispers of martial law? Now the storming of a parliament? The fit isn’t perfect, but the characters and the plotlines are there.
But America still follows Thailand’s footsteps only so far.
Where the Thai political system, in which democracy has not taken strong roots even after ninety years of experimentation, collapsed into a series of coups, unending protests and now a seemingly permanent state of semi-authoritarianism, the US system has, for now, held.
Even as people gasped at the sight of a protestor sitting in Vice President Mike Pence’s chair in the Senate chamber, let us also pay attention to the fact that a few hours later, Pence resumed his seat. Congress then proceeded to certify the US election results, formally ensuring that Joe Biden will become the next president.
That says almost as much about the state of American democracy as the chaos that took place earlier.
True, Trump’s coup attempt has been an incompetent spectacle. His ridiculous court attempts were overturned, his most powerful allies ditched him, and even Twitter finally denied him a bully pulpit to continue exhorting his revolutionaries.
As a Thai citizen living in a country where coups have been elevated to an art form has said: “Trump is very shit at coup.”
But just because Trump is very bad at orchestrating a coup and overturning democracy does not negate the extraordinary fact that American democracy, in the end, survived intense and sustained efforts to batter the system into submission. The democratic transfer of power will still occur.
As Pete Sweeney, a columnist for Reuters, argued: “US institutions managed out an unpopular leader, rebalanced against party extremists through legal process. The military stayed on the sidelines.”
Compare that, he says, to China, which has “not figured out the art of the peaceful interregnum”, where the ascension of Xi Jinping required mass imprisonments.
Undoubtedly, American democracy is weakened. But today shows that the underlying resiliency of American institutions is strong. Respect for constitutionalism, the rule of law, democratic principles: all have been shaken. But for now, they survive. That is a remarkable feat. Even if our faith in American democracy has decreased, we can still admire its tenacity.
In a country with thirteen successful coups to date, it could even be something to learn from.
Of course, this is not meant to sound too congratulatory at a solemn juncture in history. While American democracy survived because of its strong norms, everybody will inevitably pay more attention to the fact that its body politic is ill.
One can hardly blame people around the world for focusing less on America’s institutional resiliency and more on the public battering its political system took. Many will see how democracy came close to failing even in the Great Republic itself. What hypocrisy is it then that America expects it to survive and thrive in other countries? That will still be the key message that people around the world, including in Thailand, take.
Indeed, the damage to the ideal of democracy has been done. American democracy survived, but it was visibly battered by “the leader of the free world” and his allies. That will embolden autocrats worldwide.
Already, Chinese state media is gleefully discussing American “karma.”
Who, now, will see America as a model? When the future Secretary of State Anthony Blinken inevitably makes a statement about how troubled he is about some problem with Thai democracy, who will listen?
And the tale is hardly finished. Trump still has almost two weeks left in office — plenty of time to inflict further damage to the institutional integrity of the United States. He also leaves a playbook for future would-be authoritarians. Are American institutions truly resilient enough to withstand a second coup attempt, organized by a more competent figure?
Benjamin Franklin was once asked if America was to be a monarchy or a republic. He had answered: “a republic, if you can keep it.”
For now, America’s institutions are strong enough to keep their republic going. But should they decline further, officials and diplomats around the world may find that they have more statements to write.