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Transatlantic Take: Berlin, Rome, Warsaw, Ankara

The View of the January 6 Hearings

August 04, 2022

The hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol have captivated the public and drawn huge media attention in the United States. The testimony of witnesses who were present on the day and of those close to former president Donald Trump’s inner circle has painted an increasingly detailed picture of the chain of events and decisions leading to the unprecedented violent attack on the legislative branch of the US government. For American commentators who have been warning about the deterioration of democracy in their country, this has reinforced their calls for a full accounting of this historic event and for making those responsible accountable.

Below, GMF analysts say how the January 6 hearings have been followed in four close transatlantic allies of the United States: Germany, Italy, Poland, and Türkiye. While the hearings have made headlines in these countries, the attention paid has not been as high as might have been expected and the reactions of their political class have varied. In Ankara, Rome, and Warsaw, the focus is almost fully on domestic politics with different elections looming, leaving little time for worrying about US politics.

In each country, there has been consternation about the details surrounding the attack on the Capitol and what it means for US democracy. But different political actors—based on their respective calculations—are not letting this change their views of what they want or expect to get from their country’s relations with Washington. Not least in case of another presidential term by Trump or a similar politician after 2024. Even in Germany, where faith in its credibility and stability has been most shaken perhaps, the United States is still seen as a “reliable partner under stress”—for now at least.  

Germany

by James D. Bindenagel

Donald Trump’s presidency shook Germany’s trust in the United States’ security guarantee in the context of NATO. His trade policy and US sanctions on China also rattled Germany’s export markets, the basis of the country’s prosperity. The domestic politics in the United States were also disquieting as, since 1945, democracy has been deeply embedded within Germany’s relationship with the country, which has brought it a more extended peace and greater prosperity than at any time in its history.

The media, government, and opposition have followed the January 6 hearings in great detail, with every twist and turn a topic for discussions. As Germans watched the hearings, they have wondered if Germany can count on the United States as it struggles to keep its democracy. With US states suppressing the vote and courts gutting the precedence of earlier decisions, they ask themselves whether institutions like Congress and the courts can sustain the constitution, and whether the coup plotters will evade the rule of law.

The frequent question is whether the United States will continue to be a full-fledged democracy and the worry is that Trump or another authoritarian will be elected president. Germans asked whether the rule of law would prevail when the committee revealed that Trump did “everything in his power to overturn the election” that he lost to Joe Biden. While politicians express hope in US resilience in the wake of the deadly Capitol attack, the uncertainty about whether the Department of Justice will bring criminal charges is a cause of doubt. Also concerning to Germans is that in a democracy a leading party dominated by a white, Christian nationalist minority could win elections, which they see in the context of the homegrown threat of the right-wing movement Alternative für Deutschland that has won seats in the Germany’s parliament.  

In the summer of 2022, Germans see the United States as a country under stress, with the future of its democracy at stake. It is perhaps surprising therefore that 30 percent of respondents in a June poll said the United States was a very reliable partner while 53 percent said it was somewhat reliable. That poll can be seen in the context of the Biden administration standing up to Russia over its war in Ukraine. However, such trust in the United States could be tested if Trump or a like-minded autocrat wins the presidential election in 2024.

Italy

by Dario Cristiani

Italy’s outgoing government has had a very close relationship with the Biden administration, with both sides having an iron commitment to Ukraine and converging on many issues from China to multilateralism. However, some of the political forces of the large and diversified majority that has supported Italy’s government—such as the League and the Five-Star Movement—also had significant ties with the Trump administration.

Italy’s political world and public opinion are paying very little attention to the January 6 hearings as the country is now engaged in a polarized campaign for early parliamentary elections in September. While the relationship with the United States and foreign policy are a major element of the campaign, unlike in the past when the public focused mostly on economic and domestic issues, the discussion on the hearings in Washington has been limited to specific circles that follow US and international politics professionally.

Italy’s alliances and belonging in the transatlantic partnership has become a topic of debate in the campaign. The Democratic Party, several smaller centrist parties, and the right-wing Brothers of Italy are staunch in their support for the United States. The Five-Star Movement and the League have a more nuanced approach. However, the right-wing Brothers of Italy and League have some connections with Trump’s world. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, has often expressed admiration for the former US president. His counterpart in the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, who is the rising star of Italian politics, has participated twice in the US Conservative Political Action Conference. The Five-Star Movement’s leader, Giuseppe Conte, was prime minister when Trump was in office and considered somehow close to him. Conte received an endorsement of sorts from Trump at the time of the negotiations for the formation of a new government in the summer of 2019. For some Italian newspapers, the trips to Italy by Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr, in 2019 and the help given to him by the government in relation to the Russiagate investigations went beyond mere courtesy between two allied countries.

No party and political leader has openly commented on the January 6 hearings, reflecting how their priorities lie elsewhere these days. But those considered closer to Trump likely also want to avoid taking a position as this might either damage their reputation at home or their relations with the former president and his entourage.

Poland

by Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska

Close relations with the United States have been a cornerstone of Poland’s foreign and security policy since the 1990s. Every government tries to forge close ties with Washington and to secure new bilateral agreements. While the Donald Trump years hurt transatlantic relations, Poland was the exception, with the most favorable views of Trump and of the United States among European countries. The government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party secured an increase in the number of US troops stationed in Poland and visa-free travel for Poles to the United States. Its alliance with Trump also had an anti-EU dimension, with both having tense relations with the EU. As long as bilateral relations were good, the government did not seem worried about Trump’s threats to pull the United States out of NATO. And the feeling was mutual.

Meanwhile, over the past five years, the ruling coalition has systemically undermined the rule of law in Poland and established tight control over judicial institutions and the public broadcaster. There were flagrant problems with the presidential election of 2020, including abuse of state resources and biased media coverage by the public broadcaster. Trump overlooked these issues and the US ambassador at the time said: “do I think that a lot of the attacks on Poland about democratic values is overblown, my answer is yes, I do”.

Against this backdrop, Polish state-controlled media and government officials have stayed silent as the January 6 hearings have showed how close US democracy came to the brink of collapse. The hearings have not garnered a lot of attention in the mainstream media, with the reporting factual and devoid of commentary. Criticizing Trump would mean criticizing the policy of PiS. Brushing over the state of US democracy also has a military explanation. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Poland’s priority has been to increase NATO’s military presence on its eastern flank and to enhance the military relationship with the United States. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the number of US troops in Poland has increased. From the government’s perspective, questioning the standing of the United States in the world at this point in time could play into President Vladimir Putin’s hands and confirm his “decline of the West” theory, jeopardize US good feelings toward Poland, and make Poles feel insecure. PiS’s muted response could also be because it is thinking Trump might be re-elected in 2024 and does not want antagonize him, or the Republican Party more generally as it takes a strong line on supporting Ukraine.

By contrast, the opposition and independent media have responded with shock and surprise to the January 6 hearings. Given the fragility of Polish democracy after two terms of the PiS-led government, they are worried about state of democracy in their country, the United States, and the world. Trump’s assault on democracy hits only too close to home.

Türkiye

by Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı

While the Turkish-US relationship has been declining for well over a decade (with a few train wrecks avoided along the way), the relationship between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump was much better. This is not to say that during the latter’s presidency there were no major setbacks, such as the detention of the American Pastor Andrew Brunson that led to Trump initiating a currency shock in Türkiye with a Twitter message, or that Trump did not end up sanctioning the country over its purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. But the US president publicly praised Erdoğan and was always available to talk to him whenever there was a need or request from Ankara. Trump also did not make the situation of democracy in Türkiye an issue in relations.

Erdoğan’s relationship with President Joe Biden is a mirror image of that with Trump. During the US presidential primaries in 2020, Biden said that, if elected, he would work with the Turkish opposition to remove Erdoğan from office. The Turkish president for his part publicly communicated his preference for Trump. When Biden was elected, Erdoğan made a point of not making a congratulatory call for several days. Biden later in turn made a point of not having time whenever Erdoğan wanted to meet him. And, unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration has been vocal about its perceptions of the state of democracy in Türkiye. It also acted very distantly toward Ankara until the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and then Russia’s invasion Ukraine, two developments that reminded Washington that it needs to pay attention to the country.

Against this background, little attention has been paid to the January 6 hearings in Türkiye. Media coverage has been limited to a few news stories without any commentary. Politicians on the government and opposition sides also do not seem to have taken notice of the hearings. This is also telling as to how much Türkiye has turned inward as a result of severe economic difficulties and regional security challenges in Syria and Ukraine, among others, and of a crucially important general election scheduled for June 2023.