When Air Force One swoops into town, everyone stops and stares. Across the world, in friendly and not-so-friendly nations, the majesty of America is unmistakable.
The White House projection of power is unique. It brings its own motorcade and fuel. Its own security. Its own helicopters for local transport.
But above all it brings something that cannot be captured in a photo of the mighty plane or the support staff or even the President.
It brings that inner glow of confidence and vigour that comes not from cold steel, but from an idea: that it is a beacon of democracy and good governance, and recognised as such across the world.
The opening phrase of the preamble to the American Constitution is ‘We the people’.
When Air Force One swoops into town, everyone stops and stares. Across the world, in friendly and not-so-friendly nations, the majesty of America is unmistakable
And for all its massive faults — the wars that should not have been fought, the alliances with dictators, the miscalculations and often sheer ignorance over foreign policy — America has upheld the idea that when the government acts, it does so in the name of its people, with all the democratic restraints and balances that involves.
It is a notion that highlights the difference between power, which is open to abuse, and authority, which confers legitimacy on its actions.
The former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the U.S. the world’s ‘indispensable nation’. She meant that when someone had to take a lead in world affairs, it was always America because of its unique mixture of power and authority.
There is no doubt that after this week’s seismic shock of the scenes on Capitol Hill, America is just as powerful as it was last week.
But does it still have authority — not least in the minds of Xi Jinping of China or Vladimir Putin of Russia, of the leaders of North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world where there is little or no freedom?
The White House projection of power is unique. It brings its own motorcade and fuel. Its own security. Its own helicopters for local transport
They will all now be watching and chuckling. So much for all those lectures about how democracy was superior because it was stronger and more resilient and mature.
Heck, there is even a chain of American clothes stores called Banana Republic, as a kind of running joke aimed at wretched foreigners who live in nations that are not, in Albright’s term, ‘indispensable’.
Overnight, that joke has fallen flat. Around the world, democratic leaders are horrified. Alongside all the condemnation of what happened and the statements of support for U.S. democracy, one intervention stands out — saying out loud what others are thinking behind the scenes.
Poland’s former foreign minister, Oxford-educated Radek Sikorski, tweeted: ‘The U.S. Cabinet should immediately, under the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, declare @realDonaldTrump insane and terminate his presidency.’ And some senior Democrats agree with him.
So much for all those lectures about how democracy was superior because it was stronger and more resilient and mature
It’s probably too late for that to happen. But we can see what Mr Sikorski was thinking.
At least if they got rid of Trump over the next few days, America would have a positive story to tell: we flirted with disaster and then the system saved us.
Assuming that Trump stays in the White House until January 20, and leaves as he seems to be promising to do, the picture is less clear.
America will have a powerful figure in the wings who will be telling the world, loud and clear on any platform he can find, that the election was stolen, that the U.S. is a failed state.
One of the big plus points of democracy — the routinely peaceful and universally acknowledged transfer of power after an election — will be undermined for years to come.
Never mind the gloating autocrats such as Putin and Xi. Can the U.S. remain a beacon for people around the world who want to be free and to choose their own leaders?
Assuming that Trump stays in the White House until January 20, and leaves as he seems to be promising to do, the picture is less clear
The risk is that brave souls living in and fighting against dictatorships simply give up, their determination undermined by the flames they see enveloping the ‘Shining City on the Hill’, as Ronald Reagan used to describe America in relation to the rest of the world.
So here are two big questions. How does this incoming White House, how do all Americans, convince the world they still have authority? And how do they deal with Donald Trump now?
I have long believed that the best outcome for Trump would be an understanding that if he behaved relatively well, he could avoid prosecution and jail. When they chanted ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton at Trump rallies, it felt un-American. They don’t lock up their former leaders.
Now, I am not so sure. They may have to. If not lock him up then at least throw the book at him. For abuse of power in office, for alleged tax fraud, for the whole works.
The problem is that Joe Biden and his deputy, Kamala Harris, need to be able to look the world in the face and say: ‘We are dealing with this.’
They have to lance the Trump boil and suggest with some credibility that American democracy has won the day — that they held a free and fair election in conditions of huge stress and power has been transferred.
But this is about politics as well as process. Many Americans —Republicans as well as Democrats — will insist that the country cannot let Trump, or a member of his family, have a real chance of running again in four years’ time. That door needs to be shut, they will say.
On the other hand, the risk of creating a martyr out of Trump is real. And around the world the act of prosecuting a politician, even one as outlandish as Trump, is a desperately poor look. It positively screams out ‘banana republic’.
Joe Biden will have to strike a fine balance.
America still has so much in its favour — the country’s freedom and openness remain a huge feature of its international appeal and a source of strength, particularly when compared with China and Russia.
But for many around the world now, only concrete actions — leading the fight against the pandemic, supporting democracy, building genuine global friendships — will do, whether or not Trump and his mob are screaming about injustice from the sidelines.
Is America still ‘indispensable’? We are about to find out.