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Guest: Moisés Naím, internationally-syndicated columnist, best-selling author, and TV host

Was the U.S. Capitol assault an attempted coup? Yes – but what comes next matters more.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was a national disgrace that upended America’s predictably peaceful transitions of power. It also unleashed widespread debate over classification as a coup – or if the attack was a riot, uprising, and insurrection – as U.S. citizens received a crash course on Latin America’s history of “self-coups” and worldwide assaults against democracy.

Semantics and academic distinctions aside, the hard part is just beginning, as the United States seeks to find the right balance between justice and peace. Moisés Naím, the internationally-syndicated columnist, best-selling author, and distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, joins Altamar to explain how U.S. democracy could recover – and the ongoing risks at home and abroad. Naím is the host and producer of “Efecto Naím,” an Emmy-winning international affairs program, and was also the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine for fourteen years. Naím’s experience in public service includes his tenure as Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry in the early 1990s, director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and executive director of the World Bank.

The U.S. stands to learn from how other countries reacted to attacks on democracy and amid massive divisions: truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa; restorative justice in Colombia; free speech limitations in Germany; and legalistic prosecutions in Spain’s Cataluña. According to Naím, striking a balance is one of the hardest parts: “If you try to make justice, then you may be stoking violence and making peace and unity more difficult. If you move completely on the side of unity, then you may be undermining justice…that tension is going to be with the U.S. in months to come.”

Then there’s the question of who precisely should face justice for the Capitol attack. “I have no doubt that it was a coup,” says Naím. Yet, he points out the anomaly of it being so transparent: “Every day we woke up to the news that…President Trump and his allies in Congress and in the Republican Party were attempting again to undermine and negate the will of the people.” As he points out, “it’s very easy to say those who broke the law should be tried and pay the consequences of their actions…what is more controversial is how are you going to treat the four years of the Trump Administration? Are you going to dig out all of the malfeasance?”

According to Naím, the attack should serve as a wake-up call: “The United States surely needs renewal, reforms and rethinking of a lot of its institutions and democracy…The metaphor is a person that survived a heart attack and then develops very good habits in terms of health and nutrition and exercise as a result of the scare.” The incoming Biden Administration offers that hope: “The Biden people know that they have two short years [before midterm elections] to move forward deeply in the reforms that are needed,” says Naím, but “It is urgent that this becomes a cause not for President Biden alone, but it becomes a social, national kind of movement.”

That might be too optimistic: “It can go in the other way, it can go in the way of division…and the country continues to be fragmented, paralyzed, and polarized,” says Naím. And, he argues that the United States has a history of overreacting in times of difficulty, making matters worse: “Whenever there are major tectonic events, like 9/11, or during the financial crisis of 2008, 2009, the common pattern is overreaction, where the reaction of the U.S. government ends up having more consequences…more permanent effects than the fact or the event that triggered it.”

Regardless, the United States clearly has some deep soul-searching ahead: “You need to deal with symptoms, of course, but then you need in a medium-long run, to do things that will deal with the root causes, the underlying conditions that create this wave of nativism, of violence.” According to Naím, one government tool is a fact-finding mission: “There’s already calls for a 9/11-like commission…to understand the causes and dissect what really happened.”

The repercussions of the U.S. Capitol attack won’t just be felt at home – it could also undermine America’s strength abroad: “The question now is not if the United States is a good partner; the question is for how long?” says Naím. “Allies will move forward in strengthening alliances with the U.S., but in the back of their minds, there will always be the need to have escape clauses, making sure that you’re not betting the house on a partner that has gone a little bit crazy.”

Authoritarians will also feel emboldened to cloak themselves in the guise of democracy, says Naím, whereby “you still try to present yourself to the world as a democracy, but in your daily practices, you are an autocracy.” According to Naím, the anti-democratic model is available for export too: “We have seen both China and Russia trying to recruit nations to their camp in terms of developing a shared front…Globally, there is an all-out war on checks and balances everywhere.”

Find out more about what’s next after the U.S. Capitol assault, available for download here.

Image Source: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

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Episode 92