The Future of Global Democracy is in Danger. What’s the Way Out for Biden and Others?

The Biden administration has undoubtedly stated its foreign policy vision that democracy and autocracy are locked in a battle that must be won.

“I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy because that is what is at stake,” President Biden said in his first news conference.

With that focus in mind, this coming week, the administration will hold the first in a series of two summits on democracy.

According to a State Department announcement, the virtual gathering of leaders is intended to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.”

This show is inherently anti-authoritarian, especially against China.

Although, organizing such a gathering is a good idea for many reasons.

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It is smart for politics, further, it fulfills a campaign promise and also counters President Donald Trump’s perception that the United States has stopped caring about democracy and human rights.

But this will division of the world into democracies and autocracies isn’t only impractical as a geopolitical tool, it’s also deeply flawed as a guiding principle for American foreign policy.

Although Biden has denounced China and Russia for the weakening of democracies around the world, they are not the main culprits. Recent studies indicate that much of the backsliding has occurred in a number of democratic countries, among them is the United States and many of its allies. As a matter of fact, several countries on the upcoming summit have been marked by growing autocratic movements and infringements of freedom of expression. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reform these and other countries’ electoral, judicial, and political systems from the outside.

American presidents have made democracy promotion an integral part of their foreign policy before and will do so in the future. Woodrow Wilson wanted to create an environment where democracy could be safe. As part of the establishment of the Community of Democracies, the Clinton administration was present. During his presidency, George W. Bush advocated for the removal of dictators. So, many past presidents found democracy promotion was found to be an effective tool for advancing U.S. values and interests.

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Biden appears to genuinely think that democracy and dictatorship are fighting for control of the 21st century on a do-or-die basis. In spite of his claims that he does not want another cold war, some of his overheated rhetoric seems to contradict this. Biden announced in March that he intends “to invite an alliance of democracies to come here to discuss the future,” including holding “China accountable to follow the rules” regarding issues such as the persecution of Uyghurs and Taiwan’s territorial claims. The president stated that President Xi Jinping “doesn’t have a democratic bone . . . in his body” and that Xi believes that “democracy cannot keep up with” China.

Nevertheless, it is simplistic to assume Chinese and Russian foreign policy is driven by a desire to impose autocratic rule. These two countries view the United States as a major geopolitical rival and seek to undermine American influence and alliances wherever they can. Chinese companies are also determined to beat the United States in this era of 21st-century technology.

There is no authoritarian model of export in Russia, and also in kleptocratic, corrupt, repressive, and misgoverned regimes, other autocratic-minded countries don’t need Moscow’s inspiration. In Putin’s view, self-preservation and maintaining his regime are his overriding priorities. What evidence does he offer that would show the rest of the world must resemble Russia in order to achieve these objectives?

As with Xi, Xi’s primary goal is to maintain his authority and the monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s easy for him to say that the Chinese government is doing better than the dysfunctional American system. However, he does not think that to achieve these goals Beijing needs to actively promote authoritarian rule with Chinese characteristics outside the Chinese society. In addition, China’s wealth and power depend on its ability to successfully compete within the globally interdependent economic system, rather than overturning it.

As within the Biden administration, another flaw of its approach is that it assumes that all democracies share the same values and are therefore equally minded. It would be nice if it were that easy. Foreign policy has a lot to do with values, but it also depends on history, geography, culture, political ideology, and the material interests of the nation. The democratic allies and partners of the United States cannot agree on how to deal with China or Russia precisely for these reasons – and why they should not be compelled to choose sides between the authoritarians and the United States.

Furthermore, there is the politically uncomfortable question of whether a United States-led effort is most appropriate for the country. There has rarely been a situation where America’s foreign policy hasn’t contrasted with its pledge to democratic practices domestically. Therefore, it is crucial for the U.S. to promote its democratic virtues with humility because it has a glass-house problem. The United States continued to erode democratic practices in 2020, according to Freedom House’s annual country-by-country report. In regards to the latter report, the United States has slid from 94 to 83 out of 100 in the past decade, one of the steepest declines among all countries.

As a result of the example being set on a domestic level, it is difficult to believe that the United States can reclaim its “soft power.” Pew Research Center study found that 17 percent of people around the world found U.S. democracy to be admirable. Yet 23 percent of respondents said the country had never provided a good example. In addition, it is hard to argue against the proposition that the decline in American influence overseas has been primarily caused by domestic struggles, and not by the use of authoritarian force-uses in Moscow and Beijing.

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Global Democracy in Danger: What’s the Way Out

It would be better for the Biden administration to focus on lower-level goals rather than trying to democratize the domestic political orders of other countries. Under so-called “micro” or “mini” multilateralism, for instance, the administration could work on pressing global problems ad hoc with a small group of democratic countries who have the capability, will, and resources to resolve them. Australia, Britain, the United States (AUKUS) recently signed an agreement regarding the sharing and exchange of advanced military technologies, and efforts by the United States to strengthen the Quad alliance of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan in the Indo-Pacific, are excellent examples. It is important that the United States and Europe support the Center for Democratic Resilience proposed by NATO too. The focus could also be placed on identifying countries with special expertise or experience overcoming specific challenges. Estonia, for example, has a lot of experience defending against cyberattacks. Such knowledge and experiences of nations could be very valuable to each other when shared.

It is the Biden administration’s trademark to talk about going big, but as far as promoting democracy is concerned, the better approach would be to go small overseas. Moreso, given the crisis of democracy in America, it will also be better to go very big at home.

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