From the day he announced his candidacy to become president of the United States, Joe Biden has emphasized that his mission was nothing less than to save the American republic. As he said in his campaign’s launch video, “The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy . . . is at stake.”
Biden meant to underscore the threat that former President Donald Trump posed to the United States’ own democratic institutions. But Biden’s concern about democracy also served as the natural framing for his foreign policy. In an international environment in which authoritarians were rapidly gaining in self-confidence and plenty of other major democracies were facing homegrown demagogues, Biden elevated the fight to preserve democratic values to a guiding principle of his presidency.
“The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote in an essay for Foreign Affairs while still a candidate, “created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future.” The ambition of his administration would be nothing less than “to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” To that end, he would quickly convene “a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”—a summit happening virtually this week.
It is far too early to pass a definitive verdict on whether Biden is on track to live up to the ambitious promises he made as a candidate. He has been in office for less than a year. Many of his appointees still await confirmation by Congress. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes it especially difficult for an administration to accomplish anything beyond disaster management. But with Biden’s presidency nearing its first anniversary, it is time for a preliminary assessment—and a sobering one at that.
So far, the Biden administration has done relatively little to contain the growing ambitions of authoritarian regimes from Russia to China. It has not managed to reduce the danger that populist leaders pose to democratic countries from Hungary to India. And it is very far from helping to restore global trust in the idea of democracy.
The reasons for this failure are rooted in objective circumstances over which Biden has little control. The president and his senior officials can’t do much about the United States’ diminished standing in the world, the global resurgence of autocracy, the need to pursue competing foreign policy objectives that are also of genuine importance, Donald Trump’s lies about the election, or his continued hold over the Republican Party. But the administration nonetheless faces a reckoning. Over the past year, it has become amply evident that business as usual will do precious little to help it keep its promises on democracy. Going forward, it should either commit to a more ambitious strategy—or stop pretending.
TOUGH WORDS, LITTLE ACTION
As president, Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for dictators from Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Though his administration did take some tough measures to rein in dictatorships that it saw as serious competitors, such as China, the overall impact of his tenure was to embolden autocrats. If dictators were mostly on the defensive in the 1990s, they are now enjoying an astonishing resurgence. As I wrote in the pages of Foreign Affairs last spring, “The story of the last two decades is not just one of democratic weakness; it is also one of authoritarian strength.”
The rhetorical change that Biden has brought on this front is clear as day. There is no longer any reason for the world to wonder whether the current U.S. leadership stands on the side of democracy or dictatorship. The administration has, while continuing to cooperate on shared interests such as counterterrorism, distanced itself from autocratic leaders in countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. Even in dealing with China, the White House has been strikingly forthright. On topics ranging from the status of Hong Kong to the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country, it has, despite strong pushback from Beijing, stood up for freedom and human rights without mincing words.
The administration has also taken some significant steps that go beyond rhetoric when it comes to major authoritarian competitors. It has kept some of the restrictive trade policies the Trump administration adopted and concluded a significant trilateral security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom aimed at countering China. But on the whole, it remains far from clear whether the Biden administration will accompany tough words about autocrats with actions that are actually capable of keeping their power in check. It has, for example, quietly given up its resistance to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will give Russia more leverage over central Europe. Worse, it has so far proved unable to deter Putin from escalating threats against (what remains of) Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Similarly, Biden’s policy on China has not succeeded in stopping the country’s military from performing serious provocations in the Taiwan Strait.
Many U.S. allies continue to see the current state of American politics as a cautionary tale.
The chaotic way in which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan has also undermined the fight against autocracy. Even though Afghanistan was never a truly free society, and it remains too early to predict to what extent the withdrawal will undermine the United States’ security interests, this was a significant setback for Biden’s democracy agenda for three reasons. First, the Taliban have already instituted a nakedly autocratic regime and are in the process of undoing the progress Afghanistan had made on key human rights issues. Second, the manner of the withdrawal—including the United States’ evident miscalculation about the strength of the Afghan government and its security forces—has hurt U.S. credibility. And third, some of the administration’s rhetoric over the summer, which effectively pretended that Americans did not owe much of anything to the Afghans who had fought on their side for 20 years, raised questions about the steadfastness of U.S. commitments. Even as the fall of Kabul is slowly fading from the headlines, this has shaken international trust in the United States’ willingness and capacity to stand by its strategic partners in an hour of need—not just in Europe but also in India, Japan, and beyond.
Among many statesmen and policymakers in countries that are closely allied with the United States, there is now a growing sense of concern about the future. The general tenor seems to be that the United States’ “good face” is back, at least for now. But many of its closest partners seem to wonder: Is the United States’ good face good enough?
A MISSION WITHOUT A STRATEGY
Trump not only expressed fulsome praise for some of the world’s most powerful autocrats, at times he also seemed to hope that more foreign leaders would follow in their footsteps. Throughout his tenure, he undermined key parts of the West’s institutional architecture, such as NATO and the European Union. In many countries, he seemed to ally himself with leaders who were intent on undermining their countries’ democratic institutions, such as India’s Narendra Modi or Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Even at home, he practiced what he preached, seeking to politicize independent institutions and pushing back against customary limits on his own power.
Here, too, the change of guard in the White House has made a notable difference. It is once again clear that the United States prefers political leaders who strive to make NATO and the EU work. Under Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s leadership, the State Department has become much more active in criticizing assaults on the rule of law or violations of human rights in countries around the world, including those backsliding democracies that are allied with the United States. The Biden administration’s desire to engage in “democracy protection” is not in doubt. What is less clear, however, is whether it has developed any meaningful strategy for how to accomplish such a difficult task.
There are many reasons the Biden administration’s attempts at democracy protection have, so far, turned out to be relatively toothless. The authoritarian resurgence is, at least in the short run, giving many American allies a genuine strategic alternative to a close partnership with the United States, making them less susceptible to pressure from the White House or the State Department. The United States needs to work with some of the countries that are experiencing the most pronounced forms of democratic backsliding to serve its key goals and interests, including climate change. (In an attempt to shore up an international alliance against China, the Biden administration has, for example, continued to draw closer to Vietnam’s autocratic one-party government.) U.S. officials are well aware that many of their foreign partners continue to eye the United States with deep skepticism in the wake of Trump’s presidency, making them highly—perhaps overly—cautious about standing up for democratic institutions. And most decisively, the administration simply does not seem to have a coherent plan for how to reshape the incentives of would-be authoritarian leaders in countries such as Poland or India.
Biden was right that democracy is in peril around the world and that the coming decades will prove crucial in deciding its future prospects.
All of these problems are on rich display in the planning for the upcoming democracy summit. The list of invited countries, for example, comprises many of the leaders who are doing the most to undermine democracy around the world. From Modi in India to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the Who’s Who of international populism will be welcome at the Summit for Democracy. So will the leaders of even more autocratic countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (The only two notable countries that are missing from the invite list because they are experiencing significant democratic backsliding are Turkey and Hungary.)
These problems also help to explain why the summit aims so low. A two-day virtual summit with over 100 participating countries cannot possibly elicit a real consensus about how to shore up democracy in an age of authoritarian resurgence. Nor are countries likely to be moved to commitments they have not undertaken in advance. And so Biden is poised to announce a few sensible initiatives on topics such as corruption during his speech. The administration also hopes to elicit similar commitments from other attendees of the summit, giving governments an incentive to deliver on their promises before the United States convenes a follow-up meeting at some point in the future. But it does not appear likely that Biden will set out a truly novel paradigm for how the international community can work together to preserve democracy. And where the hosts don’t lead, the guests are unlikely to follow.
The summit may yet turn out to be a step toward real international cooperation on democracy protection. But at the moment, it seems more likely to have the feel of a campaign promise that needs to be fulfilled without incurring undue embarrassment—before it is promptly forgotten.
TROUBLE ON THE HOME FRONT
The third area in which the administration has so far failed to live up to its promise of renewing the spirit of democracy is the one over which Biden has the least control—but it may also be the most important. Styling the 2020 election as a “battle for the soul of the nation,” the president hoped that a clear victory over Trump could amount to a definitive rebuke of his brand of politics. The Trump presidency would then come to look like a peculiar aberration, and one that likely wouldn’t be repeated anytime soon.
Instead, Biden’s victory over Trump has turned out to be far more provisional. His margin of victory was clear but not sufficiently wide to constitute a definitive rebuke of Trumpism. Instead of being cast out from the Republican Party, Trump seems to have strengthened his grip over it. And far from accepting the outcome of a democratic election, many senior Republicans have gone along with their leader’s lie that its outcome was fraudulent and are now using their control of many state legislatures to politicize the manner in which election results are certified. The 2020 election might have been a monument to the way in which democracies can mediate deep political conflicts. Instead, it now serves as a reminder about how easily shameless partisans can undermine public trust in long-standing institutions and an urgent warning for the even more grave constitutional crisis that may await the United States in 2024.
As a result, many U.S. allies continue to see the current state of American politics as a cautionary tale. So long as the United States remains as deeply divided as it now is—and some political actors remain as unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of its most basic institutions as they now are—no leader of the country, however well-intentioned, is likely to inspire a revival of global faith in democracy.
Biden was right that democracy is in peril around the world and that the coming decades will prove crucial in deciding its future prospects. But it is also becoming clear that he underestimated the obstacles that stand in the way of a well-meaning president doing anything about that. As a result, he has vastly overpromised on the contribution that his administration could make to shoring up democracy.
It’s time for the administration to limit the scope of its ambitions. Under current circumstances, democracy protection is both more feasible and more urgent than democracy promotion; the United States’ focus should be not on bringing long-standing autocracies into the democratic fold but rather on ensuring that long-standing democracies don’t backslide and that autocracies don’t expand their sphere of influence. But even with this narrower scope, the United Sates faces a much starker choice than Biden has so far acknowledged. If he is serious about doing anything meaningful to help democracies around the world endure in an age of rising autocracy, he must go beyond business as usual.
A meaningful democracy agenda would require the United States to demonstrate that populist leaders who are assaulting their countries’ free institutions will reap serious adverse consequences, not an invitation to the White House’s Summit for Democracy. It would require the country to commit to prioritizing cooperation with true democracies while, of course, maintaining a lesser form of partnership with other allies. And it would require the president to set out a vision for how international institutions that are being subverted by antidemocratic leaders in their own midst, such as NATO, can be reformed or refounded.
Such an ambitious course of action would have serious drawbacks. And even if it is attempted, it might not succeed. But the very least that U.S. leaders can do is to be honest with themselves, the country, and the world. If the Biden administration has decided that the steps that are required to make a real difference in the contest between “democracy and liberalism” and “fascism and autocracy” are not worth the cost, it should come out and say so.