Washington’s Democracy Dilemma – Foreign Affairs Magazine
After four years of the Trump administration’s slash-and-burn approach to democracy at home and abroad, U.S. President Joe Biden’s focus on reviving U.S. leadership on global democracy represents a breath of fresh air. In particular, champions of democracy have hailed his promise to convene a “Summit for Democracy,” which is intended to bring together the world’s democracies to forge a common agenda of political renewal. A veritable cottage industry has arisen within the policy community to offer the Biden team advice on this event. The democracy experts with views on the summit are so numerous, they could convene a summit of their own.
But all this meticulous planning risks obscuring an important truth: a democracy summit is not a democracy strategy. Translating Biden’s rhetorical emphasis on democracy support into a meaningful plank of his foreign policy will require his team to grapple head-on with several thorny dilemmas. First, an overriding focus on countering China and Russia risks crowding out policies to address the many other factors fueling democracy’s global decline. It may also spur the United States to overlook democratic flaws in some partner countries, rather than developing ways to address them. Meanwhile, a focus on the practical benefits of democracy should not come at the expense of a vigorous defense of the moral case for democratic governance. Finally, U.S. support for democracy abroad must be connected in meaningful ways to democratic renovation at home. Working through these dilemmas will present deep challenges—but if Washington is to reverse the long global democratic decline, it must guard against the danger of summit preparation consuming all the oxygen in the democracy policy space.
Biden and his team have taken up the increasingly common view in the broader U.S. policy community that countering China and Russia is central to supporting democracy globally. As the president said in February, “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.” It is undeniable that China and Russia are working against democracy in different ways and places, and the United States of course needs to get smarter at finding ways to blunt such efforts. But enshrining a focus on these two countries as the main thrust of a democracy strategy would be a mistake.
That’s because much of the recent global democratic backsliding has little to do with China and Russia. The erosion of democratic norms in many of the world’s most populous countries over the past ten years—including Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Turkey—was not primarily the result of Chinese or Russian influence. Although Beijing and Moscow have sometimes backed illiberal leaders in these countries, they are taking advantage of local political dynamics, not causing them. Framing a democracy strategy around the goal of countering China and Russia would thus consign the main drivers of democratic decline to the margins of U.S. policy. The primary causes of backsliding thus far are profound shortcomings in political and economic governance that fuel grievance-based polarization, the weaponization of identity politics, and the rise of illiberal actors.
Emphasizing these issues would also help the Biden team avoid a diplomatic conundrum. The administration rightly is embracing a big-tent approach to supporting democracy abroad, one that encompasses as many of the world’s democracies as possible. But the more Washington elevates China and Russia in its democracy policy, the less inclusive its tent will be. Many of the United States’ democratic allies would balk at signing on to an American-led global democracy push if it is centered on countering Beijing and Moscow. These countries have been bruised by past episodes where Washington conflated its geostrategic agenda with a democracy agenda—most recently in the global war on terrorism—and are wary of signing on to any sequel of that approach. This reluctance spans U.S. democratic friends in Europe and Asia, such as France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, as well as those in the developing world, such as Mexico and South Africa.
To craft an effective democracy strategy, the Biden administration must also squarely face a long-standing tension in U.S. foreign policy. The United States has committed itself to promoting democratic values and institutions across the globe out of the conviction that it is more secure and prosperous in a more democratic world. At the same time, many specific economic and security interests incline the United States to soft-pedal democracy with its nondemocratic friends and allies.
This tension produces diplomatic inconsistencies that have persistently undercut the credibility of U.S. democracy policy, such as the decades of close ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. They have prompted domestic and foreign observers to accuse the United States—often with justification—of using democracy promotion as a cudgel against its adversaries, while turning a blind eye to the abuses of its democratically challenged friends.
No matter how serious the Biden administration is in its desire to support democracy globally, it confronts the stubborn reality that in some places, tensions between U.S. support for democracy and its security and economic interests are as stark as ever. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi plays a helpful mediating role between Israel and Hamas even as he crushes dissent at home; India’s democratic freedoms are eroding even as it becomes an increasingly prominent part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy; and the Polish government is undermining basic freedoms and its election process even as it supports U.S. policy toward Russia.
The Biden administration should openly acknowledge these tensions, not try to hide them. No strategy can resolve all the clashes between the administration’s twin goals of reinvigorating alliances and supporting democracy, but the White House must chart an approach that at least sometimes pushes friends to address their democratic deficiencies.
Biden’s team will need to devote serious attention to examining the tradeoffs involved in each case where the United States’ values seem to run counter to its interests. The administration must ask what levers Washington has to influence its partners and what the positive and negative effects of employing them would be. India, Poland, and Turkey are three cases that call out for close examination in this regard.
An incisive democracy strategy would also lay out a distinction between short-term and long-term U.S. interests: supporting democracy in some hard cases now may better serve U.S. interests in the years ahead, even if there is some short-term friction in the overall relationship. Egypt is one such case where deepening political stagnation bodes ill for the country’s long-run stability.
Biden has framed his emphasis on reviving U.S. leadership on global democracy as part of a great-power struggle, positioning freedom as a source of national strength. In April, he said that Chinese President Xi Jinping thinks that “democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.” It was important, Biden added, to show this view to be wrong: “We have to prove democracy still works . . . and we can deliver for our people.” Various Biden administration officials have echoed the need to show that “democracy delivers.”
The focus on democracy delivering is valuable, because it tackles the reasons for widespread democratic discontent in recent years, but the administration will need to flesh out more fully what this refrain means in practice. Does this imply that the United States will, say, reorient democracy-related foreign aid to emphasize service delivery, rather than its traditional focus on building political institutions? How does this mantra account for the priorities of poorer, non-Western democracies, which face even deeper challenges in “delivering”?
Some caution is also in order. The Biden team should guard against the perception that it is tying the value of democracy exclusively to a competition over economic growth and service provision. Democracies often deliver a better life for their citizens than autocracies. But equally important, democracy is preferable to autocracy because it makes citizens their own political masters. Democracies do not systematically repress the political voice and actions of their citizens. Reducing the value of democracy to its performance cuts against its deeper sources of legitimacy.
This framing also risks playing into the hands of China. The administration needs to be aware that many observers will assume the claim that democracy “delivers” means just that it produces higher rates of economic growth than alternative forms of government. China would welcome this debate, as it shifts the conversation toward its economic progress and away from its suppression of individual freedoms.
To hedge against these risks, the Biden team should continue to emphasize the inherent desirability of democracy, making the case in both high-level public speeches and tough, quiet conversations with counterparts from other governments. In the domestic arena, the administration has emphasized that the ideals of justice, fairness, and inclusion will allow the government to enable better lives for all Americans. In its foreign policy, it should equally underscore that the practical benefits democracy provides are complementary to, and not more important than, the values it promotes.
The Biden administration has emphasized to the point of incantation that its domestic and foreign policy agendas are deeply interlinked. But appealing as this rhetorical framing may be, connecting U.S. support for democracy overseas to democratic renovation at home presents tough challenges.
The practical questions are difficult enough. Will the administration forge new connections between domestic and foreign policy decisions on democracy issues? If so, how? New bureaucratic linkages are one possibility, such as establishing additional deliberative processes whereby the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council convene jointly, or increasing State Department officials’ engagement with local governments and organizations within the United States. Another is integrating a “mutual learning” approach into U.S. democracy assistance, in which democracy assistance is framed not as the United States helping less democratically successful countries up their game but as an endeavor in which all democracies work collaboratively to develop solutions to common challenges they face.
The strategic questions are even more profound. If this framing means that the United States must succeed with democratic reform at home to be credible in emphasizing democracy abroad, it risks placing Washington on the sidelines indefinitely while democracy continues to deteriorate in many parts of the world. On many fronts, the authority to propel U.S. democratic progress resides within institutions where blockages and countervailing currents abound—the U.S. Congress, the federal and state judiciaries, and state legislatures. The United States’ caustic political climate bodes poorly for any potential breakthroughs. Rather than tying the credibility of U.S. global democracy support to success in advancing domestic reform, a better approach would be to emphasize that both at home and abroad, democracy’s strength is that it allows countries to correct their missteps and evolve to solve new problems—but that it also needs constant tending to live up to its potential.
The Summit for Democracy may amplify the administration’s recognition that domestic and global democratic reforms are linked. And more broadly, it can elicit commitments for improvement from democratic partners that advances democracy across the globe. But as champions of democracy parse every aspect of planning for the meeting, they should keep in mind that the fundamental challenge they face is addressing the urgent dilemmas of democracy policy in the current, troubled international landscape. Settling on a strategy that does so will position the Biden administration to leave a lasting imprint on democracy’s global fortunes, well after the summit confetti is cleared away.
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