Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Emphasizing Democracy Hampers Biden's Foreign Policy

The Biden Administration touts shared democratic values as the basis of a coalition that will side with Washington against China's challenge to some of the international norms supported by the United States. While it resonates with traditional U.S. sensibilities, this approach is problematic in practice. The pool of liberal states is small and shrinking, and U.S. global prestige as the lodestar of democracy has declined. Instead, U.S. diplomacy should rally partners based on the more widely shared common security and economic interests in opposing Chinese expansionism and economic coercion.

Introduction

An important aspect of the Biden Administration's foreign policy is the decision to emphasize common democratic values as a basis for building a U.S.-aligned coalition against major power adversaries—a "coalition of democracies," as Biden has called it.1 On the surface level, this seems like a powerful, simplifying, and unifying principle. A deeper analysis, however, reveals that the efficacy of this approach is questionable.

For any presidential administration, there are obvious advantages to placing the promotion of democracy and civil liberties at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Helping the people of other countries attain freedom is an essential aspect of the national identity of the United States. Although political elites, especially in Biden's Democratic Party, would not now describe the United States as a predominantly Christian country, residual Biblical imagery and metaphors once invoked by early European immigrants have persisted throughout U.S. history into the modern era. The core notion is that as occupants of a promised land—an echo of the experience of the Israelite emigres under the leadership of Moses chronicled in the Old Testament—Americans have a divinely-appointed responsibility to share the blessings of liberty with the rest of the world. The rationale for this "Manifest destiny" implied that God willed Americans of European ancestry to control the territory from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. Proponents of U.S. imperialism also invoke this idea.2

Speeches by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan quoted John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who said in 1630, "we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people will be upon us."3 The statement alludes to a New Testament metaphor that urges Christians to share their religion. For the modern and secular United States, religion is liberal democracy and human rights.

An emphasis on the importance of shared liberal values in U.S. foreign relations invites public support because it assures Americans that their core values are aligned with their government's policy. Americans prefer to think that working toward a more free, lawful, and just world for other countries is also the best way to pursue the United States' own interests. Conversely, most Americans are traditionally uncomfortable with realpolitik;4 policies which disregard core values to gain economic or strategic benefits create cognitive dissonance.

Democracy vs. Authoritarianism

One passage of the Biden Administration's 2022 National Security Strategy admirably notes tha [End Page 99] the real international threats to U.S. security are "powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy," i.e., China and Russia, and that "many non-democracies join the world's democracies" in opposing certain Chinese and Russian aims.5 This suggests a conflict of powerful revisionist states versus a diverse group of pro-status quo states with ideology of secondary importance. In most of its diplomatic communication, however, the Biden Administration frames the central tension in international affairs as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Prevailing over authoritarianism is "the defining challenge of our time," Biden has said.6 He has stated that, "This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies… Our 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."7

Accordingly, the Biden Administration seeks to lead the countries on the democratic side of this grand struggle. Biden and his senior officials speak of making shared liberal values the most important criterion for membership in the U.S.-led coalition. Despite saying their objective is "mobilizing the broadest possible coalition of nations to leverage our collective influence,"8 Biden Administration officials also often suggest that they see fellow democracies as more desirable or higher value partners. Biden says, "we're doubling down on our engagement with and support of democracies around the world."9 Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaims that "we stand with democratic nations, rooted in our shared values."10 National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan says, "our democratic allies in Europe, in Asia, and other parts of the world are [the] core" of U.S. strategy, and that "the key elements of our approach" are "the emphasis on allies, the importance of strengthening the hand of the democratic world and standing up for our fellow democracies and for democratic values."11

Biden's National Security Strategy goes on to commit the United States to assemble a coalition of governments willing to "defend a world that is free, open, prosperous, and secure" and to specify that "democratic nations who share our interests and values" will be "at the heart of this coalition." Non-liberal states that support the norms of international relations under Pax Americana are also welcome to join the coalition, but Washington will "continue to press all partners to respect and advance democracy and human rights."12

In an example of this pressure, Blinken criticized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states for an insufficient response to the political crisis in Myanmar. The other ASEAN members "need to hold the regime accountable for that [and] continue to demand an immediate cessation of violence, the release of political prisoners, and the restoration of Burma's democratic path," he said.13 Blinken was calling on states that were themselves non-democracies or "flawed democracies" to do more to promote democratization in another country.14

Problems in the Real World

Invoking common democratic values as a rallying cry presents several practical problems.

To begin with, the potential number of democratic U.S. partners is shrinking because democracy is receding worldwide. Freedom House assessed that in 2021 democracy worldwide declined for the sixteenth consecutive year, leaving only twenty percent of the world's population living in countries classed as "free."15

Moreover, the United States' own democratic credentials are questionable. A 2022 report by Freedom House sees "a decade-long decline in U.S. democracy."16 Foreigners no longer see the United States as a beacon of democracy. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region in 2021 found that even in the post-Trump era, only seventeen percent of respondents agreed that "democracy in the United States is a good example for other countries to follow." Most, fifty-seven percent, said the United States "used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years," while another twenty-three percent responded that the United States "has never been a good example for other countries to follow."17 [End Page 100]

Foreign governments can see that the Biden Administration does not strictly eschew cooperation with non-democracies. As one example, Biden disregarded the many flaws of abundantly illiberal Saudi Arabia when he visited bloodstained Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022 to unsuccessfully petition the Prince to increase oil production.18 One might argue, therefore, that the "democracies versus autocracies" framework is harmless because potential partners know the United States itself does not consistently uphold liberal values in its foreign policy. That argument, however, simply justifies the kind of hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy that corrodes U.S. credibility. The standard for Washington's strategic communications should and can be higher.

In placing democracy at the center of U.S. foreign policy, Biden may not have the backing of his own countrymen, as Americans care little about promoting democracy abroad. A 2021 Pew Research survey that asked Americans what objective U.S. foreign policy should prioritize, "promoting democracy in other nations," finished last on a list of twenty objectives.19

The Summit of Democracies, hosted by Biden and held virtually over two days in December 2021, highlighted the folly of conceptually dividing the world into an oversimplified dichotomy of democracies and non-democracies. Southeast Asia is a key battleground in the U.S.-China competition, but the White House did not invite Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, or Singapore to the Summit. The invited states included Iraq, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (all assessed as "not free" by Freedom House).20 University of Sydney professor John Keane opined that the White House generated a "cynically drawn up, bureaucratically crafted, agency-structured invitation list that includes states that by any measure are falling way down the democracy rankings or aren't democracies at all." Keane worried that the Summit "increases public cynicism towards the ideals of democracy."21

Democracies do not necessarily stick together in actual practice. In theory, an appeal to shared values should increase the willingness of other democratic countries to support the United States' international agenda. It should bolster trust and confidence so that the international environment that Washington wants to foster is also one that will well serve the fundamental interests of other liberal states. It may also encourage the citizens of other democratic states to call out some aspects of their own governments' cooperation with authoritarian states.

In practice, however, this expectation has limits. States tend to respond to compelling material interests even when these are at odds with widely held values. The government of Germany has been far more hesitant than Washington in pushing back against either Russia or China. India has dramatically increased its imports of Russian oil since Russia invaded Ukraine, undercutting U.S. attempts to reduce Putin's ability to fund the war.22 Despite electing a president who is unusually hawkish toward China, South Korea continues to avoid antagonizing Beijing, preventing full alignment with the U.S. agenda for opposing "authoritarianism."23 On the particular question of sanctioning Russia over the war against Ukraine, several democratic countries, including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, U.S. Quad partner India, U.S. security-dependent Israel, NATO member Turkey, and U.S. treaty ally the Philippines have not sided with Washington.

Democratic governments, even close allies, understand that despite shared values, Washing-ton may still let them down in the pursuit of more tangible U.S. interests. After China banned some Australian imports starting in 2020, the United States took advantage by increasing its export of some of the same goods to China.24 South Koreans reacted angrily to the August 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act because it hurt the U.S. sales of Korean-made electric vehicles by giving Americans a tax break only for purchasing electric vehicles built in the United [End Page 101] States. Korean commentators complained that Biden is continuing Trump's "America First" policy, that Seoul may reassess its membership in Biden's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and that South Korean trust in its ally is in jeopardy.25 The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan made the leaders of fellow NATO democracies feel that Washington's decision-making was largely unilateral and failed to treat NATO allies as equal partners. The episode left some Western European elites believing they should reduce their security dependence on their seemingly capricious superpower ally.26

In some cases, the U.S. government faces an openly negative reaction to the emphasis on liberal values. An example was the recent Summit of the Americas. Before hosting the Ninth Summit in Los Angeles in June 2022, the U.S. government declined to invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua because the governments of these countries were not democratically elected. In response to this exclusion, the leaders of several regional nations, including Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Bolivia, announced they would boycott the meeting.

The democracy versus authoritarianism rhetoric unwisely focuses the most effort where it is least needed.

The democracy versus authoritarianism rhetoric unwisely focuses the most effort where it is least needed. Having a good relationship with the democratic states is, of course, a valuable asset for the United States. Despite the trend of democratic backsliding, liberal states still represent a large and important global bloc. Most of the world's top thirty economies as well as significant military, technological and diplomatic powers, are democracies. At the same time, however, most of the liberal democracies already side with the United States on strategic issues. The NATO alliance encompasses most of Western Europe and Canada. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are also U.S. allies. Playing up shared political values with these states will do little to improve already close U.S. relationships with them. On the other hand, more and better outreach to countries with less tradition and history of security cooperation with the USA promises a greater return on investment.

Democratic Peace Theory

Besides the problem of limiting the appeal of the United States' recruiting pitch among potential coalition partners, the emphasis on democratic values in U.S. foreign policy rests on a potentially wrong theoretical assumption. The Biden Administration's approach to international affairs is consistent with a longstanding and bipartisan belief among U.S. policymakers in the Democratic Peace Theory. The theory holds that the proliferation of democracies in the international system would reduce the incidence of war because democratic states rarely, if ever, go to war against each other. While U.S. officials believe in the Democratic Peace Theory,27 it is highly controversial among international relations scholars and fails to inspire a consensus.28

The Biden Administration's foreign policy largely incorporates the questionable assumption that promoting democracy in other countries will make the international environment more conducive to U.S. security and prosperity. If the recent cases of failed attempts at democratization in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are insufficiently convincing,29 we can consider the implications of this approach for the United States' most consequential relationship, namely that with the People's Republic of China (PRC). In theory, democracy breaking out in China should remove the possibility of Beijing going to war with three democratic actors that currently have tense relations with the PRC: Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. The Chinese public, however, is primed for the possible need for military conflict against any of these three countries in defense of rhetorically constructed notions of China's interests and honor. Sudden democratization would not remove widespread antipathy toward Japanese, Americans, or Taiwanese "separatists." Indeed, politicians seeking elected office in a newly democratized China would almost certainly [End Page 102] tap into Chinese citizens' nationalism and sense of grievance to get votes. While the current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government has sometimes tried to restrict its people from expressing outrage against foreign adversaries,30 a democratic China might give such views untrammeled influence over foreign policy, increasing the likelihood of war in the region.31

It is not about Ideology

Biden's vision of a battle between autocracies and democracies resonates little with other states. There is an ideological element to the tensions between the U.S.-led bloc and the China-Russia bloc, as Russia and China express hostility toward "American-style democracy."32 Nevertheless, other governments do not necessarily see China and Russia as threatening because of their systems of government. Russia under Putin poses a danger of invading and wreaking havoc in certain of its European neighbor states, as occurred in 2022 in Ukraine. China, as well, is a menace to the territorial sovereignty and autonomy of some of its neighbors. Beijing also routinely employs economic coercion to force trade partners to comply with the Chinese political agenda. The fear of Russia and China stems from their predatory foreign policies, not from their lack of domestic civil liberties.

Naturally, the United States' closest relationships will be with fellow liberal democracies, and foreign governments will not expect otherwise. However, even if there is a practical difference between the quality of U.S. bilateral relationships with countries such as Britain, Japan, and Australia and U.S. cooperation with illiberal countries, it is counterproductive for U.S. diplomacy to signal that Washington considers non-democracies to be second-class partners. Some illiberal states want to work with the United States because they favor a world in which the rules and norms of international relations supported by Washington continue to prevail. The Biden Administration should stop emphasizing the image of a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, stop expressing a preference for working with democratic partners, and stop signaling to illiberal governments that they must support global democratization if they want to be part of a U.S.-led coalition against China. Instead of pursuing the exclusive criterion of shared values, Washington should instead emphasize the widely shared interest in preventing Pax Americana from devolving into a Pax Sinica centered on serving the narrow interests of the CCP leadership.

There is abundant reason to conclude that emphasizing democratic values will not, on balance, enhance the United States' ability to organize a coalition that can effectively cooperate to protect U.S. interests against major power adversaries. In times of extraordinary global crisis, such as during World War II and the Cold War, the United States joined coalitions based on a shared perceived threat rather than shared political culture. With democracy waning and the threat from China waxing, this tendency will inevitably reassert itself, whether the Biden Administration is prepared or not.

Denny Roy

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, specializing in Asia-Pacific international security issues. He has previously worked at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (Honolulu), the Naval Postgraduate School, the Australian National University, the National University of Singapore, and Brigham Young University. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago.

Notes

1. Alex Fang, Marrian Zhou, and Francesca Regalado, "Team Biden says America is back. But is Asia ready to welcome it?" Nikkei Asia, December 2, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Big-Story/Team-Biden-says-America-is-back.-But-is-Asia-ready-to-welcome-it.

2. Donald M. Scott, "The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny," Divining America, [no date.], National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/mandestiny.htm; Abraham Lincoln, "Closing Paragraph in Message to Congress," National Park Service, December 1, 1862, Washington, D.C., https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/onamerica.htm.

3. David Frum, "Is America Still the 'Shining City on a Hill'?," The Atlantic, January 1, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/is-america-still-the-shining-city-on-a-hill/617474/.

4. Stephen M. Walt, "Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?," Foreign Policy, June 13, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/06/13/why-do-people-hate-realism-so-much/.

6. John T. Bennett, "Biden's non-gaffe on Putin suggests a foreign policy-steeped president resisting his instincts," Roll Call, March 29, 2022, https://rollcall.com/2022/03/29/bidens-non-gaffe-on-putin-suggests-a-foreign-policy-steeped-president-resisting-his-instincts/.

7. "Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference," The White House, Washington, D.C., March 25, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/03/25/remarks-by-president-biden-in-press-conference/.

8. Jake Sullivan, "Remarks by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the Biden-Harris Administration's National Security Strategy," The White House, Washington, D.C., October 12, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/10/13/remarks-by-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan-on-the-biden-harris-administrations-national-security-strategy/.

9. "Remarks By President Biden At The Summit For Democracy Opening Session," The White House, Washington, D.C., December 9, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/12/09/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-summit-for-democracy-opening-session/.

10. Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken), "We stand with democratic nations, rooted in our shared values. We're committed not only to rebuilding our alliances and partnerships, but to building them back better," Twitter, June 10, 2021, 1:01 p.m., https://twitter.com/secblinken/status/1403125237886115841?lang=da.

11. "On-the-Record Press Call by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan Previewing the Biden-Harris Administration's National Security Strategy," The American Presidency Project, October 12, 2022, University of California at Santa Barbara, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/the-record-press-call-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan-previewing-the-biden-harris.

12. "National Security Strategy," The White House, October 12, 2022, Washington, D.C., https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.

13. Matthew Lee, "Blinken says Southeast Asian nations have 'obligation' to hold Myanmar accountable," Associated Press, July 10, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/blinken-says-southeast-asian-nations-have-obligation-to-hold-myanmar-accountable.

15. Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, "Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule," Freedom House, February 2022, Washington, D.C., https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/FIW_2022_PDF_Booklet_Digital_Final_Web.pdf.

16. "New Report: US Democracy Has Declined Significantly in the Past Decade, Reforms Urgently Needed," Freedom House, March 22, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/article/new-report-us-democracy-has-declined-significantly-past-decade-reforms-urgently-needed.

17. Richard Wike et al., "America's Image Abroad Rebounds With Transition From Trump to Biden," Pew Research Center, June 10, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/06/10/americas-image-abroad-rebounds-with-transition-from-trump-to-biden/.

18. Raffi Berg, "Saudi Arabia: Biden meets crown prince amid criticism," BBC News, July 15, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middleeast-62173934.

19. Bruce Drake, "Americans put low priority on promoting democracy abroad," Pew Research Center, March 2, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/03/02/americans-put-low-priority-on-promoting-democracy-abroad-2/.

20. "Global freedom scores for countries and territories", Freedom House, accessed Nov 16, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores.

21. Matthew Knott, "Congo in, China out: Biden's democracy summit guest list raises eyebrows," Sydney Morning Herald, December 9, 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/congo-in-china-out-biden-sdemocracy-summit-guest-list-raises-eyebrows-20211209-p59g7f.html.

22. Clifford Krauss, Alexandra Stevenson, and Emily Schmall, "In Russia's War, China and India Emerge as Financiers," New York Times, June 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/24/business/russia-oil-china-india-ukraine-war.html.

23. Jae Chang, "Is South Korea's President Yoon Really 'Tough on China'?," The Diplomat, August 17, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/08/is-south-koreas-president-yoon-really-tough-on-china/.

24. Daniel Mercer and Tom Edwards, "US, allies ‵biggest beneficiaries' of Australia's $17b China trade row, report finds," Australian Broadcasting Corporation, November 29, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2021-11-30/us-allies-benefit-from-china-trade-row-with-australia/100659480.

25. Lee Hyun-sang, "MAGA all over again," Joong Ang Daily, August 28, 2022, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2022/08/28/opinion/columns/Biden-electric-vehicles-subsidy/20220828200144114.html?detailWord=; Gil Yun-hyung, "'Stabbed in the back': S. Korea bemoans Inflation Reduction Act snub," Hankyoreh, September 5, 2022, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/1057552.html.

26. Ted Galen Carpenter, "How Joe Biden Has Damaged Transatlantic Unity," Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., September 22, 2021, https://www.cato.org/commentary/how-joe-biden-has-damaged-transatlantic-unity.

27. "Excerpts from President Clinton's State of the Union Message," New York Times, January 26, 1994, p. A17, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/01/26/us/state-union-excerpts-president-clinton-s-message-state-union.html; "Presi dent and Prime Minister Blair Discussed Iraq, Middle East," Office of the Press Secretary, the White House, November 12, 2004, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/11/20041112-5.html; "Munich Security Conference Plenary Session Remarks", U.S. Department of State, February 5, 2011, https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2011/02/156044.htm; "National Security Strategy of the United States of America," The White House, Washington, D.C., December 2017, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf; "Fact Sheet: Announcing the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal," The White House, December 9, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/09/fact-sheet-announcing-the-presidential-initiative-for-democratic-renewal/.

28. Supportive analyses of democratic peace theory include Kosuke Imai and James Lo, "Robustness of Empirical Evidence for the Democratic Peace: A Nonparametric Sensitivity Analysis," International Organization, 75, no 3, (Summer 2021): 901–19, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020818321000126; Bruce Russett and John R. O'neal, Triangulating peace: democracy, interdependence, and international organizations (New York: Norton, 2001); and Michael W. Doyle, Ways of war and peace: realism, liberalism, and socialism (New York: Norton, 1997). Dissenting analyses include Christopher Layne, "Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace," International Security 19, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 5-49, https://doi.org/10.2307/2539195; and David E. Spiro, "The Insignificance of the Liberal Peace," International Security 19, no. 2 (1994): 50–86, https://doi.org/10.2307/2539196.

29. Ben Denison, "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: The Failure of Regime-Change Operations," Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., January 6, 2020, https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/more-things-change-more-they-stay-same-failure-regime-change-operations.

30. William Wan, "Beijing both encourages and reins in anti-Japan protests, analysts say," Washington Post, September 17, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-government-both-encourages-and-reins-in-anti-japan-protests-analysts-say/2012/09/17/53144ff0-00d8-11e2-b260-32f4a8db9b7e_story.html.

31. Denny Roy, "China's Democratized Foreign Policy," Survival 51, no. 2 (April-May 2009): 25-40, https://doi.org/10.1080/00396330902860769.

32. "The State of Democracy in the United States," People's Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202112/t20211205_10462535.html.

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