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Will Biden Have to Choose Between U.S. Interests and Human Rights?

A coup in Myanmar and Russia’s sentencing of Alexei Navalny raise questions about whether promoting U.S. values could weaken Washington’s hand when it comes to great-power competition.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping toast during a State Luncheon for China hosted on September 25, 2015 at the Department of State in Washington, D.C.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping toast during a State Luncheon for China hosted on September 25, 2015 at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. We’ve finally got some snow on the ground in D.C. this weekend! It’s a reminder that the only thing that can cause the capital of the world’s most important superpower to grind to a halt is two or three inches of powdery snow. Have you been enjoying the winter wonderland?

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. It snowed nonstop for over 24 hours. I haven’t seen anything like it in D.C. in a while. It almost makes me wonder whether the storm was created in a Chinese lab.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. We’ve finally got some snow on the ground in D.C. this weekend! It’s a reminder that the only thing that can cause the capital of the world’s most important superpower to grind to a halt is two or three inches of powdery snow. Have you been enjoying the winter wonderland?

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. It snowed nonstop for over 24 hours. I haven’t seen anything like it in D.C. in a while. It almost makes me wonder whether the storm was created in a Chinese lab.

EA: Well, the pandas at the zoo certainly seemed to be enjoying it!

MK: Shutting down the capital of their rival and entertaining their national animal all at once: a brilliant masterstroke from Beijing.

EA: Luckily, it wasn’t enough to stop President Joe Biden from making his first big foreign-policy speech as president when he visited the U.S. Department of State on Thursday. And I think he did a pretty good job of setting up our topics of debate: Myanmar; Russia; and the tension between values and interests in U.S. foreign policy.

MK: It was a pretty good speech. And we certainly have plenty to cover. Should we start with Burma?

EA: Wait, don’t we call it Myanmar now?

MK: It depends who you ask. The U.S. government refers to it as Burma because the name Myanmar is more closely associated with the military junta that ruled the country for many decades.

And the country’s military is back in force this week, staging a coup to oust the civilian leadership. It is a setback for what many hoped would be a slow transition to democracy in the country.

EA: Right. Whatever we call it, it’s been a bad week. That said, Myanmar was already extremely problematic as a test case of democratization. There was indeed a lot of hope after the military junta announced a so-called road to democracy in 2003, which eventually saw Nobel prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi nominally take power. But the transition has been marred by backsliding, and in particular by human-rights abuses against the minority Rohingya, which the democratically elected government actually supported.

It’s a reminder that democracy and human rights aren’t always aligned.

MK: Despite the elections, Freedom House has always ranked Myanmar—I’ll follow the Foreign Policy style guide—as not free, due to the human-rights violations and because the military retained control of 25 percent of the seats in parliament and a vice presidency. So, the country is backsliding from not free to even less free.

EA: But there was some hope in Washington surrounding the opening to democracy, no? I seem to recall that the U.S. government lifted sanctions after the power-sharing deal. Former President Barack Obama even visited the country while he was in office, which we don’t usually associate with genocidal dictatorships. Is this a failure for U.S. democracy promotion? Or a sign that U.S. values and interests are in tension?

MK: There was a debate in the Obama administration between those who wanted to hold generals and others accountable for continued human-rights violations, and those who believed that an opening from Washington would better spur democratic reform. Obama sided with the latter group, but this week’s events show that the bet didn’t pan out.

The other issue here is China. Myanmar has been moving closer to Beijing in recent years.

EA: I just knew you were going to mention China. I grant you that backsliding into autocracy is probably going to draw Myanmar closer to China, but I’m not sure why it matters. Is having Myanmar as a partner going to measurably improve U.S. defense capabilities in the region? And if that’s the case, why prioritize democracy promotion instead?

MK: I agree that the greatest geopolitical struggle of the 21st century is unlikely to be decided in Myanmar. But we would prefer to have them with us than against us. And Myanmar is important to China. President Xi Jinping sees it as a key node in its belt and road network and a corridor to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

And the United States will have a policy toward Myanmar. So, what should it be? Biden stood for democracy and human rights in his speech, calling for the generals to relinquish power and restore civilian control. But there is a reasonable argument for pragmatic cooperation with whatever rulers are in power to advance U.S. interests, including balancing China.

EA: Right. This is my point. There’s been a lot of talk in Washington about the coup in Myanmar as a test for the Biden administration, and while that’s pretty overblown, I think there’s some truth to it. The Biden administration has promised to prioritize democracy and human rights. They’re also trying to balance against China. It’s a test of which way the administration will tilt: human rights, or great power competition—and a reminder that these two missions are in tension.

It’s a test of which way the administration will tilt: human rights, or great power competition—and a reminder that these two missions are in tension.

Frankly, I think both are wrong. Myanmar is a small, poor country in Southeast Asia, bordering China. It has almost no bearing on U.S. interests, but Americans seem to have convinced themselves that because of great-power competition, if a country is not with us, it’s against us.

MK: Again, I think Myanmar matters even if it is not the highest priority issue. So, Washington will have to carefully navigate the tensions between its interests and values there.

There is another place in the world, however, where U.S. interests and values more closely align. When Moscow detained Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny—whom its agents poisoned in an assassination attempt a few months ago, as one member of the team of perpetrators admitted—the country erupted in nationwide protests. Opposition groups returned to the streets this week when he was sentenced to nearly three years in prison.

The events show that Russians do value freedom and human rights (despite the nonsense theory that holds they culturally prefer a strongman leader) and that President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power may be more fragile than previously believed.

EA: Oh, Matt. Where to start? You’re right that many Russians want democracy, or at least more rights and less repression. The idea that Russians want a strongman is just like the idea that the Chinese culture is unsuited to western liberal ideas. It’s all just Orientalist nonsense.

But I think you may be kidding yourself if you think a democratic government in Russia would be dramatically more friendly to the United States. Just look at Navalny himself! He supported the Russian invasion of Crimea, and has repeated imperialist ideas about Russia’s so-called near abroad. It’s the same as we saw in Myanmar with Aung Sang Suu Kyi—who went from being an icon of peace to condoning violence against an unpopular ethnic minority. Democracy doesn’t equal western human-rights concerns, and it doesn’t mean foreign-policy comity.

MK: It is hard to imagine that a post-Putin government would be more inimical to the United States. Putin has essentially defined Moscow’s interests to be the opposite of Washington’s. Putin’s immediate predecessors did not see U.S.-Russia relations in such stark terms. I, for one, would be willing to take the chance that a post-Putin government in Russia—whether democratic or not—would be less hostile to the United States.

EA: Or it could be more hostile. There’s no way to know.

MK: What would more hostile look like? Invading its neighbors? Making explicit military threats against NATO and the United States? Intervening in U.S. and western elections to undermine our democracy? Using military force to prop up dictators in the Middle East? Spending extravagantly on military forces, including new generations of “exotic” nuclear weapons?

Because that is Putin’s policy.

EA: Touché. U.S.-Russian relations are awful at the moment. But my point is that Putin’s successor could continue this approach. There’s no guarantee he’d be better.

And what about the Russia-China question? Our employer, the Atlantic Council, published an anonymous policy paper last week on China called the Longer Telegram which argued that “allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error of successive U.S. administrations.”

Now, there’s been a lot of joking about the article being a form of Kennan Cosplay. I don’t particularly see why it needed to be anonymous myself. But whatever you think of the overall article, I don’t think that particular recommendation is wrong. If you’re worried about China, you should build bridges with Russia.

MK: It was a provocative strategy paper and it received a lot of attention. The author makes some good points, but on this one they are just wrong. As I’ve argued in Foreign Policy, it doesn’t make sense to try to work with Putin against China. Putin won’t go for it. We couldn’t trust him if he did. Russia and China are not in danger of forging a close alliance any time soon. And Russia does not bring much to the table. I’d rather work with our existing democratic allies to beat Putin and Xi at the same time.

EA: So you’re still stuck on the idea of an alliance of democracies resisting authoritarian states around the world? I feel like last week’s events—not to mention the discussion we’ve just had— suggests some problems with that model.

There were some interesting articles on this last week, with Bret Stephens at the New York Times arguing that America should have a foreign policy that prioritizes dissidents. I disagree with his notion that U.S. officials should prioritize citizens of other countries over the needs and interests of those at home. I disagree even more strongly with his theory that helping dissidents will improve U.S. foreign policy in the long run. I honestly can’t fathom how anyone could look at the last 20 years and think that.

But human rights are important, and I really loved Peter Beinart’s response to Stephens. He argues, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the best way to advance U.S. foreign policy and improve human rights is actually to start in the areas where Washington has the most influence: violations committed by the United States and its allies. It’s a compelling argument, and one that allows for both U.S. interests and values to advance hand in hand. Biden’s announcement yesterday that the United States would stop supporting the Saudi war effort in Yemen and would stop selling them offensive armaments was a great first step in this direction.

Biden also raised the whole “summit of democracies” idea again. As Jim Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson recently argued, there are just so many practical problems with implementing the idea, and so few concrete upsides.

Washington can have the deepest cooperation with countries that share U.S. values and interests. It needs to stand firm against countries that share neither values nor interests.

MK: Analysts often treat the values versus interests tradeoff as much more complicated than it needs to be. In my mind, it is fairly simple. There are different tiers of countries for U.S. foreign policy. Washington can have the deepest cooperation with countries that share U.S. values and interests, like the U.K. and Japan. It needs to stand firm against countries that share neither values nor interests, like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

The harder cases are countries like the UAE, Singapore, and perhaps Myanmar. Even though they are nondemocratic, they do not actively challenge U.S. interests and they cooperate in concrete ways. For these countries, the United States should engage in pragmatic cooperation and find ways to nudge them to improve their human rights records.

EA: So which countries make the cut for a summit of democracies? Only the closest allies? The D-10 group? Only countries with a Polity score above 6? I doubt you need to be reminded, but several of those democracy measures now code the United States itself as a flawed or imperfect democracy. I think Biden would be making a serious mistake going ahead with this summit.

MK: First, I think there is benefit to bringing together like-minded allies to coordinate common approaches to shared challenges.

The invite list is a challenge. I would advocate that the United States invite all formal treaty allies in Europe and Asia, and all EU members. Some will say that Hungary and Turkey do not qualify as democracies anymore and they have a point. So these are some of the tough calls.

Goldgeier and Jentleson and others have said that since determining the guest list is too complicated, we should not hold the meeting. But I had the same problem at my wedding and we didn’t cancel the event altogether!

EA: Ha! I bet your future mother-in-law wasn’t illegally buying Russian weapons, though.

MK: Well, she didn’t stop buying French fashion during the “Freedom Fries” era, but otherwise she is a patriotic shopper: I haven’t seen any S-400s in her closet.

EA: But I think you’re making my point for me. The difference between your wedding and a summit of democracies is that your wedding had a clear purpose. I’m still not sure why we need a summit. If it’s to make a point about democracy to China or Russia, then inviting Hungary and Turkey to the summit would undermine its purpose and, honestly, make the United States look pretty hypocritical. In British English, we’d call this kind of thing an own goal—an unforced error that the United States doesn’t need to make.

MK: That is a risk. If Biden wants to avoid that, he can limit it to a smaller group of consolidated democracies, like the D-10. Again, the decision about which countries to invite on the margins is secondary to the bigger strategic objective of coordinating leading democracies to deal with shared threats, including from revisionist autocracies.

EA: I can see some value in a group of democracies that get together to talk about common internal problems; how to handle populism, for example. In any case, the Biden administration will soon have to decide what it wants to do about Myanmar, and about Navalny; whether it wants to promote democracy or U.S. interests. My prediction? I suspect that Biden’s speech signals the new administration will slap a bunch of new sanctions on both states to show Washington disapproves, and achieve nothing in the process.

But let me know if your in-laws are looking to sell any Russian defense equipment. My kids have been rowdy lately, and some anti-personnel gear might even the odds.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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