Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Biden Really Thinks About Democracy Promotion

The new U.S president has crafted a novel approach to human rights that’s marked both by idealism and humility.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Presidential nominee Joe Biden wears voting sticker.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wears an “I Voted” sticker as he speaks to reporters outside the Delaware State Building after casting his ballot for the general election in Wilmington, Delaware, on Oct. 28, 2020. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In his 2005 inaugural address, then-President George W. Bush unveiled a new policy, which came to be called the “Freedom Agenda,” that placed the promotion of democracy abroad at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Bush asserted the 9/11 terrorists’ rage had been forged in the tyranny of the Arab world; only “the force of human freedom” could dampen those fires and thus ensure “the survival of liberty in our land.”

Bush’s theory turned out to be wrong on all counts. The Arab states that were the object of the Freedom Agenda proved to be hopelessly intractable to U.S. influence; nevertheless, the United States has succeeded in reducing terrorism to a manageable threat through the classic instruments of domestic security, armed force abroad, and diplomacy. What’s more, the Bush administration’s willingness to cast aside those sacred precepts of liberty in the name of the “war on terror” turned the very language of democracy promotion into gross hypocrisy.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama avoided what he considered the grandiloquent language and arrogant demands of the Freedom Agenda. And former U.S. President Donald Trump, of course, preferred autocrats; he solved the problem of hypocrisy by dispensing with democracy policy altogether.

In his 2005 inaugural address, then-President George W. Bush unveiled a new policy, which came to be called the “Freedom Agenda,” that placed the promotion of democracy abroad at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Bush asserted the 9/11 terrorists’ rage had been forged in the tyranny of the Arab world; only “the force of human freedom” could dampen those fires and thus ensure “the survival of liberty in our land.”

Bush’s theory turned out to be wrong on all counts. The Arab states that were the object of the Freedom Agenda proved to be hopelessly intractable to U.S. influence; nevertheless, the United States has succeeded in reducing terrorism to a manageable threat through the classic instruments of domestic security, armed force abroad, and diplomacy. What’s more, the Bush administration’s willingness to cast aside those sacred precepts of liberty in the name of the “war on terror” turned the very language of democracy promotion into gross hypocrisy.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama avoided what he considered the grandiloquent language and arrogant demands of the Freedom Agenda. And former U.S. President Donald Trump, of course, preferred autocrats; he solved the problem of hypocrisy by dispensing with democracy policy altogether.

Now U.S. President Joe Biden has restored democracy to the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Biden has spoken often of the “summit of democracy” he plans to convene in his first year in office. In mid-July, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, sent a cable to all U.S. diplomats, instructing them to speak out on issues of human rights and democracy and to meet with local activists. “Standing up for democracy and human rights everywhere is not in tension with America’s national interests nor with our national security,” Blinken wrote.

What happened? Biden has never believed the United States can do much about the insides of other countries. He hadn’t taken the Freedom Agenda seriously, did not believe Americans could turn Afghanistan into a democracy, and remained skeptical when the Arab Spring briefly seemed to portend a revolution in the Middle East. Biden counted himself among the seasoned pragmatists in the upper reaches of the Obama administration who needed to remind the idealistic youngsters the world was a messy place. Why, then, has he now become a prophet of democracy as passionate as Bush?

The answer is Biden has a very different theory from Bush. The democratic deficit that preoccupies the president and his team is not the one out there but the one in here. The heroic language of democracy promotion presupposed a world where democracy was expanding—as it was when Bush gave his inaugural address. Since then, it has been contracting. The United States is only one of the democracies once confidently regarded as “consolidated” to have elected a populist bent on enhancing his power by dismantling democratic safeguards. So, too, have Brazil, India, Poland, Hungary and others. Democracies, as then-presidential candidate Biden wrote, are “paralyzed by hyperpartisanship, hobbled by corruption, weighed down by extreme inequality.”

Hard-headed realists dismiss all of these theories of the democratic case as distractions from, or flimsy decorations on, the United States’ pursuit of its geopolitical interests. “There’s a long-standing tendency in U.S. foreign policy to cloak the pursuit of American interests in the garment of democratic ideals,” Aaron David Miller, a U.S. Middle East policy expert, recently wrote. But although promoting reform among Arab autocrats may have been an idle or even cynical pursuit, one can hardly deny that defending democracy from authoritarian tendencies at home and from authoritarian states abroad is a matter of the highest national interest. The only questions are how and whether it can be done.

“Defending” or “protecting” is a very different enterprise from “promoting.” Bush’s rhetoric assumed democracy was something the United States had in more or less infinite supply, and thus, it was well positioned to infuse some of it into shakier states. The last few years have cruelly exposed the vanity of that posture; the United States now needs the medicine it once supplied. In his cable, Blinken instructed diplomats to make “clear that we ask no more of other countries than we ask of ourselves.”

The crisis Biden is addressing is thus preeminently a domestic one: A democracy that sailed through depression and war now finds itself suffering a mass crisis of faith. Biden hopes to address the crisis through a massive effort to restore prosperity to a fearful middle class, through the insistent use of bipartisanship and collective purpose rhetoric, and through the passage of critical legislation on democracy-specific issues like voting rights. It’s too early to say whether the specific measures will succeed and whether they will break the fever that now grips the country.

But Biden also believes—as U.S. presidents since Woodrow Wilson have—that a liberal, democratic United States cannot thrive in a world that is neither liberal nor democratic, even as works with autocratic states on global problems. The United States is hardly alone in its woes: France’s right-wing populist politician, Marine Le Pen, now has about an even chance of defeating French President Emmanuel Macron in elections next April. What’s more, the world’s chief autocratic powers, chiefly Russia but also China, are now working actively to weaken the “liberal order” and individual liberal states. The protection of democracy has thus become a transnational issue like climate change or public health.

There is thus no contradiction between Blinken’s “look to yourself” and the foreign-policy dimension of democracy support. In my conversations with administration officials involved with democracy issues, I hear this note of mutuality struck again and again. Those involved with planning the democracy summit say all invited countries, including the United States and other “mature” democracies as well as nascent ones, must bring solid commitments to address democratic backsliding at home. They are now working both on the guest list and on what my family called “mitbrings”—suggested party gifts.

Mutuality is a very good thing, suggesting as it does a most un-American humility and willingness to learn from others. But this admirable new ethos offers no useful guidance in the face of crises like the one just precipitated by Tunisian President Kais Saied, who dismissed his government and assumed emergency powers on July 25,a Blinken admonished the Tunisian leader to work with “all political actors and the Tunisian people” and promised help with the country’s economic and public health crisis; but Washington and its allies—above all, France—may have to either promise or threaten much more to keep the only democracy in the Arab world from toppling into dictatorship. We will see in the coming days and weeks just how committed Biden is to this endeavor.

The vow of mutuality also confronts us with our own limitations. The most important gift the United States could bring to its own party is legislation preventing voter suppression and post-electoral manipulation. (See my recent column on the United States’ “negative exceptionalism” on this score.) But Republicans are likely to block any meaningful bill on the subject. One administration official suggested the congressional investigation of the Jan. 6 riot now underway will demonstrate the United States’ commitment to examine its own failures; but that, too, will be repudiated by half the country.

Democracies depend, of course, on law and legal institutions, but they finally rest on citizens’ beliefs in those institutions and willingness to abide by their strictures. People in highly polarized societies will not trust any outcome that disadvantages themselves; and what is imposed by law can be undone by new law. We don’t really know how to reverse radical polarization. And, of course, populist leaders do whatever they can to amplify mistrust. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may lose an election someday, but they may have rendered their country democratically ungovernable by the time they go.

Opportunistic autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin add fuel to the flames whenever they can—but they need flames in the first place. In a recent article, Frances Z. Brown and Thomas Carothers, leading scholars of democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observed that “framing a democracy strategy around the goal of countering China and Russia,” as the Biden administration has often done, ignores “the main drivers of democratic decline,” which are internal. Yet one of the temptations of doing so is it’s easier to forge political consensus around legislation to counter foreign hacking or surveillance as well as influence campaigns than it is to confront the deep-seated divisions inside societies.

Countries can, in fact, bring all sorts of useful gifts to the party. Laws compelling foreign investors to disclose their identities, regulatory schemes to govern artificial intelligence or surveillance technology, rules to restrict black money in politics—all of them will advance the cause of democracy—however, incrementally. Perhaps countries will even compete to bring something especially good. But let’s remember how frustrating it has been for even a very determined U.S. president to undo the damage wrought by Trump and a generation of polarizing Republicans. Hard as it is for afflicted countries to rebuild the spirit of democracy at a time when industrial middle classes have been hollowed out and secure cultural identities have been unmoored, it’s so much harder to make things better in someone else’s country.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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