It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

What Does Biden’s Confrontational Speech Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy?

Framing geopolitics in terms of democracy and autocracy won’t necessarily help bring peace.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park Sept. 1 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park Sept. 1 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park Sept. 1 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alex Wong/Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. It’s the end of an era. The Second Elizabethan Era, to be precise, after Buckingham Palace announced on Thursday afternoon that Queen Elizabeth II passed away among her family at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Although the queen had little real power in international affairs, she was a consistent symbol for many in Britain and elsewhere, one that had endured through World War II, the loss of the British empire, the Cold War, and everything that came after. Not all Brits are monarchists, of course, but her death will probably hit many in the United Kingdom hard.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, but not only in the United Kingdom. Following the British monarchy is also a common American pastime, and Washington has lost the head of state of its closest ally. End of an era, indeed.

EA: Of course, there was another era-defining death last month, and I did want to briefly talk about former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Like the queen, it almost feels like an endnote to history to be talking about Gorbachev, as he’s very much an emblem of a prior era in world politics. But he was a hugely important figure in helping to end the Cold War, even if he had little control over what came after.

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. It’s the end of an era. The Second Elizabethan Era, to be precise, after Buckingham Palace announced on Thursday afternoon that Queen Elizabeth II passed away among her family at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Although the queen had little real power in international affairs, she was a consistent symbol for many in Britain and elsewhere, one that had endured through World War II, the loss of the British empire, the Cold War, and everything that came after. Not all Brits are monarchists, of course, but her death will probably hit many in the United Kingdom hard.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, but not only in the United Kingdom. Following the British monarchy is also a common American pastime, and Washington has lost the head of state of its closest ally. End of an era, indeed.

EA: Of course, there was another era-defining death last month, and I did want to briefly talk about former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Like the queen, it almost feels like an endnote to history to be talking about Gorbachev, as he’s very much an emblem of a prior era in world politics. But he was a hugely important figure in helping to end the Cold War, even if he had little control over what came after.

It is scary that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping see Gorbachev as a failure and an example to be avoided at all costs.

MK: Yes. Many in the West have lionized him as a hero—and for good reason. With a different leader in power in Moscow, the Cold War might not have ended peacefully. It’s worth pointing out, however, that he alone didn’t end the competition. The failure of the Soviet system’s ability to keep up left him with few good options. I suspect and hope there will be future Gorbachevs in Moscow (and maybe in Beijing) when these autocratic systems run out of steam. It is scary, however, that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping see Gorbachev as a failure and an example to be avoided at all costs.

EA: Where you sit is where you stand! In this case, it’s not hard to see why Putin and Xi would view Gorbachev as a failure. In many ways, he did fail in his primary goal: modernizing and maintaining the Soviet Union. His biggest successes—reducing late Cold War tensions as well as building arms control agreements and other bridges to Washington—were inextricably tied to the perestroika and glasnost that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union.

That was good for many reasons: It was good for the people of Russia and for the citizens of the states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who didn’t have to live under communist tyranny. And it was good for the world, reducing the risk of nuclear confrontation and superpower war. But it did have other effects: a decade of economic collapse inside Russia, turmoil in the region, and ethnic conflict in some places. Today’s war in Ukraine is a legacy of the Soviet collapse.

So it’s not hard to see why folks in Russia might view Gorbachev’s legacy differently than those in the West or in Eastern Europe. It’s a mixed record.

MK: Well, Putin’s biggest concern this week is not emulating Gorbachev but Ukraine’s new military counteroffensive. Initial reports suggest that the Ukrainian military is having some success in pushing the Russians back in both the south and northeast.

It makes me think that much of our Ukraine debate has understandably been focused on the tactical and near term, but we need to shift to more of a strategic focus. What is the Ukraine we want to see in three to five years, and how do we get from here to there? The question becomes even more important if Ukraine experiences a sudden and unexpected so-called catastrophic success on the battlefield.

EA: First off, let’s be clear that it’s far too early to tell how this offensive is going for Ukraine. There are some reports of initial successes, but even the military experts who are watching it most closely are not yet drawing conclusions.

I think you’re right that we should be thinking more strategically about this war, but in this case, the tactical successes or failures are going to be critical in understanding our strategic options. We have one big unanswered question right now: Can Ukraine retake some territory from Russia? If the Ukrainians prove able to retake the Russian-held city of Kherson, for example, then it will show that they have some potential to reconquer territory, though “catastrophic success,” as you put it, seems highly unlikely. But if they cannot do so, then it suggests that a stalemate has been reached, and Ukraine may need to cede some territory to end the conflict. There’s a lot at stake here for the Ukrainians.

MK: It is the Russians who should be relinquishing Ukrainian territory if they want peace. And I agree that there is a lot at stake. This is not just about which government controls Kherson but about the future of the rules-based international system and democracy versus autocracy. Speaking of which, U.S. President Joe Biden gave a big (and controversial) speech on the threat to American democracy on Sept. 1.

What is your take?

EA: Ukraine has never rated higher than “partly free” in Freedom House’s annual democracy and civil liberties assessment, so you’ll forgive me for doubting that it is the bulwark of global democracy.

As for Biden’s speech, it was very strange. It was primarily on domestic issues; he actually called out “MAGA Republicans” by name as a major threat to democracy. What did you think?

Biden’s speech would have been stronger if he had not segued immediately from the genuine threats to democracy at home into a set of topics that are legitimate subjects of political contention.

MK: Well, let me start first with the domestic piece. I thought Biden was justified in wanting to give a speech emphasizing the importance of American democracy and warning of the real threats to it. But the speech quickly veered into a partisan rally, focusing on divisive social issues. It also placed all the blame squarely at the feet of his political opponents while not acknowledging that Democrats have also denied election outcomes and strategically funded the “MAGA Republicans” (the threat to democracy identified by Biden) in primary races so Democrats would face weaker competitors in the general election. So, in short, I was disappointed by the speech.

EA: Yeah, it would have been a much stronger speech—and much more likely to appeal to a broad segment of American voters—if the president had not segued immediately from the genuine threats to democracy at home into a set of topics that are legitimate subjects of political contention, such as abortion.

But this is a foreign-policy column. What about the speech and its relevance to foreign policy? The speech tied neatly into this administration’s framing of foreign policy as a battle between democracies and autocracies. Reading between the lines of Biden’s speech, it seems he is advocating for fighting against autocratic tendencies both at home and abroad.

MK: I think the democracy-versus-autocracy framing basically works as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. The United States and its closest democratic allies in North America (can’t forget Canada!), Europe, and the Indo-Pacific are on one side. Revisionist autocracies—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—are on the other. And the dictators are increasingly working together with Russia to buy munitions for its war on Ukraine, from Pyongyang to Tehran.

So, the democracy-versus-autocracy framing is mostly accurate and it is also motivating for America’s democratic allies and partners. Washington and Moscow are not just amoral great powers duking it out. If that were the case, why should anyone care about the outcome? This is a moral competition between good and evil.

Since I am sure you agree, we can just break here and grab some lunch?

I get really worried whenever someone refers to foreign policy as a moral competition between good and evil.

EA: Oh, I can do this all day. But I get really worried whenever someone refers to foreign policy as a moral competition between good and evil. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan did that, and it ended up convincing the Soviets that he might actually start a nuclear war! This is the kind of language that drives absolutism in foreign policy and removes our ability to practice strategic empathy. If we just think that other countries are evil, then why would we try to understand what drives them? Why would we consider compromise of any kind? It’s a recipe for a permanent war—cold or hot—with no end.

MK: I agree that understanding the enemy is important, so understanding their different political systems and, yes, ideologies is part of that. If genocide, wars of aggression, and torturing prisoners of war is not evil, then what is? And I think it is possible to have a mixed strategy with dictators. Biden is complying with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, even as he contests its war in Ukraine. I don’t see how ignoring reality—such as an enemy’s human rights abuses—helps one to avoid cold or hot wars.

EA: I’m not suggesting ignoring atrocities. But there are a lot of autocracies that don’t commit genocide and don’t fight wars of aggression. And the United States has a pretty conflicted relationship with torture and prisoners of war over the last few decades, too. So those abuses are not the same thing as autocracy. We should be precise in our thinking on these issues.

MK: Fair enough on not all autocracies being the same, but I wouldn’t put U.S. treatment of prisoners on par with what happens in Russia and China. The more accurate description of the adversary is really “revisionist autocracies.” China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are actively trying to revise and ultimately tear down the rules-based order Washington and its allies created. Dictators that basically support the order in the security and economic realms are not the enemy and can be constructive partners on many issues.

EA: Even if you put that aside, democracy versus autocracy is not a great organizing principle for foreign policy. Neither is an ideology in the way that Soviet communism was, for example. The Soviet Union tried to actively spread its absolutist ideology around the world. And the other side was sometimes described as the free world, or the West, or other broader terms that implied opposition to Soviet absolutism. That let the United States build a big tent coalition of states—from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia—that wanted to keep the Soviets contained.

How do you build that kind of big tent when your central focus is on democratic nations?

MK: Since when did you become a supporter of the United States working closely with Saudi Arabia?

EA: Just because it doesn’t make sense today doesn’t mean it didn’t make sense in the 1950s. America today is the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, and the Cold War is over. Times change.

The United States can both have deep cooperation with like-minded democracies even as it continues pragmatic cooperation with friendly dictators.

MK: I think it made sense then and now. So, to your question, I think you present a false dilemma. The United States can both have deep cooperation with like-minded democracies even as it continues pragmatic cooperation with friendly dictators. In fact, this has been the reality of U.S. foreign policy for decades.

Moreover, for the sake of argument, what if the United States alienated all autocracies? Where are all of these powerful autocracies Washington needs on its side? People always mention Vietnam, Singapore, and the Persian Gulf States. Sure, it’s better to have them than not. But the United States and its democratic allies make up nearly 60 percent of global GDP. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea combine for roughly 20 percent. The competition is not going to swing based on which way Hanoi or Manama leans. As a self-described realist, I thought you would better appreciate that the democracy-versus-autocracy framing also gives the free world a huge advantage in the balance of power.

EA: It’s nice, but it’s not the whole story. Singapore sits on some of the world’s most important sea lanes. The United States has long protected the Strait of Hormuz—through which much of the world’s oil and gas passes on a daily basis—from its base in Manama, Bahrain. And much of the world’s oil and gas is produced in autocracies. If you want an alternative to Russian gas in Europe, you need to talk to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

And where do you draw the line? Is India a democracy? If you want to manage China effectively, India needs to be involved. But despite the description of India as the world’s biggest democracy, they have serious and worsening democratic deficits in areas like religious freedom and freedom of expression. These factors led both Freedom House and the Swedish V-Dem Project—perhaps the two best-known indexes of democracy—to downgrade India to something less than a full democracy in their rankings.

Meanwhile, there are autocracies that are needed for America to achieve its foreign-policy goals, and there are democracies that Washington cannot and should not commit to defend militarily, since it would negatively impact our own security. Take Mongolia: It’s a consolidated democracy but sandwiched between Russia and China. Should the United States defend democracy there if needed?

MK: Sure, if you take it literally, U.S. foreign policy is not about helping every democracy against every autocracy. I haven’t seen much talk about a proposed U.S. alliance with democratic Ghana against authoritarian Togo, for example. But I still think it is a useful bumper sticker that speaks to the most meaningful fault line in international politics today.

It is easy to be a critic but harder to come up with effective solutions. If you were Biden’s speechwriter, what labels would you use to effectively distill the complications of foreign policy into sound bites that resonate with masses of people?

EA: I’m no speechwriter, but why can’t the White House simply rely on classic presidential tropes like “America stands against tyranny” or “the free world”? Even we realists accept that you have to have some political rhetoric that resonates with the American people, but I think this hurts more than it helps as a framing. And I’m concerned that it isn’t purely rhetorical. It seems like the administration increasingly uses this frame when thinking about its foreign-policy choices. Framing America’s entire strategy as a contest between democracy and autocracy or good versus evil simply backs policymakers into a corner and makes it far harder to consolidate a workable approach to big problems like China.

I have to go, but in the meantime, I have an assignment for you: Before our next column, can you figure out what the heck is happening with the Iran deal? First it was off. Then it was on. Now, apparently, it might be back off again. It’s beginning to feel like the nuclear “Hokey Pokey.”

MK: Aren’t you going to tell us your big news before we wrap up?

EA: Yes! I am happy to be joining the Stimson Center here in Washington as part of a new grand strategy program. Our readers won’t notice much of a difference, but since you are no longer doing my performance reviews, shall I stop pulling my punches?

MK: Oh no! Are we finally going to find out what you really think? Let’s have at it.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  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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