The Problem with Biden’s Democracy Agenda

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There is an ironic tension at the heart of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy. The president has said, “I think we’re in a contest — not with China per se, but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world — as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.” However, according to a Pew survey earlier this year, Americans consider promoting democracy abroad as one of the least important priorities for U.S. foreign policy.

Can Biden’s desire for a struggle between democracy and autocracy be the foundation of an effective grand strategy? Or is it a path toward hubris and conflict that is backed principally by Washington’s foreign policy elite?

On his recent trip to participate in Group of Seven (G-7), NATO, and E.U. meetings, Biden put democracy front and center. He argued that “market democracies, not China or any other country, will write the 21st-century rules around trade and technology.” The president has so frequently cast U.S. foreign policy as a contest between democracies and autocracies that some are calling it the “Biden Doctrine.”

Mobilizing allies and likeminded partners into a coalition to shape updated rules and norms on specific issues is, indeed, the requisite beginning of any viable U.S. strategy. But in a multipolar world of diffused power, it is not sufficient as an organizing principle for world order because dealing with any of the global challenges from climate change and nuclear proliferation to future pandemics will require establishing a basis for cooperation with China, along with other autocracies like Russia and the Gulf countries. Dividing the world on the basis of ideology is ill-advised since democracies are not identical and uniting them is hardly as easy or predictable as many seem to think. The past couple of decades of squabbling, sanctions, and tensions over gas pipelines, the Iraq War, and Western relations with Russia and China — to mention only a few contentious issues — demonstrate that shared values between the United States and its closest allies are no guarantee of comity. Other examples include the myriad U.S.-European disputes over climate policy, vaccine nationalism, tech taxation and regulation, Iran, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.



Nations, of course, have interests as well as values. Countries — regardless of political system — calculate their interests based on geography, economics, history, and culture as much as values. As Lord Palmerston famously said of the British Empire: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Biden, and it seems much conventional wisdom in Washington, wants to turn Lord Palmerston’s words on their head. Promoting democracy has been a key part of U.S. foreign policy rhetoric ever since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that the United States was making the world safe for democracy by entering World War I. However, the United States is no longer the dominant power it once was and the increasingly contested “rules-based order” is unraveling. The notion that an alliance of democracies can itself define the global order, excluding non-democratic major powers, threatens international stability and global cooperation on the major challenges facing humanity.

Moving forward, the Biden administration should certainly try to generate a common approach on global issues with its allies and partners. However, this should only be as a first step toward negotiating with China, Russia, and others on how to deal with pressing challenges like trade, international and regional security, and climate change. Believing that the United States or the world’s democracies writ large can sideline China and Russia is a recipe for division and strife.

Democracies versus Autocracies?

For many in Washington, international relations would be a lot simpler if we could confine the world to likeminded democracies. Taking this logic of a desired democratic order to an extreme, for example, a recent Atlantic Council report, while acknowledging the difficulties of Washington’s working with its traditional partners, advocates expanding the G-7 into a larger group of 10 leading democracies to create a “D-10” to shape a new global order. It suggests, “The D-10 could focus on developing an innovative new architecture—a revised Bretton Woods—for managing the global economy and aligning the free world through more fair and sustainable trade agreements.” It proposes a “Free World Trade Agreement.”

In reality, an integrated global economy and financial system already exists, and it does not necessarily favor the world’s democracies. China — an increasingly authoritarian, one-party communist state — is the most important driver of global economic growth. It is the world’s largest trading power and a leading capital exporter. Even as the U.S. dollar remains the global reserve currency, China is the leading trade partner of most of the D-10 as well as most U.S. Asian partners. Russia is a major trading partner of many E.U. states and has built up a currency reserve in excess of $600 billion. This is to say nothing of cross-investments, both direct investments and portfolio: China holds $1.1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds, and American companies invested $116 billion of direct investment in China in 2019 alone. There are growing concerns about Beijing, fueling efforts to redesign supply chains, control technology, and avoid dependence on its technologies. Global interdependence may be reconfigured and circumscribed, but it is a discrete, issue-based phenomenon.

An alliance of democracies is not a new idea. In 2000, the Clinton administration set up a full-fledged organization, the Community of Democracies, which was continued in the Bush administration. The original idea was to be:

A forum in which to work together to learn from each other and identify global priorities for diplomatic action to advance and defend democracy, including through collective diplomatic action at the [United Nations] and in other multilateral fora.

After two decades, few know of the Community of Democracies, and it is bereft of demonstrable achievements, as democracy worldwide is being challenged by populist, authoritarian nationalism.

While advocates of a democratic order seek to avoid a new Cold War, it is difficult to see how their binary democracy or authoritarianism division of the world could avoid a bifurcated, conflict-prone future. Trying to sideline China because it isn’t a legitimate actor in a democratic order would likely push Beijing to be more activist in combating such a Western-dominated system. Currently, it is only selectively revisionist, adopting many rules and practices from the West that it sees are advantageous for its development.

Some argue that with China so integrated and such a force in the global economy, it is a far bigger challenge than was the Soviet Union. But, as evidenced in European and Asian behavior seeking to avoid binary choices, there is hardly a unitary view of the China question. Nor is it obvious that the China factor is sufficient to drive a significantly more consequential outcome for a community of democracies.

Biden’s decision to embrace the language of democracy promotion is particularly curious at a time when democracy is receding around the world, and has been for most of this century. The trend toward illiberal democracy with an authoritarian tinge is global in scope. According to the University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem Project, “The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to levels last found around 1990.” With the recent decline in India’s democracy, some 68 percent of the world population now live in electoral autocracies. Consequently, the number of liberal democracies has dropped from 41 countries to 32 during the same time period: “In North America, and Western and Eastern Europe, no country has advanced in democracy in the past 10 years while Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States of America have declined substantially.”

Certainly Biden has every reason to highlight democracy’s problems, but there’s a leap in logic to suggest the United States can successfully promote democracy in other countries. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a democracy practitioner and executive vice president of Freedom House, made the point in her study of U.S. democracy promotion that while those efforts have “played a clear — albeit varying — role in supporting democratization in many countries … it cannot be seen as the primary cause in any one case.” Arguably, the most effective way the United States can promote democracy is to repair its own democracy.

Living in the Real World 

How much of a threat is autocracy? Apart from China, with its global ambitions, there is a dearth of autocracies that offer themselves as models to challenge democracy. Most, like Russia, mainly seek to justify their authoritarian rule under the veil of nationalism and traditionalism. Autocracy is less an ideology than a means of socio-political control whose effort at self-justification plays on shortcomings of democracies. Certainly, China and Russia like dealing with autocracies and are committed to avoiding any U.S.-inspired regime change efforts against them, but they recognize — more than Biden and other Western commentators — how fragile and brittle authoritarian regimes can be in the face of domestic pressure.

Instead of overdoing the threat posed by autocracies, Washington needs to find ways of working with a range of countries on an issue-specific basis. Those countries — whether democratic or authoritarian — with ample weight on a given issue should have a seat at the table. The negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal are a good example, as was the previous Six-Party talks on North Korea. Both included China and Russia.

On climate, China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, and the European Union account for some 85 percent of greenhouse gases. A smaller group bringing that much to the table is more likely to reach consensus and set standards than a 162-member U.N. conference. That’s why a major emitters group was created. More recently, the four leading Indo-Pacific maritime powers (United States, Japan, Australia, India) that together make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue could shape cooperation on key issues for the region, besides confronting China.

Biden wants democracies to write the rules of trade. Yet he arrived at the G-7 with little to say on advancing free trade beyond mitigating sanctions on allies by resolving the protracted Boeing-Airbus dispute over subsidies, and suspending tariffs. U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs on E.U. partners remain. Prio to the Trump administration, the United States had been negotiating a trans-Atlantic trade accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which both the Bush and Obama administrations defined as a pillar of U.S. Asia strategy, designed to pressure China into adopting high-standard trade rules or risk isolation. However, President Donald Trump rejected the trans-Pacific agreement, and the trans-Atlantic trade talks ended inconclusively.

As the United States took a holiday from major trade deals during the Trump administration, anxious E.U. and Asian partners went on a frenzy of trade deal-making. The European Union signed trade agreements with Japan, South Korea, Association of Southeast Asian Nations states, Mercosur in Latin America, and even an investment treaty with China, just to name a few. Asia forged two major regional trade accords, both without the United States. Japan took up the mantle of leadership and finalized the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and U.S. allies and partners worked with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The United States cannot make the rules if it’s not in the game. One vital issue where the logic of aligning democracies could show its value and reverse trade trends is whether the United States and European Union can reach a common stance on reform of the World Trade Organization. This step would not necessarily solve all the problems of China’s illegal trade practices, but it would increase leverage on China to alter its predatory industrial policies.

Similarly, if the United States, Europe, and Japan can align their policies, they can shape standards, constrain China from imposing its tech standards on others, and press Beijing to alter its policies. U.S. and E.U. tech regulatory policies currently have large gaps. Indeed, even as the U.S.-E.U. summit created a US-E.U. Trade and Technology Council to shape rules and standards, the United States admonished the European Union for anti-U.S. tech regulations and digital tax proposals. If democratic allies can help fashion more secure supply chains, and find common positions on tech standards and on some technologies (like 5G), they also can with some success counter China’s predatory industrial policies.

Nonetheless, the logic of uniting Western efforts against Chinese technology has limits. First, not all technologies are strategic or dominated by the West. Moreover, although the gap is narrowing, there are significant differences in export controls among the G-7, more so with other democracies, but China’s coercive economic policies are narrowing the gaps. Selling China chips for Huawei cellphones is not necessarily a national security threat, but some Huawei equipment may pose security risks. Technological decoupling should be discrete and selective, not broad-brush.

The Biden administration’s efforts on climate change may actually lead to more interdependence with China. As a recent Financial Times analysis explained, China dominates the sourcing, production, and processing of key clean energy minerals worldwide and is the leader in clean tech manufacturing. It controls some 70 percent or more of lithium-ion battery metals and processing and 90 percent of the rare earth elements that are used in both high-technology weapons systems and offshore wind turbines, and it makes three-quarters of the world’s solar panels.

Most of all, emerging technologies — including AI, 5G, and biosciences — require global standards. The United States and European Union need to overcome divergent technology and regulatory standards (e.g., on privacy and regulating U.S. Big Tech). Separate standards by allied democracies on the one hand and China/Russia on the other on AI or biotechnology would spark a lose-lose race to the bottom. 

Rebuilding America’s Credibility 

America’s domestic dysfunction has undermined its legitimacy and international influence. The country now appears to be a “dysfunctional superpower,” one unable to pass budgets, manage its debt, ratify treaties, or carry out a coherent and consistent foreign policy. Some might add an inability to put medical science ahead of polarized, tribal politics. Until these problems have been fixed, it is probably wise to tone down the over-the-top rhetoric as if Washington knows best. 

Domestic and international polling indicates that many people around the world — not just adversaries, but also allied countries — perceive that the U.S. political system is broken. According to a recent Pew poll, 23 percent thought U.S. democracy was never a model, while 57 percent thought the United States was a model but no longer is. Mass shootings, the killing of George Floyd and continued police abuse of black people, an increasingly extreme Republican party, and not least the insurrection on Jan. 6, all contribute to such perceptions. 

Improving governance in the United States would be a force multiplier for Washington’s foreign policy with regard to both soft power and a sense of legitimacy. To give Biden his due, he has made an effort, but the forces at play eroding democracy and stoking populism in the United States and abroad are formidable: the lingering backlash to globalization that hit the middle class; distrust from the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis; the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; and political and social polarization. These factors continue to fuel illiberalism. Fixing them is a sine qua non for championing democracy’s virtues. In fact, repairing U.S. democracy would do much to give the lie to authoritarianism.

Getting to a Democratic China 

The United States may want a democratic China, but trying to isolate Beijing is a fool’s errand, likely to further bolster Xi Jinping and his regime in the eyes of the Chinese public, and undermine Biden’s desire for tackling major global challenges. Global problems such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and nonproliferation require an interest-based degree of cooperation regardless of political systems.

All countries have the right to voice their concerns and criticize others. We are not asking Biden or other Western countries to refrain from strong opprobrium or sanctioning of China or Russia for economic and political coercion and human rights abuses. Nevertheless, bad guys also have interests, and they get a vote, especially when, like China, they are the world’s soon-to-be largest economy as well as biggest trading power, a technology leader, and mature nuclear weapons state. History suggests that a stable global order is more likely if some balance among major powers is achieved, particularly those with large nuclear arsenals and survivable second-strike capabilities. Pursuit of a democratic order, problematic in and of itself, also risks a fragmented world order prone to conflict.

The Biden administration may well understand this. It may be that Biden’s rhetoric on democracy promotion is more an effort to reinforce faith in U.S. democracy than a global ideological crusade. Biden’s pragmatic summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and efforts to find areas of cooperation with China suggest such a possibility.

Whether Americans like it or not, market democracies will not be the only countries determining the rules of world order. China will soon have the world’s largest gross domestic product in market terms, is a leading tech power, and is already a key driver of the global economy. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China is dependent on global markets. Telling Beijing or other illiberal states (Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and increasingly India, for example) that they do not deserve to have a say in negotiating the rules of trade in the world because they are not democratic will not advance Western interests. 

What’s the Solution?

U.S. foreign policy should balance values and interests. The United States has been most successful when it has done so — the 1972 opening to China and Cold War détente with the Soviet Union are good examples. The United States needs to understand its limits as well as its aspirations. Mobilizing democracies is a smart organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy to enhance its global leverage. But thinking that it is an organizing principle for a viable world order is taking a good idea to a counterproductive extreme. A stable world order is most likely when there is a balance of interests that the United States as well as other major powers can accept.

The results of the Biden-Putin summit set guardrails for stabilizing bilateral ties. Most notably, the United States and Russia agreed to resume a strategic stability dialogue, which suggests that in dealing with autocracies, the administration grasps the need for pragmatism. Achieving a stable balance of global power will require Washington to redefine America’s role in the world. Washington will have to transition from a worldview of primacy to one of primus inter pares (“first among equals”). This will be a difficult psychological shift, if recent U.S. foreign policy is an indication.. However, such a shift would mean a better understanding of the limits of U.S. power, more responsibility assumed by partners, pooling of power to address problems, and more selective engagement.

The Biden administration’s rhetoric of democracy versus autocracy seems to be a legacy of the previous bipolar era. Cutting deals with autocracies is an unfortunate necessity to best defend U.S. and allied interests, and has long been a feature of U.S. diplomacy. Extending that realism to China and other autocracies would be a wise move.

In light of the challenges threatening U.S. democracy, it is understandable why Biden has made demonstrating the success of democracies a central theme. If his main intent is rejuvenating U.S. democracy, however, Biden risks being faced with charges of hypocrisy and ineffectiveness as he tilts toward realism. If Biden wants to bring about a democratic revival — to lead, as he constantly (and rightly) says, by the “power of our example” — he should focus on getting America’s own house in order. Until then, less preaching and a little humility are called for.



Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4. 

Mathew J. Burrows, Ph.D., serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He retired in 2013 from a 28-year career at the CIA and the National Intelligence Council.

Image: White House (Photo by Adam Schultz)