Former vice president Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with a message steeped in idealism. He was aiming for American voters, of course. But his words resonate around the world during a time when democracy and its ideals are under assault, steadily losing ground to authoritarian nationalism on every continent.
Biden’s urgent, piercingly effective argument — that we face a transcendent “battle for the soul of this nation” — deserves to be heard as something even larger. The U.S. election is the key contest in a campaign to return the world to its democratic path.
Hundreds of millions of people around the globe will watch the U.S. election, because American voters may determine how far this challenge to democracy goes.
The notion that “all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights,” as Biden noted, is not unique to America. But it was the United States that promoted and defended this proposition with the greatest determination. Over the years, proponents of democratic principles have looked to the country for inspiration and support. While the United States has not always lived up to its ideals, as Biden rightly noted, it took President Trump to remove it from the fight.
Biden’s campaign video uses images from an event that still makes many of us catch our breath in horror and disbelief. American Nazis marched in Charlottesville nearly two years ago, carrying flaming torches against the dark sky and chanting a slogan that echoed their ideological forebears of the 1930s: “Jews will not replace us!” But even more shocking than the march itself was Trump’s uttering of a phrase that will forever cast a shadow on his character. There were some “very fine people” on both sides, he said.
As Biden rightly notes, Trump’s remark signaled a profound change. The president has turned the United States into one of the battlegrounds in the global war over liberal constitutional democracy, attacking the press, calling for the imprisonment of political rivals, politicizing what is supposed to be an independent judiciary, rejecting the authority of a co-equal branch of government and even half-joking about remaining president for life.
In the wider world, Trump has enthusiastically embraced the populist leaders who have been steadily undercutting democracy and rights in their own countries and among their neighbors. His State Department made it clear early on that it would set aside efforts to defend human rights. Washington no longer speaks out for the cause of human freedom or those who would defend it.
To be sure, the United States has been historically inconsistent in its promotion of human rights and democracy, at times compromising its principles for the sake of its security interests. But it was never quite like this.
Trump has criticized rights abuses in Venezuela and Iran, but that’s a geopolitical calculation that amounts to an exception. Few believe his interest is grounded in concern for democracy. He has made countless remarks showing that he views democracy as an inconvenience at home. Abroad, it’s barely a consideration.
According to Freedom House, democracy has been in retreat around the world for more than a decade. Year after year, democratic principles fall by the wayside in one country after another. The losses have not yet outweighed the huge advances of freedom that came after the Cold War. But the trend is deeply disturbing.
Freedom has been losing ground in countries where it was well established and in countries where it was just taking root. And even in places devoid of democratic institutions, such as China, repression has intensified. To Trump, China is all about trade. Human rights are not part of the conversation.
Elsewhere, as in the Philippines, Trump has praised President Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs, which has led to the assassination of thousands of people without a trace of due process, even as he relentlessly persecutes journalists who shine a spotlight on the violations. Trump has found a soul mate in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is systematically dismantling democratic institutions in his country after building support for his authoritarian policies on the strength of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Trump has declared his enthusiasm for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, one of the most brutal dictators of our time. And he has given effusive backing to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the president of Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who engage in brutality shocking even by their dismal standards.
To the extent that U.S. diplomats and other officials still speak out against repression, it happens quietly, as if trying to prevent Trump from finding out.
Biden is right to sound the alarm. Whether he is the best man for the job, he is correct in his analysis of what’s at stake. The next U.S. election could mark a reversal of the global drift toward autocracy. Or it could accelerate the loss of personal and political freedoms around the globe, making the world safe for torch-bearing nationalists and their ideologies.