The problem confronting Biden was made starkly clear during a news conference after their meeting on Wednesday. Addressing Russia’s attacks on recent U.S. elections, Biden told reporters: “I made it clear that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilize our democratic elections.”
But when Biden was pressed to explain what the consequences to Russia will be, he could list only some relatively modest diplomatic sanctions that had already taken place. Instead, he sought to stress the cost to Russia’s reputation.
“It diminishes the standing of a country” that wants to be seen as a world power, Biden said, to have everyone know that they interfere in others’ elections.
Which may not exactly have Putin quaking with fear. In short, Putin has already gotten what he wanted, and it’s unclear how much Biden can do about it at this point.
The Biden administration has been careful to stress that it is not seeking a sweeping “reset” of relations with Russia, since one president after another has said that and regretted it after years when little changes. But Biden certainly wants a larger reset, of the damage done by the presidency of Donald Trump — which of course Putin played a key role in bringing about.
Biden is now the second Democratic president in a row whose election victory brought a sigh of relief from our allies and around the world. As recent cross-national data from the Pew Research Center shows, in Germany, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan and other countries, there has been a huge increase in the percentages of people who have confidence in the U.S. president “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” as much as a 70-point boost.
That’s good news for Biden; among other things, it means he’ll be better able to work actively with the leaders of those countries. But he faces a problem: At a moment when the long-term worldwide trend toward democratization has shown signs of reversal, the United States is less able than it used to be to act as an example to countries that could go forward toward liberty or backward toward authoritarianism.
Which is just what Putin has long wanted. One of his key foreign policy projects has been to undermine the very idea of democracy, so he can argue to his own people and potential allies that it’s a sham, a mess and not something any country should aspire to.
And in that goal, the help he delivered to Trump in 2016 was a spectacular foreign policy success. For a modest investment — in some hackers, some Facebook advertising and an outreach program to Trump’s aides and family members — he helped swing a U.S. election and brought about a transformation in U.S. politics.
Look at where we are today. While Biden might have wanted us to shake off the Trump era like it was a bad dream, the effects are not so easily put behind us.
When Putin looks at the United States, he sees that one of our two great parties has all but accepted the idea — the idea at the core of Putin’s political philosophy — that authoritarianism is preferable to democracy. When he gave Trump a helping hand in 2016, it was likely less because he expected policy concessions from Trump than that Trump would be an agent of chaos who would discredit the United States and its political system in the eyes of the world. And did he ever.
Today, it is all but GOP gospel that elections and democratic accountability are legitimate only if Republicans win. This may have been a common, if unstated, view within the party before, but now it is absolutely central to its agenda of escalating voter suppression, gerrymanders and attacks on election officials.
Not only that, there is now an open pipeline for pro-Russian propaganda to pour into the American political debate, through sympathetic Republican members of Congress and a conservative media apparatus that has decided that parroting Kremlin talking points and praising Putin are appropriate and effective means of fighting the real enemy, Democrats.
To be sure, the Republican Party is not monolithic on this question; many members favor a harsh line on Russia. But that’s nothing new. What is new is the extraordinary level of cheerleading for Russia and Putin one regularly hears from conservative Republicans.
Now combine that with the way every U.S. election in the near future will be the subject of disputes, lawsuits, protests and perhaps outright violence. Putin couldn’t be happier about the state of U.S. democracy; just imagine how tickled he was to see a pro-Trump mob invade the Capitol. You think Western democracy is so great?, he could say, Just look at that.
Which brings us to another result from that Pew poll. Across 16 countries, a median of only 17 percent of people said in 2021 that U.S. democracy is a good example for other countries to follow. But 57 percent said our democracy used to be a good example but hasn’t been in recent years.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue with them. Which is one of the many challenges Biden faces: It’s in the United States’ interests to see more countries move toward liberal democracy, but we need to show the world why they should follow our path. For all the good Biden’s election did in restoring America’s image, the case for democracy is still harder to make than it used to be. Just as Putin always hoped.