President Biden’s first overseas trip, to a large extent, is an affirmation that his predecessor was an aberration whose views were anathema to American values. Biden’s success in repairing relations with European allies could be seen in expressions of solidarity but also in concrete results and elevation of democracy as a tool of foreign policy.

The Post reports: “President Biden and European Union leaders reached a deal Tuesday to put to rest a 17-year-old trade dispute about subsidies for aircraft manufacturers, officials said, a significant step in calming trade relations after the fury of the Trump years.”

This is one of several new commitments reached during Biden’s trip, including pledges to supply vaccines to the world, to address climate change, to cooperate in facing aggressiveness from China and to defend democracy as it faces unprecedented threats from illiberal movements and autocratic regimes. While differences remain on steel tariffs and travel restrictions, the days of U.S. antagonism toward our allies are behind us, for now.

President Biden delivered remarks championing the United States' relationship with the European Union and NATO during the June 15 U.S.-E.U. Summit. (The Washington Post)

Most noteworthy has been Biden and our allies’ unabashed support for democracy. The joint U.S.-E.U. statement included robust language defending democratic values:

Together, the European Union and the United States are an anchor for democracy, peace, and security around the world, to peacefully prevent and resolve conflicts, uphold the rule of law and international law, and promote human rights for all, gender equity and equality, and the empowerment of women and girls, including by working together through multilateral institutions including the U.N. Human Rights Council. . . .
We reject authoritarianism in all its forms around the globe, resisting autocrats’ efforts to create an environment that protects their rule and serves their interests, while undermining liberal democracies. We intend to enhance cooperation on the use of sanctions to pursue shared foreign policy and security objectives, while avoiding possible unintended consequences for European and U.S. interests.

Statements such as this one, and pledges to “support democracy across the globe by defending media freedom; advancing a free and open Internet; fostering responsible behavior in cyberspace; upholding transparency and combating corruption in financial systems, politics, and the economy; tackling disinformation; protecting civil society and civic space; advancing women’s political participation and empowerment; and protecting the human rights of all people” present a challenge and even a threat to autocrats.

Such pro-democracy language would have been impossible under the prior administration, which embraced dictators, demeaned the free press as an “enemy of the people,” echoed Russian propaganda on interference in our elections and renounced the rule of law.

The joint statement also included language that Republicans should study:

We resolve to lead by example at home. We intend to partner in the Summit for Democracy, committing to concrete actions to defend universal human rights, prevent democratic backsliding, and fight corruption. ...
We resolve to support the ability of civil society and independent media to operate freely, and to protect and defend journalists in order to hold governments accountable.

How nice it would be if Republicans committed to the same language, joining efforts to investigate and prevent violent extremism, to secure voting rights, to prevent bigotry against transgender youths, and to put an end to race-baiting. Alas, it might be as difficult to get their concurrence on a robust declaration of democratic values as it would from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is no accident that joint meetings with the Group of Seven, the E.U. and NATO were scheduled before Biden’s meeting with Putin. The greatest “soft” power we have is our own democratic system. When we produce economic, health and scientific results and offer freedoms denied to captives of autocratic regimes, we support the victims of oppression and deny legitimacy to thugocracies. When we respect election results and practice transparency, we put autocracies on defense. Biden’s predecessor never grasped this because he had authoritarian tendencies himself and was in the thrall of the world’s strongmen. Sadly, the same could be said of much of the Republican Party.

Biden would be wise to double down on the promotion of democracy. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, counsels in an article for Foreign Affairs: “Both Beijing and Moscow promote a narrative of American decline. Strengthening American democracy, including by protecting voting rights, is the best way to counter it.” In addition to supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and democratic goals (which entails cracking down on corruption), McFaul recommends that “Biden must provide a counterweight to Putin’s promotion of autocracy.” That requires speaking up on behalf of persecuted dissidents such as Alexei Navalny, as well as reforming and modernizing outside sources of information (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) to provide accurate news, explain the functioning of our democracy and expose corruption in autocratic regimes.

Biden will not walk away from Geneva with “deliverables” from Putin. He can, however, establish new ground rules for how the United States will conduct itself. And most important, the president can champion democracy and thereby recapture not only the soul of our nation but also the power of our example. Biden likes to say America is great because it is good; it is also great because it is a democracy built on multiple races and faiths, the rule of law and respect for the dignity of all its people. If only the GOP understood and practiced this concept.

President Biden spoke to reporters in Geneva following a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, saying the meeting had a positive tone. (Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

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