Biden campaigned on bringing America back to its position as a leader of the free world and as a champion for human rights, women’s rights, the rule of law and the ability of people to influence how they are governed. As president, he has repeatedly said that advancing these values is the defining challenge of our time.
“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,” he said while meeting with other top democratic leaders at the Group of Seven summit in June.
So far, autocracy has advanced in several places on Biden’s watch. In Myanmar, there was a military coup in February that the world’s democracies did little to avert or respond to. In Tunisia last month, President Kais Saied orchestrated a “self-coup,” in which he used anti-democratic means to consolidate his own power. Again, the free world shrugged.
Now, millions of innocent people in Afghanistan are watching their freedoms and rights vanish before their eyes. To be sure, the government that ran away from the advancing Taliban was extremely problematic, lacking full democratic legitimacy. But millions of Afghans had better lives because they enjoyed more rights and more agency than before — until this week.
In his speech to the nation on Monday, Biden said the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan wasn’t actually part of the grand struggle between autocracies and democracies.
“It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy,” he said. “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”
When it comes to Afghanistan, Biden goes from being an idealist to a realist. The problem with his cold, national interest calculation is that Afghanistan does not exist in a vacuum. Afghanistan’s reversion to a state ruled by brutal fanatics is not just a problem for Afghanistan. And the sad turn of events there will reverberate around the globe.
Biden administration officials insist that the U.S. government will use all (nonmilitary) tools of national power to persuade the Taliban to respect international customs and norms such as women’s rights. They tout U.N. Security Council statements to bolster the credibility of that promise (never noting the irony that the signatories include brutal dictatorships).
But the fact that thousands of Afghan professionals are desperately fleeing Kabul this week illustrates the hollowness of the Biden administration’s spin. The journalists, judges, aid workers, academics and other civil society leaders who believed they would be supported in their struggle for a better life no longer trust the United States. If they manage to escape before being killed, they are not coming back. The cause of building institutions to support freedom and dignity in Afghanistan has been set back by a generation, at least.
It’s popular in Washington to say that Afghans don’t want democracy and that it was hubristic to try to help them achieve it. Of course, Afghans, like any other people, must prioritize security. But the struggle for dignity and agency and freedom is universal. Afghans won’t ever stop trying to achieve those things.
Biden’s bungling of the withdrawal and evacuation of Kabul, which is ongoing, also undermines his own pledge to repair alliances with other Western democracies. The United States left our Western allies in the lurch. Now they are scrambling to save the lives of their own citizens in Afghanistan.
In fairness, the Biden administration was dealt a lousy hand. Both the Obama and Trump administrations before him failed to make democracy and human rights priorities in their foreign policy. The George W. Bush administration over-militarized the mission of democracy and human rights promotion, which is partly why those efforts failed.
The trend is only worsening. Freedom House’s latest report states that 2020 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. That’s not Biden’s fault. But he did promise to reverse the trend. Now it’s time to put that talk into action.
China and Russia are gloating about the mess in Afghanistan, maneuvering to fill the void and using the crisis to undermine America’s credibility. The autocracies listened when Biden emphasized the fight between democracies and autocracies: They have increased their overseas engagements accordingly, spreading repression and cruelty while working hard to undermine our system of international customs and norms. The Biden team needs a strategy to operationalize its promise to fight back, the sooner, the better.
The Biden administration’s upcoming (virtual) summit of democracies is meant to include both democracies that are strong and those that are struggling. Afghanistan won’t be coming to the December event. But hopefully the list of democracies won’t get any shorter before then.