When Biden was last in elected office, democracy was still judged, at least in Washington, as the default system toward which the world was slowly but inexorably evolving. U.S. victory in the Cold War had destroyed the Soviet Union’s totalitarian alternative. Most developing countries at least pretended to aspire to democratic institutions.
Thanks in part to former president Donald Trump, the geopolitical landscape in 2021 looks entirely different. China, which during the 2010s was still considered likely to evolve toward liberalism as it grew richer, instead is under a powerful dictator and openly offering the world a ruthlessly efficient model of tyranny, guided and sustained by artificial intelligence and other new technologies. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is doing its part by using social media and cyberhacking, among other tools, to attack and subvert democratic governments.
Meanwhile, liberal democracy is being undermined from within by autocratic populist movements, including that led by Trump. Thanks to him, a majority in one of the United States’ two major political parties is now prepared to nullify election results, disregard court rulings and knowingly propagate lies to remain in power.
For Biden, defending democracy cannot be merely one “basket” in a variegated foreign policy or a talking-points sop to liberals. The issue is now existential. His dual imperative — and the central test of his presidency — will be to fashion a strategy that can defeat Trumpism at home while offering the world a competitive political counter-model to that being pushed by China.
The first step is understanding and embracing the challenge. The good news is that Biden and his incoming national security team have done that. In their confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines readily agreed with Republicans about the threat from Beijing, reflecting an appropriate sea change from the Obama administration, in which both served. Under Xi Jinping, Blinken said, China is “making clear that they seek to become, in effect, the leading country in the world, the country that sets the norms and standards and puts forth a model that they hope other countries and peoples will ascribe to.” That model, he said, is “inimical to our own interests.”
For his part, Biden has stressed the importance of repairing U.S. democratic institutions, which must be not only hardened against future assaults from Trumpism but also become more inclusive and transparent. The extremist movements that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol must be corralled; the 1887 law that would allow a partisan majority in Congress to reject electoral college votes should be repealed. An incipient wave of state legislation by Republicans to restrict voting in future elections must be beaten back. Instead, the measures to expand voting, reform redistricting and expand public election financing included in the For the People Act, passed by the House in 2019 as H.R. 1, ought to be at the top of Biden’s legislative priorities.
Revitalizing the U.S. democratic model is the precondition for prevailing over China in the global battle of governance. Much like the Cold War, it will likely devolve into country-by-country combat between East and West. But the fights will look very different from the guerrilla wars of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Instead, the crucial battles will be technological: Will nations adopt China’s paradigm of using facial recognition, big data and other emerging technologies to grant governments comprehensive power over their citizens, or will the new tools instead facilitate free speech and civil society?
Blinken described a contest between “techno-democracies” and “techno-autocracies” that, he said, “is going to go a long way to shaping the next decades.” Democracies, he said, have to come together to ensure that “we are the ones shaping the norms and rules” of 21st-century technologies so that “they are more our values than theirs.”
The new secretary of state is probably right to suggest that the United States and other democracies are not certain to prevail in this fateful contest. “There are many, many very apparent weaknesses that China tries to hide when it comes to projecting its model,” he told senators. “But in the absence of an alternative, they may do better than we think.”
That neatly defines the job of the Biden administration. Trump has left the U.S. model of democracy in ruins. Biden, to paraphrase his own slogan, must build it back, stronger.