To give substance to that focus, the administration this coming week will convene the first of two planned Summits for Democracy. The virtual gathering of leaders from more than 100 countries is designed, according to a State Department announcement, to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” Implicitly, it is a show against authoritarianism, especially in China.
There are many good reasons to host such a gathering. It’s smart politics, fulfills a campaign commitment and counters the perception, fostered by President Donald Trump, that America is no longer interested in promoting democracy and human rights. But as a geopolitical instrument, drawing lines between democracies and autocracies is not only certain to disappoint — it’s also a deeply flawed organizing principle for America’s approach to the world.
China and Russia, which Biden has also singled out for criticism, are not the main causes of the weakening of democracies around the world. Most of the backsliding, according to a recent study, has been caused by erosion within the world’s democracies, including the United States and many of its allies. Indeed, the upcoming summit includes a number of countries — India, Brazil, the Philippines and Poland among them — marked by growing autocratic movements and infringements on freedom of expression and a free press. And pushing these and other countries to reform their political, electoral or judicial institutions from the outside is hard if not impossible.
Biden isn’t the first and won’t be the last American president to make democracy promotion central to his foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world “safe for democracy”; Franklin Roosevelt promulgated the Atlantic Charter. The Clinton administration was present at the creation of the Community of Democracies. George W. Bush had his Freedom Agenda and talked about ridding the world of dictators. All found democracy promotion a useful tool to advance U.S. values and interests.
Biden seems to genuinely believe that democrats and dictators are in a do-or-die battle over who will own the 21st century. Though he insists that he doesn’t want a new cold war, some of his overcharged rhetoric belies this view. In March, Biden announced his intention “to invite an alliance of democracies to come here to discuss the future,” including holding “China accountable to follow the rules” on issues such as persecution of its Uyghur citizens and its territorial disputes with Taiwan. Biden has said of China’s President Xi Jinping that he “doesn’t have a democratic bone . . . in his body” and that Xi believes “democracy cannot keep up with” China.
It is simplistic to believe, however, that Chinese and Russian foreign policies are driven by the ideological impulse to spread autocracy. Both countries see the United States as their main geopolitical adversary and seek to undermine American influence and alliances wherever they can; the Chinese are also bent on outcompeting the United States in 21st-century technologies.
But the Russians don’t have an authoritarian model for export, and other autocratic-minded governments don’t need inspiration from Moscow to run kleptocratic, corrupt, repressive and misgoverned regimes. Putin’s overriding priority is self-preservation and the preservation of his regime. What evidence is there that he believes these objectives can be achieved only if the rest of the world looks like Russia?
Likewise, Xi’s main priority is maintaining his control and the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power. He is all too happy to claim that the Chinese government is outperforming America’s dysfunctional system. But it is simply not the case that he thinks these goals require Beijing to actively spread authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics abroad. And China’s wealth and power, not to mention its social stability, depend on competing effectively within the interdependent global economic system, not toppling it.
Another flaw in the Biden administration’s approach is the presumption that all democracies think alike based on their shared commitment to democratic values. If only it were that simple. Values do shape a nation’s foreign policy, but history, geography, culture, political ideology and material interests also matter. It is precisely for these reasons that America’s democratic allies and partners do not see eye to eye on how to deal with China or Russia — and why they shouldn’t be forced to choose sides between the United States and the authoritarians.
There’s also the politically inconvenient question of whether the United States is best positioned to lead this effort. Rarely has America’s democracy crusade abroad contrasted more with its commitment to democratic practices at home — where the threats include Trump’s false claims that the presidential election was “stolen,” an insurrection to stop a democratic transition and efforts to restrict voting rights. America has a glass-house problem, and it needs to promote its democratic virtues with considerable humility. According to Freedom House’s annual country-by-country assessment of political and civil rights, the United States continued to experience erosion in democratic practices in 2020;over the past decade, America’s score dropped from 94 to 83 out of 100, among the steepest falls of any country during this period.
It is hard to take seriously the notion that the United States can restore its “soft power” by virtue of the example it is setting at home. A recent Pew Research Center study found that a median of only 17 percent of people in surveyed countries thought U.S. democracy worth emulating, while 23 percent said it had never offered a good example. It is also hard to quibble with the proposition that America’s influence abroad is waning primarily because of its domestic problems, rather than authoritarian muscle-flexing in Moscow or Beijing.
Instead of chasing the chimerical goal of democratizing the domestic political orders of other countries according to a one-size-fits-all democratic shoe, the Biden administration would be well-advised to set its sights lower. For example, under approaches some have dubbed “micro” or “mini” multilateralism, the administration could collaborate on an ad hoc basis with a small number of like-minded democratic countries that have the skill, will, resources and capacity to make progress on pressing global problems. The recent agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (known as AUKUS) to share advanced military technologies, as well as U.S.-led efforts to strengthen the Quad grouping of the United States, Australia, India and Japan in the Indo-Pacific, are good examples. In Europe, the United States and the European Union should get behind NATO’s proposal for a Center for Democratic Resilience. Another way to focus would be to identify countries that have a special skill or track record in overcoming a particular challenge. Estonia, for example, under great pressure from Russia, has experience in fending off cyberattacks and could share those lessons with others. The sharing among nations of such experiences and knowledge could have real practical value.
The Biden administration is fond of talking about going big, but when it comes to promoting democracy, it would be far better if it went smaller abroad and, given the perilous state of American democratic practices, very big at home.