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Biden’s Foreign Policy Stuck Between Values And Interests – OpEd

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President Biden has consistently spoken about the central standing of democratic values in his government’s foreign policy both before and after entering the White House. In his February 2021 speech, he described the bold mission of the United States in the present age to reveal the fact that democracy in this transformed world continues to guide and inspire. At a news conference on March 25, Biden emphasized the usefulness of democracy over authoritarianism in the 21st century and defined the US mission as proof of its usefulness and effectiveness. Late last year, the Biden administration invited about one hundred countries to the “Summit for Democracy” to demonstrate its practical commitment to democratic values and dispel the suspicion that the promotion of democracy and human rights would no longer be a post-Trump US foreign policy concern. The meeting aimed to bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen democratic institutions, confront the growing decline of democracy in the world, and finally define a common agenda for confronting the growing threat to collective democratic values.

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It is not intrinsically wrong for a government to declare democracy and democratic values the basis of its foreign policy, or to bring together other countries around the world to discuss ways to strengthen and revive liberal democratic values. However, the question is “can the United States make such a claim?” Does the United States have the global position and legitimacy to hold such a meeting? Logically, there should not be a deep contradiction between America’s commitment to promoting democracy abroad, and its adherence to democratic principles at home. Does such a situation really prevail in America?

According to Freedom House’s assessment of the state of political and civil rights in various countries around the world, the 2020 United States is still facing the problem of declining democratic procedures and relations. Over the past decade, the United States has democratically dropped from 94 to 83, one of the sharpest declines in the world during the period. The Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to a flawed democracy before Donald Trump, and there is no evidence that things have changed afterward. The idea of regaining and restoring America’s soft power seems more and more inaccessible today, given the domestic model that the United States has presented to the world of its democracy. Is it possible to rely on the global democracy leadership of a country that some of its own people refuse to accept the legitimacy of its 2020 presidential election and are actively seeking to influence the democratic processes of future elections for their own benefit?  

The evaluation of the list of those invited to the Democracy Summit also added to doubts about Biden’s claim to revive the democratic component of US foreign policy. It reflected the dual and deceptive approach taken by the Biden government to the issue of democracy. Of course, this is not unique to the Biden administration, and it has prevailed the US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Many of America’s most trusted friends and allies during the Cold War were, in fact, a number of authoritarian and undemocratic regimes selected solely on the basis of anti-communist characters. An analysis of the names of the countries invited or present at President Biden’s Democracy Summit once again showed that these dual US standards of democracy are well-preserved. Although the names of countries that are specifically autocratic regimes did not appear on the list of participants of the summit, the invitation and presence of a number of other countries were quite disappointing for those who believed in democratic principles and norms. Two groups of governments were invited to the meeting, despite serious doubts about their commitment to democratic values. The first was a group of important geopolitical actors, such as India and Brazil, on whom Washington has counted to advance its strategic goals. The second group was smaller and less geopolitically important countries such as Poland and Ukraine. It seems that their invitation to the meeting was due to their unequivocal support for US foreign policy in the international community.

In addition to doubts about the state of democracy within the United States, as well as its not-so-brilliant history of promoting democracy, the imbalance of power in the international system and the rise of China have fueled pessimism about Biden’s efforts to promote democracy. Competition with China has forced the United States to form alliances with regimes that are geopolitically and geostrategically aligned with US interests, but less democratic. How can the Biden administration reconcile its focus on democratic values with the US need to form flexible alliances with a range of strategically aligned but politically different countries? The US government has among its partners from semi-authoritarian to overtly authoritarian countries- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Singapore, and Thailand – that validate the US statement on the promotion and dissemination of democracy. This seriously challenges US’s credibility. Isn’t this claim merely a pretext for attacking inconsistent regimes, and the only means of advancing the short-sighted and unilateral strategic interests of the United States in defending liberal values?

Biden’s rhetoric about democracy, followed by the Summit for Democracy, reflects the persistence of a long-standing dilemma and conflict in American foreign policy that is American values versus interests. This confusion has led to the inability in setting and adhering to specific priorities, and the tendency to set ambitious goals and fail to implement them. Finally, it is not clear what Biden’s main concerns and foreign policy concerns are. 

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If the main issue is authoritarianism and the dangers it poses to global democracies, then it may make sense to bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen and prepare a number of initiatives among them. But if the defense of democracy and human rights is the guiding star of American foreign policy, then the United States must stop supporting authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and distance itself from governments like Turkey, Israel, and Hungary that have taken many steps toward authoritarianism. But if Biden and the United States are primarily concerned with China and its growing power, on the contrary, Washington cannot be obsessive and selective about who can be its friends. If the politics of the great powers is a major concern, prioritizing democracy can reduce US influence in certain parts of the world, and provide an opportunity for China to move closer to countries that are reluctant to share their political structure. Thus, if China is the central challenge facing the United States today, emphasizing democracy would probably not be the best way to address it.

But what if the world’s main challenge is a much bigger problem and in the resolution of issues such as climate change or pandemics? If so, then the first priority of American foreign policy should be to strengthen and promote cooperation with other nations of any kind and system, rather than dividing and polarizing them on the basis of good and bad governments, or democracies and authoritarians. From this perspective, holding a meeting in which a large number of countries have been excluded on the basis of such classifications will certainly not be a useful and constructive solution to these global challenges. The tendency to regulate relations with rivals and the world in a hostile manner and based on the line drawn between the democracies and authoritarianism while undermining the possibility and scope of cooperation on issues and challenges such as climate change and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will undoubtedly make the world a more dangerous place than before.

*Timothy Hopper, an international relations graduate of American University.

Timothy Hopper

Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University.

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