Whether the United States, after four years of backsliding on democracy and continuing domestic political rancor, is itself fit to lead a global democratic alliance is a question many American allies and partners are asking. The Biden administration likes to announce that “America is back.” But it needs to demonstrate that American democracy and predictability are back for the long term before countries will be willing to bear significant risks to pursue joint endeavors with Washington.
In his remarks before a joint session of Congress on April 29, US President Joseph Biden warned that the 21st century would be defined by the outcome of a titanic struggle between democracy and autocracy and that the autocrats were confident they will win. He is determined to prove them wrong: “It’s never ever, ever been a good bet to bet against America, and it still isn’t.” America, he vowed, was returning to its leadership role in the world, and it would rally the world’s democracies to meet the challenge.
Revitalizing America’s ties with its democratic allies in Europe and East Asia, a top foreign-policy priority, is a first major step in this effort. Later this year, the administration plans to convene of summit of democracies to highlight that the United States is back as the leader of the democratic community and to develop ideas on how to advance democracy after years of retreat worldwide, including in the United States.
After four years of Donald Trump’s transactional, value-free foreign policy, Biden’s aspirations mark a return to the mainstream of the American political tradition. Since its founding nearly 250 years ago, the United States has promoted democracy, either by example, “the shining city on the hill,” or by missionary activity in various countries across the globe.
At the level of rhetoric at least, Biden’s rallying cry will almost certainly enjoy widespread support with the foreign-policy establishment and the country at large.
Translating soaring rhetoric into concrete policy, however, is always a fraught endeavor. This is especially true in a world facing an inflection point, as the global balance of power shifts; new technologies transform the way we communicate, work, and fight; and nationalism, populism, and fundamentalism ignite people’s passions and claim their loyalties. Forging an alliance of democracies that is powerful enough to bend the trajectory of global developments, and yet not so large that the idea of democracy itself is fatally compromised and the contest of ideas turns into a raw power struggle, is a formidable task. It requires a careful melding of ambition and acumen. In this regard, the Biden administration faces three major challenges.
First is finding the right balance between ideological aspirations and geopolitical necessities. The Cold War provides a recent and apt illustration of the difficulties. In the effort to contain the Soviet Union, the United States, the leader of the “Free World,” often backed unsavory authoritarian regimes, especially in what was then called the “Third World,” against Marxist-inspired insurgent movements. It allied itself with authoritarian states in critical strategic locations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah in the Middle East. At the extreme, it forged a close relationship with Communist China to erode Soviet power. The justification for the compromise of principle was that containment was essential to creating a world in which freedom could advance—an argument not easily dismissed. Nevertheless, this approach left the United States open to accusations of hypocrisy and cynicism, which the Soviet Union happily propagated.
The challenge is no less fraught today, as the Biden administration identifies autocratic China as its central strategic challenge. Does Washington put aside concerns about Narendra Modi’s authoritarian proclivities to secure India as a partner against China? Does it invite Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, despite their serious backsliding on democracy, because they are important allies in containing Russia in Europe? And, if it doesn’t, what are the implications for NATO, now touted as an alliance of democracies, or the EU, which prides itself as the leading (democratic) normative power in the world today? No matter whether it decides to prioritize geopolitical interests over democratic values or vice versa, the Biden administration will have some explaining to do.
An equally confounding challenge arises from the Manichean choice between freedom and tyranny that Biden is posing. Whether intended or not, this choice fuels visions of a world divided between a US-led democratic bloc and a Chinese-led autocratic camp. But bipolarity fits awkwardly with a world that is increasingly interconnected and multipolar. Leading democracies, such as France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan, will resist pressure to choose sides, especially when their economic well-being is dependent on maintaining good ties with China. That the EU agreed to a comprehensive investment treaty with China on the eve of Biden’s inauguration is indicative of the resistance the American president will face. Democratic countries’ muted protests against China’s suppression of Hong Kong’s freedoms and gross violations of the Uighurs’ human rights out of concerns for their broader relationship with China underscore the difficulties ahead. Consequently, for any significant group of democratic countries to come to agreement on how to promote democracy in today’s world will require a careful balancing of the political, economic, and geopolitical interests of the participating states, something that almost certainly guarantees the agreement will fall short of the robust defense of principles that Biden’s rhetoric suggests he wants.
The last challenge arises from the state of America itself.
Not unfounded fears that a Trump-like figure, if not Trump himself, could retake the presidency in 2024 only raise concerns about the long-term viability of Biden’s proposal. This does not mean that leading American allies will refuse to attend Biden’s summit; nor does it mean that they will not express their deep commitment to reinforce democracy at home and promote it abroad. But it does forecast a less extensive list of cooperative endeavors or commitments to one another and a less-than-enthusiastic effort to engage on whatever joint endeavors a summit might develop. The Biden administration likes to announce that “America is back.” But it needs to demonstrate that American democracy and predictability are back for the long term before countries will be willing to bear significant risks to pursue joint endeavors with Washington.
An alliance of democracies is not a utopian dream. But it will take time to construct one, and success is far from certain. Under the circumstances, a smart first step might be organizing a small group of leading democracies to discuss the challenges ahead and the contours of possible joint action. This would be akin to what the major developed democracies did in the 1970s, when they formed the G-7 to discuss, and manage, global economic issues. This year the G-7 is inviting Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea to participate in part of its deliberations. As many observers have suggested, those eleven countries would make a good starting group for the discussion of democracy the Biden administration seeks and could form the core of a future alliance of democracies, which could slowly grow in numbers as circumstances warranted. Simultaneously, the United States would need to apply itself to the revitalization of its own democracy to turn that alliance into an effective player on the global stage. A tall order, to be sure, but hardly an impossible one.