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History is calling Biden. Will his action on democracy match his rhetoric?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about threats to democracy on Nov. 2, 2022, at the Columbus Club in Union Station, near the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Democracy has been a constant theme of many of his speeches.

In his news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, President Biden repeated a major theme of his presidency: “We stand at an inflection point in history.”  

In the first year of his administration, he convened a 110-nation virtual Summit for Democracy to address the titanic struggle between autocracy and democracy, “the defining challenge of our time.”

Biden’s focus on the protection and expansion of liberal Western values makes him potentially the greatest human rights president since Jimmy Carter introduced the concept as a central tenet of American foreign policy.

Both presidents blotted their pro-democracy records, however — Carter by abandoning Taiwan, and Biden with his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Carter’s foreign policy chapter has been written, but Biden’s legacy is far from completed.  

Events in Russia, China and Iran have converged to afford him an unparalleled opportunity to bend the arc of history in a positive direction not seen since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  

On Russia, Biden initially repeated the mistakes of the George W. Bush and Obama-Biden administrations, which failed to respond effectively to Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, respectively. He fearfully said U.S. forces in Ukraine, even to enforce a no-fly zone, “would mean World War III.”

Inadvertently, however, Biden’s restraint on Russia’s latest invasion contributed to Putin’s fatal overreaching that led him into a strategic trap of his own making.  

The heroism of the Ukrainian people and President Volodymyr Zelensky — together with the flow of U.S. and NATO arms, though late and still unnecessarily constrained — have put Putin in a no-win position. He can cut his losses only by a humiliating withdrawal or by lashing out suicidally with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

His war of aggression and the ongoing atrocities committed by Russian forces have destroyed Putin’s international standing and eroded his domestic support. Many Russians have protested the war and tens of thousands of young men have fled the country to avoid military service.

Some Russians have shown they agree with Biden’s declaration in March: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Although an accurate reflection of much Russian and global opinion, the remark embarrassingly evoked earlier calls by Obama — with Biden serving as his chief foreign policy adviser — that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s own war criminal, “must go.”

Putin, Assad’s murderous ally then and now, stared down Obama-Biden as Russian forces in Syria aided Assad in perpetrating the atrocities similar to those Russia is carrying out in Ukraine.

Putin’s diminished moral and political authority, at home and internationally, potentially weakens his hold on power. A well-coordinated Western information, economic and diplomatic strategy could make common cause with the Russian people in their desire to end his authoritarian regime — just as Reagan’s strategic information campaign calling out the “Evil Empire” helped undercut Soviet rule.

Puitin’s “no-limits strategic partner,” Xi Jinping of China, has created his own regime-threatening situation. Xi used October’s 20th Communist Party Congress to consolidate his personal power for an unprecedented third term — and perhaps for life.

Despite his efforts to deflect blame to local authorities, Xi cannot escape responsibility for the severe anti-COVID lockdowns in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. When an apartment house fire in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, killed 10 people, including children, because COVID restrictions blocked rescue operations, protests broke out across China. They were the largest since 1989, and were unprecedented in calling for Xi’s removal from office and an end to Communist Party rule.

The eyes of China and the world turned toward Washington to learn how the foremost democracy would react. Biden, fresh from a meeting with Xi in Bali, has said nothing.  Administration spokespersons expressed sympathy with the protestors’ right of expression but did not comment on their anti-Xi tone.

Contemporaneously, in Iran, protests have been occurring since September, when a young Kurdish woman was arrested for violating Tehran’s rigid dress code and died in police custody.  Hundreds of others have been killed in clashes with police.

There, too, protestors have voiced anti-regime views and called for the end of clerical rule.  When similar protests erupted in 2009, Iranians shouted “Down with dictatorship!” and directed an appeal to the United States, “Are you with us or with them?” After weeks of equivocation, Obama finally condemned the regime’s violence — but declined to offer assistance to the political opposition or endorse the calls for regime change. Now there is a new opportunity to rally international support for the Iranian people.

In all three cases, the strategic communications plan should be based on two fundamental principles: (a) presenting the truth about what is happening in the country, and (b) offering Western moral, economic and diplomatic support for whatever the people choose for their future.

This approach is a more benign form of information warfare than that practiced by the West’s authoritarian adversaries. Kerry Gershaneck, a leading expert on the subject, notes that “Political warfare is Beijing’s preferred instrument to achieve its national objectives without having to fight a major kinetic war. “

America and the West were late to perceive that China and Russia for decades have been waging “Cold War II” against democratic institutions globally. Even after recognizing the existential danger, the U.S. and its allies have remained on the defensive, holding back from employing the West’s two most potent forces: truthful information and the power of the repressed populations.

If Biden is serious about advancing Western values and interests in “the defining challenge of our time,” now is the propitious moment to unsheath those weapons, just as Reagan did to win the first Cold War. 

As with all revolutions against ruthless dictators, the brunt of the regime’s lashing back will be felt first by the people themselves. They will have to decide how far they are willing to take their struggle for decency and freedom and the price they are willing to pay for the sake of future generations. The West should not get involved militarily unless China, Russia or Iran act against another country — making it a matter of individual or collective self-defense, not intervention in anyone’s internal affairs, despite Beijing’s endless accusations.

The populations of China and Iran have demonstrated their power when unified against their regimes, even when the oppression targets an ethnic minority. The deadly fire in China killed Uyghurs; the initial victim of Iran’s dress restrictions was a Kurdish woman.

Yet, because of the widespread and cohesive protests, Beijing has loosened its COVID restrictions and Iran’s attorney general reports that Tehran will disband its morality police and reconsider its dress code. If the Chinese and Iranian people can stay mobilized and nonviolent, and if the West publicly offers moral, diplomatic and economic support, “people power” can achieve important changes in both places — and perhaps inspire change in Russia as well. Liberation of the North Korean people will require a more proactive Western effort along the lines of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

At his democracy summit, Biden said, “All around the world, democracy needs champions.”  Ukraine is full of them, and China and Iran are demonstrating the same reality. Will Biden seize the moment and answer history’s call for transformational American leadership?

He told the world’s established and aspiring democracies, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. … Inaction is not an option.” He called on democratic brethren “to push back on authoritarianism, fight corruption, promote and protect human rights of people everywhere. To act, to act.”

Now is the time, and Russia, China and Iran are the places for Biden to demonstrate it was not all just soaring hyperbole.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags authoritarian regimes Biden China Emmanuel Macron Iran protests Jimmy Carter Russia Summit for Democracy Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping
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