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Biden scores big with democracy summit, stumbles badly on Ukraine

Biden speaks at democracy summit
Associated Press

The success of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy is best shown by the reaction of the two leading authoritarian governments that were not invited to participate and were its main targets.

On Dec. 9, the first day of the virtual meeting, China Daily, the propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party, carried no fewer than five articles disparaging it.

The week before, the Chinese and Russian  ambassadors to the United States published a rare joint letter lambasting Washington’s two-day event. They called it “an evident product of its Cold War mentality [that would] stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘’dividing lines.’”

The letter touted Communist China’s “extensive, whole-process socialist democracy [that] reflects the people’s will, suits the country’s realities, and enjoys strong support from the people.” It also praised Russia as “a democratic federative law-governed state with a republican form of government.” 

The angry defensiveness and patently hollow democratic claims of the two dictatorships alone paid geopolitical dividends from Biden’s democracy initiative. By striking a highly sensitive nerve, the summit — with its emphasis on political accountability, rule of law and human rights — also dramatized the terminal vulnerability of the two autocratic systems.

Whenever America, for all its imperfections, is debating political freedom with dictatorial regimes that falsely claim the mantle of democracy, it is winning and they are losing. That should suggest the merit of a sustained, long-term war of ideas designed to end those tyrannies as effectively as the ideological confrontation of Cold War I terminated the Soviet “Evil Empire” and East Europe’s communist regimes. 

Unfortunately, after the summit, Biden missed the unique opportunity to demonstrate America’s commitment to one of the pair of democracies targeted for destruction by the world’s two leading despots. He had a two-hour telephone conversation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to discuss the menacing situation on the Ukraine border, where almost 120,000 massed Russian forces are poised to invade.

Biden said he warned Putin that if he pulled the trigger, he would be met with unprecedented economic sanctions. “I made it very clear, if … he invades Ukraine there will be severe consequences … economic consequences like none he’s ever seen, or ever have been seen,” he said, adding that Putin “got the message.”

Regrettably, Putin also received other, more welcome messages from Biden — that Washington has no intention of defending Ukraine militarily: “[T]he idea that the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now.” His disavowal of “unilateral” U.S. intervention suggested America might still act, “depend[ing] upon what the rest of the NATO countries were willing to do.”  

But the prospect that Washington might follow another nation’s lead, rather than play its customary leadership role, effectively meant Western force was off the table, and Ukraine would be on its own in a direct conflict with Russia. It undoubtedly was music to Putin’s ears, vindicating his expectation that the Afghanistan debacle showed the current flaccid state of American and Western willingness to use force to defend even critical security partners.

Biden did not mention another Russian move that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he fears, based on intelligence reports last month: a coup to overthrow Ukraine’s government.

Biden announced he would have a telephone conversation with Zelensky the next day. But he increased regional anxieties by also saying he would convene a session with Putin and “at least four NATO allies,” but not others, to determine what “accommodations” might be made to “bring down the temperature on the eastern front” — possibly by reducing U.S. military exercises in Europe. 

A Polish foreign ministry official said, “Of course this bothers us, although we are not surprised by this approach.” Given Putin’s unyielding demands on NATO, Ukraine and other neighboring countries, Biden’s announcement raised concerns that some kind of U.S. concessionary deal cooked up with Putin might be afoot. It evokes the moment in 2012 when President Obama whispered to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that on missile defense and other issues, he should tell Putin he would “have more flexibility … after my election.”  

It also parallels earlier concerns of Taiwan, under severe threat from China, that Washington might negotiate its fate over its head. That prompted President Ronald Reagan to issue his Six Assurances in 1982 promising not to take any unilateral actions adverse to Taiwan.  

If similar assurances were in place for Ukraine, Biden already would be in violation of most of them. “The United States would not consult with China in advance before making decisions about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” one assurance reads. Washington is surely “consulting” with Moscow and has inexplicably delayed sending Ukraine vitally-needed weapons to deter or defend against a Russian attack. 

“The United States would not mediate between Taiwan and China,” reads another. Biden clearly seems to be “mediating” between Russia and Ukraine — and between Russia and NATO about Ukraine — rather than rejecting outright all Russian claims to Ukraine’s territory and sovereign independence and defending Ukraine’s right to join NATO, the European Union, or any other organization it chooses.

“The United States would not alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan … and would not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with China,” says another of the commitments. Biden is explicitly pressing Ukraine to negotiate with Russia.

“The United States would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan,” reads a fourth pledge. Washington is perilously close to formally acquiescing in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and accepting its claims to Eastern Ukraine as a basis for regional “peace.”

When the White House announced its plans for a Summit for Democracy, it not only fulfilled a Biden campaign pledge but also helped to bring America back to its place as democracy’s leading exponent. It stated as the first objective of the summit: “Strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism.” Beyond the eloquent messages delivered prior to and during the meeting, U.S. action to defend Ukraine — and Taiwan — will prove the ultimate demonstration of that commitment.

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Barack Obama Biden Ukraine aid China Joe Biden Russia Summit for Democracy Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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