Does Biden’s ‘democracy v. autocracy’ framework make sense?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden, center participates in a family photo beside Colombian President Ivan Duque, left, and Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benitez and other heads of delegations at the Summit of the Americas, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Even as the Jan. 6 hearings show a fraught U.S. democracy at grave risk of unraveling, President Biden has made the notion of “democracies versus autocracies” the organizing principle of his foreign policy. Unfortunately, Biden is finding out the hard way that the world is just not that tidy.

Most recently, Mexico and several other Latin American democracies boycotted last week’s Summit of the Americas after Biden refused to invite non-democracies Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. We are a far cry from the original vision of Presidents Reagan and Clinton of economically integrating free trade “from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.”

In fact, the U.S. did not have trade liberalization on the agenda at a time when China’s annual trade with Latin America has risen to $400 billion in 2021, dwarfing that of the U.S. ($295 billion), and as China has invested $150 billion in infrastructure projects in the region since 2005 as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S. invests modestly in the region yet is irate about China’s influence. You can’t beat something with nothing.

The Summit of the Americas episode was but the latest example of a perception gap, a lack of strategic empathy. Where Biden sees moral virtue, Latin Americans, with a long and tortured history of U.S. dominance and military intervention, saw mostly the exercise of power politics. And it didn’t help Biden’s virtue-signaling that as he disinvited non-democratic Latin American countries, he plans to go to Saudi Arabia to make nice with Riyadh’s authoritarian leader, Mohammed bin Salman.

This gap in perceptions – and of interests –  where the democracy v. autocracy paradigm doesn’t quite fit is most starkly seen in the global response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. The remarkable unity of U.S. and European partners (along with the South Korea and Japan) for unprecedented sanctions on Russia led many to view it as a global consensus. But most of the world sees it otherwise.

A long list of mostly democratic nations, most prominently India, but also Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Israel, have remained neutral to varying degrees and have not imposed sanctions on Russia. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have feigned neutrality. Many nations in Africa and across the Global South view it as a European war whose painful fallout has hit their interests, in the form of inflation, energy and food price hikes and shortages as well as exacerbating a developing nation debt crisis.

Biden is right that the U.S. needs to demonstrate that democracy can deliver. U.S. influence and appeal is at its apogee when it leads by example. But the world is not binary, as Biden claims. Issues are rarely black or white, but mostly shades of gray. It is a world in which the U.S. remains a pre-eminent military and financial power but in which power is being redistributed from West to East, North to South.

Ukraine brings into stark relief a world in which nations calculate their interests based on economics, geography, history, culture and politics, not just values. As Biden’s outreach to the Saudis reflects, actual U.S. policy tends to be pragmatic.

Nonetheless, the White House often rhetorically traps itself in its ideology and then goes through intellectual contortions to rationalize policies that often go in other directions. Other nations often see both hypocrisy and the U.S. exercising its power more than its values.

One reason for this may reflect a U.S. difficulty to adjust to a multipolar world where power tends to be situational and the U.S. is more a first among equals than a singular hegemon. U.S. military predominance and the dollar’s reign often does not translate into achieving desired outcomes — the definition of power.

Understanding the limits of U.S. power is the beginning of wisdom. The spread of wealth and power across the globe was in no small measure the result of the rules-based, relatively open market trade and financial system the U.S. fashioned after World War II.

Now we are dealing with the dilemmas of success. As a practical matter, U.S. primacy has been gradually dissipating as economic and military power has shifted, and as the gap between U.S. and Chinese military capabilities has narrowed.

The history of 21st century U.S. foreign policy is littered with illustrations of the limits of American power: President Obama’s abandoned “redline” on Syria; a stalemate and loss in Afghanistan; “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela yielding only maximum resistance and lingering confrontation. A more recent example is Biden’s effort to pressure the Saudis and OPEC to ramp up production to lower oil prices.

There is no silver bullet, no magic formula that will help the U.S. achieve all its foreign policy goals. It is a complex multipolar world. There are too many “problems from hell” such as North Korea’s nuclear gambit, the Iran nuclear problem and climate change.

The question is how the U.S. can best position itself to leverage its strengths. That will increasingly mean a “primus inter parus (first among equals) approach to global problem solving. That means pooling power and more sharing of burdens with other global actors, and a degree of strategic empathy — understanding (not sympathizing with) how the other nation sees its interests and trying find a balance of interests that the U.S. can accept.

Such an approach will be less satisfying than a Pax Americana and difficult to achieve. It will require accommodations, finding a balance of U.S. interests and values. But as Ronald Reagan said repeatedly to his Chief of Staff James Baker of his approach to politics, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying.” Diplomacy is also the art of the possible. However much Putin deserves to be gone, Ukraine and the U.S. may have to negotiate with him if he is not defeated on the battlefield.

The best way to promote democracy and the legitimacy of U.S. leadership would be for Biden to fulfill his mostly abandoned campaign pledge to heal the nation’s deep divides. A dynamic, prosperous, reconciling America is the best weapon against autocracy. As the Biblical proverb (Luke 4:23) advises: “Physician, heal thyself.”

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Biden biden foreign policy China Great power competition Russia Summit of the Americas Ukraine Ukraine-Russia conflict
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