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What Biden really thinks about promoting democracy

In his inaugural address in 2005, then-President George W. Bush unveiled a new policy known as the "freedom agenda," which put promoting democracy abroad at the center of US foreign policy. Bush claimed the 9/11 terrorists' anger was forged in the tyranny of the Arab world; only “the power of human freedom” could dampen these fires and thus secure “the survival of freedom in our country”.

Bush's theory turned out to be wrong in every way. The Arab states that were the subject of the freedom agenda proved hopelessly recalcitrant to US influence; Nevertheless, the USA has succeeded in reducing terrorism to a manageable threat with the classic instruments of internal security, the armed forces abroad and diplomacy. Moreover, the Bush administration's willingness to forego these sacred commandments of freedom in the name of the “war on terror” has turned the language of democracy promotion into gross hypocrisy.

In his inaugural address in 2005, then-President George W. Bush unveiled a new policy known as the "freedom agenda," which put promoting democracy abroad at the center of US foreign policy. Bush claimed the 9/11 terrorists' anger was forged in the tyranny of the Arab world; only “the power of human freedom” could dampen these fires and thus secure “the survival of freedom in our country”.

Bush's theory turned out to be wrong in every way. The Arab states that were the subject of the freedom agenda proved hopelessly recalcitrant to US influence; Nevertheless, the USA has succeeded in reducing terrorism to a manageable threat with the classic instruments of internal security, the armed forces abroad and diplomacy. Moreover, the Bush administration's willingness to forego these sacred commandments of freedom in the name of the “war on terror” has turned the language of democracy promotion into gross hypocrisy.

Former US President Barack Obama avoided what he believed to be the lofty language and arrogant demands of the freedom agenda. And of course, former US President Donald Trump preferred autocrats; he solved the problem of hypocrisy by completely renouncing the politics of democracy.

Now US President Joe Biden has put democracy back at the center of US foreign policy. Biden has often spoken of the "summit of democracy" that he wants to convene in his first year in office. In mid-July, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a telegram to all US diplomats instructing them to speak up on issues relating to human rights and democracy and to meet with local activists. "Standing up for democracy and human rights everywhere does not conflict with the national interests of America or with our national security," wrote Blinken.

What happened? Biden never believed that much the United States could do about the interior of other countries. He had not taken the freedom agenda seriously, did not believe that the Americans could turn Afghanistan into a democracy, and remained skeptical when the Arab Spring appeared briefly to herald a revolution in the Middle East. Biden was one of the seasoned pragmatists in the upper class of the Obama administration who had to remind the idealistic youth that the world was a chaotic place. So why is he as passionate about democracy as Bush is?

The answer is: Biden has a very different theory than Bush. The democratic deficit that preoccupies the President and his team is not that out there, it's that in here. The heroic language of democracy promotion presupposed a world in which democracy was expanding – as it was when Bush delivered his inaugural address. It has since been contracted. The United States is just one of the democracies that was once self-consciously viewed as "consolidated" and has elected a populist eager to build power by dismantling democratic guarantees. Also Brazil, India, Poland, Hungary and others. Democracies, as the then presidential candidate Biden wrote, are "paralyzed by non-partisanship, hindered by corruption, burdened by extreme inequality".

Stubborn realists reject all of these theories of the Democratic Fall as a distraction or flimsy decoration of the pursuit of their United States geopolitical interests. “There has long been a tendency in US foreign policy to dress the pursuit of American interests in the guise of democratic ideals,” recently wrote Aaron David Miller, an expert on Middle East policy in the United States. But while promoting reforms among Arab autocrats may have been an idle or even cynical endeavor, it can hardly be denied that defending democracy from authoritarian tendencies at home and from authoritarian states abroad is of the highest national interest. The only question is how and whether that is possible.

“Defending” or “protecting” is a completely different undertaking than “promoting”. Bush's rhetoric assumed that democracy was something the United States had on a more or less infinite scale, and so they were well positioned to bring some of it to more insecure states. The past few years have cruelly exposed the vanity of this attitude; the United States now needs the drugs it once supplied. In his telegram, Blinken instructed diplomats "to make it clear that we ask nothing more of other countries than of ourselves".

The crisis that Biden addresses is therefore primarily a domestic political one: a democracy that has sailed through depressions and wars is now in a massive crisis of faith. Biden hopes to tackle the crisis through massive efforts to restore prosperity to a fearful middle class, through the consistent use of non-partisanship and rhetoric for common goals, and through the passing of critical laws on democracy-specific issues such as the right to vote. It is too early to say whether the concrete measures will be successful and whether they will break the fever that is now gripping the country.

But Biden also believes – like US presidents since Woodrow Wilson – that a liberal, democratic USA cannot thrive in a world that is neither liberal nor democratic, even if he works with autocratic states on global problems. The United States is hardly alone with its troubles: France's right-wing populist politician Marine Le Pen now has roughly equal chances of defeating French President Emmanuel Macron in next April's elections. In addition, the most important autocratic powers in the world, above all Russia, but also China, are now actively working to weaken the “liberal order” and individual liberal states. The protection of democracy has thus become a transnational issue like climate change or public health.

So there is no contradiction between blinking “look at yourself” and the foreign policy dimension of promoting democracy. In my conversations with administrators who deal with democracy issues, I keep hearing this tone of reciprocity. Those involved in planning the Democracy Summit say that all invited countries, including the United States and other "mature" and emerging democracies, must make solid pledges to combat democratic relapse at home. You're now working on both the guest list and what my family called "bring back" – suggested party favors.

Mutuality is a very good thing as it suggests a highly un-American humility and willingness to learn from others. But this admirable new ethos does not offer any useful guidance in the face of crises like the one just triggered by Tunisian President Kais Saied, who dismissed his government and took over the emergency powers on July 25, Blinken warned the Tunisian leader, with “all political actors "To work together and the Tunisian people" and pledged help with the country's economic and health crisis; but Washington and its allies – especially France – may have to promise or threaten much more to keep the only democracy in the Arab world from falling into dictatorship. We will see in the coming days and weeks how committed Biden is to this endeavor.

The vow of reciprocity also confronts us with our own limits. The most important gift the United States could bring to its own party would be legislation to prevent voter suppression and post-election manipulation. (See my recent column on "negative exceptionalism" in the United States in this regard.) But Republicans are likely to block any meaningful bill on the matter. A government official suggested that the ongoing Congressional investigation into the January 6th insurrection will demonstrate the United States' commitment to investigating its own failures; but that too is rejected by half the country.

Democracies, of course, depend on laws and legal institutions, but ultimately they are based on citizens' belief in these institutions and a willingness to adhere to their guidelines. People in highly polarized societies will not trust any result that disadvantages them; and what is prescribed by law can be reversed by new law. We don't really know how to reverse the radical polarization. And of course, populist leaders are doing everything they can to increase suspicion. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might one day lose an election, but they could have democratically ungovernable their country by the time they leave.

Opportunist autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin heat the flames whenever they can – but they need flames first and foremost. In a recent article, Frances Z. Brown and Thomas Carothers, leading democracy scholars for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated that, as the Biden administration has often done, "designing a democracy strategy aimed at countering China and Russia" ignores "the main drivers of democratic decline" that are internal. One of the temptations, however, is that it is easier to forge political consensus on laws to counter foreign hacking, surveillance and campaigning than it is to confront deep-seated divisions within societies.

In fact, countries can bring all sorts of useful gifts to the party. Laws forcing foreign investors to reveal their identities, regulatory systems for regulating artificial intelligence or surveillance technology, rules for restricting black money in politics – all of these will gradually advance the cause of democracy. Maybe even countries are competing for something particularly good. But remember how frustrating it was for even a very determined US president to make amends for the damage Trump and a generation of polarizing Republicans did. As difficult as it is for affected countries to rebuild the spirit of democracy at a time when the industrial middle class has been eroded and secure cultural identities have been dissolved, it is just as difficult to do things better in another country.

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