Biden Must Prioritize US Democracy Before Other Nations

Nicolas Valayannopoulos-Akrivou, Managing Editor

On Thursday, December 9th, the Biden administration launched their most ambitious foreign policy act since taking office: the “2021 Summit for Democracy.” For the first time since his election, Biden has invited more than 100 countries to assemble. The aim of this summit, according to a State Department announcement, is to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.” Unquestionably, this summit is a stand against authoritarianism, namely in China and Russia—the two major exclusions from this gathering.

Biden will neither be the first nor last American president to posture democracy as the core of his foreign policy, using the democratic effort as an instrument to advance US interests. While this gathering has garnered domestic support, Biden’s approach to this summit is flawed in critical ways. Using the summit as a geopolitical instrument to subjectively categorize democracies and autocracies is both problematic and an approach that may be counterproductive for the United States—especially if it desires meaningful, long-lasting geopolitical change.

Moreover, China and Russia were specifically excluded from this event, yet aren’t the only undemocratic regimes at large. In many ways, recent democratic erosion—the reversal of democratic regimes—and authoritarian tendencies have also occurred within the world’s most established democracies, including the US, India, and Brazil—all of which were present. In short, this meeting between democracies to push reforms upon established authoritarian regimes is hypocritical, if not futile. Therefore, one must question whether the US is best positioned to lead this effort.

From Trump’s false claims about the legitimacy of the presidential election to an insurrection to stop a democratic transition, America must focus on promoting its democratic virtues domestically if it wants to lead by example. Furthermore, it is overly simplistic and “Western-minded” to believe that Chinese and Russian foreign policies are driven by the urge to spread authoritarianism, and that policies that challenge the West economically are automatically authoritarian. It is true that Russia would take any opportunity to undermine American influence wherever they can, but its foreign policy is not tasked with spreading authoritarianism.

It is critical not to force a one-size-fits-all democratic model.

Further, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s main priority is to maintain the Chinese Communist Party’s absolute control on the Chinese state. China’s wealth and power depend on competition within the interdependent global economic system; toppling it by establishing authoritarian regimes outside of Chinese control would be counter-productive. Moreover, Biden assumes that all democracies present share a commitment to democratic values. Still, history and political culture strongly influence the political ideology a country adopts—not the other way around. Given the diverse and often radical range of emerging political ideologies, it is critical not to force a one-size-fits-all democratic model. Finally, instead of chasing the goal of global democratization, the United States should collaborate with a smaller group of like-minded democracies to make multilateral progress.

Despite the United States’ self-proclaimed claim on democracy, the Biden administration would be more impactful by working with peer regimes on a smaller scale—or better yet, focus on the perilous state of American democracy at home.

This piece also appears in our December 2021 print edition.