Biden’s Great Rhetorical Gambit That Wasn’t
For all its rhetorical expediency and partial truth, the democracy-autocracy formula being pronounced by the Biden administration is an artless Manichean antithesis as imprecise as it is untenable.
“We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression,” President Joe Biden said in the wake of Russia’s belligerent incursion into Ukraine. Indeed, emphasizing an epochal struggle between competing systems of political governance as the key feature of international politics in the twenty-first century has become the hallmark of U.S. grand strategic rhetoric under the current administration. In the words of Walter Lippman, this binary proposition arguably constitutes “the fundamental postulate of American national security doctrine” in the age of great power competition and in the context of new Cold War discourse.
True, the democracy-autocracy formula offered the spirit of trans-Atlanticism a new lease on life at a time when the liberal international order seemed in irretrievable disarray. As a clarion call, it has proven useful as a force for psychic and material mobilization, whether with respect to galvanizing support for Ukraine (primarily among G7 nations), weening continental Europe off its reliance on Russian energy, or rendering the idea of popular sovereignty and its conflict with the principle of autocracy the dominant current of the age.
Yet for all its rhetorical expediency and partial truth, the democracy-autocracy formula is an artless Manichean antithesis as imprecise as it is untenable. So long as it continues to deeply inform U.S. foreign policymaking under the Biden administration, it deserves to be routinely scrutinized. Notwithstanding its lilting assonant appeal—democracy versus autocracy—this formula precludes strategic flexibility and the pursuit of détente at precisely the moment in which both are required. Even Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, author of Joe Biden’s definitive biography, Joe Biden: American Dreamer, recently pleaded as much, arguing that “if we are to limit the worst risks of a [new] cold war, the U.S. should … prepare for what the Nixon Administration called détente,” involving in the words of Henry Kissinger, “both deterrence and coexistence, both containment and an effort to relax tensions.”
In the words of Hans Morgenthau, harping on the democracy-autocracy antithesis has enabled the Biden administration to “indulge in the cultivation of moral principles divorced from political exigencies.” If the United States wants to be successful in a geopolitical war of attrition over the long run with bitter antagonists and peer competitors like China, Russia, and Iran, administration officials need to recognize the limitations of this cherished dyadic nostrum, which emerged as a hyperbolic over-reaction to the cartoonish neo-isolationism of the Trump years.
To be clear, America should defend democratic values. It should even promote such values—in some cases, at the end of the lethal aid sword. Restrainers rightly caution against the excesses of American interventionism. But the progressive critique of American military power projection, if not simply ‘liberal imperialism,’ often comes across as the fashionable preoccupation of worthy dilettantes, who tend to downplay the degree to which history abhors a vacuum—and arcs toward Whiggish progress. The point is that the United States can combine high power with high purpose without hitching its foreign relations to a blinkered ideological lodestar.
Analytically speaking, the democracy-autocracy formula flies in the face of the extensive regime typology literature in the comparative politics subfield, the existence of which is prima facie evidence of the slogan’s empirical vacuity and practical incoherence. For example, in 2022, India was downgraded by Freedom House to the status of an “electoral autocracy.” Does this mean that India is an enemy of democracy, an enemy of the United States? Singapore is described as a nation-state that “allows for some political pluralism, but…constrains the growth of credible opposition parties and limits freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.” Is Singapore, too, an enemy of democracy? Ukraine, of all nations, has a 39.39 “Democracy Percentage” according to the metrics devised by the non-profit. Someone should tell the White House that it is underwriting a “transitional or hybrid regime” to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in military assistance, even if obliged to do so (and right to do so) by way of the Budapest Memorandum. Even the Chinese party-state capitalist model has been described as an “autocracy with democratic characteristics” by political scientists living and working in America, such as Yuen Yuen Ang.
Moreover, if we understand the administration to be “progressive,” it should be all the more sensitive to the field of post-colonial studies, which stresses the (supposedly) pernicious Eurocentric assumptions that underwrite neocolonial attitudes toward ‘traditional’ modes of political governance and “local” processes of political-economic development. Governments come in many shapes and sizes. The democracy-autocracy formula is what the German historian Reinhart Koselleck might have deemed an “asymmetrical-counter concept.” Given the Biden administration’s moral economy, we live in a world of “Hellenes” and “Barbarians,” “Christians” and “Heathens,” small-d democrats and autocrats—and nothing in between.
With respect to international trade and economics, the democracy-autocracy antithesis suffers from a grave internal contradiction. From its earliest days, the Biden administration has spoken of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” Instead of belligerent tariff wars, it would pursue meaningful forms of strategic decoupling and enact concrete industrial policies, the redistributive effects of which would presumably alleviate Rust Belt grievances and set the United States on a path to splendid critical-industrial self-sufficiency (although U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo oddly disputes this). Indeed, with the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Congress passed two pieces of legislation that will likely bear significant fruit in these respects (although the jury is still out, as inputs do not linearly imply outputs).
The obvious problem, however, is that the neomercantilist flavor of Biden’s “America First” agenda directly undermines the Atlanticist spirit of cooperative multilateralism and the geoeconomic interests of America’s democracy-loving allies, threatening to entrench intractable rifts between them, even if “friend-shoring” is feasible. In December 2022, Thierry Breton, the European Union’s internal market commissioner, pulled out of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, a “key coordinating body for trans-Atlantic economic policy,” as its agenda “no longer gives sufficient space to issues of concern to many European industry ministers and businesses.” More recently, French president Emmanuel Macron argued that the implementation of the IRA threatens to “fragment the West.”
The practical limitations of the democracy-autocracy antithesis have been made abundantly clear in the global response to the war in Ukraine, specifically, with the emergence of a Cold War 2.0 non-aligned ‘movement’ of nations, largely in the so-called “Global South,” many of which insist on neutrality for various reasons. Much ink has been spilled on these dynamics. Suffice it to say that although Western resolve is remarkable and important, as was clear at the Munich Security Conference and in the resolution (predictably absent Russian and Chinese endorsement) passed at the recent G20 summit condemning Russian aggression, “key states in the global south,” as Stephen Walt has recently argued, “do not share the Western belief that the future of the 21st century is going to be determined by the outcome of the war. For them, economic development, climate change, migration, civil conflicts, terrorism, the rising power of India and China, and many others will all exert a greater impact on humanity’s future than the fate of the Donbas or Crimea.”
Where Western analysts often see the clear emergence and demarcation of two distinct civilizational spheres of influence, rooted in a preponderance of military and economic power emanating largely from Washington and Beijing, the rest of the world sees multipolarity for what it is. For most states caught in the crossfire of great power competition, the shifting distribution of power in the international system simply means a future of pragmatic adaptation, not zero-sum ideological contestation. As World Trade Organization director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has simply said, “Many countries don’t want to have to choose between two blocs.”
Other instances of relatively recent U.S. diplomatic engagement demonstrate the limitations of the democracy-autocracy formula. The “Summit of Democracies,” hosted by Biden in June 2021, was pitched as an attempt at “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world.” Yet the event was panned as “a fiasco, a flop, a disappointment.” For the most part, so too was the “Summit for the Americas,” hosted by the White House in June 2022, as both events excluded leaders from countries deemed qualitatively lacking in democratic bona fides. Biden being reduced to exchanging a deflating “cool dad” fist bump with Mohammad Bin Salman while in search of crude oil infusions from OPEC+ during the peak of the 2022 oil-supply shock, after vowing to turn the crown prince into a “pariah” in light of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, was another such instance.
It turns out Washington must do business with nominally autocratic governments—at least if it hopes to maintain friendly relations with “a vital U.S. partner on a range of issues.” It is worth noting that the U.S. recently released two Pakistani brothers, held in devastating Kafka-esque captivity in Guantanamo Bay for twenty years without ever being charged with substantial crimes, all the while subjected to unspeakable torture methods. Which is more barbaric: dissolving a man’s body in an acid bath after his perhaps not-so-swift execution or two decades of “rectal rehydration,” sleep deprivation, beatings, and solitary confinement in cold cells and subjection to a byzantine and unilateral international legal regime?