Joe Biden’s big idea – a US-led global alliance of liberal democracies ranged against authoritarian regimes and “strongman” leaders – sits at the heart of his American restoration project. His proposed “united front” of the great and the good is primarily intended to counter China and Russia. Yet it could also antagonise valued western allies such as India, Turkey and Poland. For this and other reasons, it seems destined to fail.
Biden pledged during this year’s election campaign to hold a “summit for democracy” in 2021 “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the free world”. It would aim “to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda”, he said. It was needed because, partly due to Donald Trump, “the international system that the US so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams”.
It’s a laudable aspiration. Recent years have seen a marked growth in oppressive, mostly rightwing regimes that ignore international law and abuse UN-defined universal rights, including democratic rights. But how will Biden decide who qualifies for his alliance? Totalitarian North Korea and Syria’s criminal regime are plainly unwelcome. Yet illiberal Thailand, Venezuela and Iran all maintain supposedly democratic systems. Will they get a summit invite?
Diplomats are already predicting Biden’s grand coalition will end up as a rehash of the G7 group of leading western economies – the US, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, the UK and Japan. One wheeze is to add India, Australia and South Korea – a notional “D-10”. But that simply creates another elite club from which many actual or aspiring democracies are excluded.
Part of the difficulty is Biden himself. Terms such as the “free world”, recalling his formative years during the cold war, sound outdated. His blithe assertion of American moral superiority jars with recent experience. “We have to prove … that the US is prepared to lead again, not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example,” he says. It’s an old refrain. Yet the songsheet has changed, and so have the singers.
China does not threaten global security in the existential way the Soviet Union once did. The fundamental challenge it poses is subtler, amoral and multi-dimensional – technological, ideological, commercial, anti-democratic. The idea that a cowed world is counting on the US to ride to the rescue is old-think. The age of solo superpower is over; the unipolar moment was squandered. Power balances were already shifting before Trump destroyed trust.
Weak, divided Europe may prove to be the exception in welcoming Biden’s initiative. “We need to step up our action to defend democracy,” says Josep Borrell, EU foreign affairs chief, amid alarm over recent trends highlighted in the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2020. It asserts that for the first time since 2001, autocracy is the world’s leading form of governance – in 92 countries in total, home to 54% of the global population.
Britain’s international position is now so enfeebled that it will back almost anything Biden suggests. Germany will support his initiative too, as long as he does not endanger its lucrative China exports. Hungary and Poland are problematic. The Polish government’s disregard for judicial independence and abortion rights sits badly with a campaign promoting liberal values. According to V-Dem, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is no longer a democracy at all but an “electoral authoritarian regime”.
Looking further afield, Biden’s democracy drive could be like trying to herd cats, with much clawing and spitting. India is a case in point. It calls itself the world’s biggest democracy. Yet under prime minister Narendra Modi, it has become one of the biggest rights abusers, oppressing political opponents, independent media, NGOs such as Amnesty International, and millions of Muslims. Modi has nothing to say about democracy, except how to subvert it.
Strictly speaking, Biden should add Taiwan, a model east-Asian democracy, to his guest list. To do so would utterly enrage China, so perhaps he won’t. Including Sudan and Afghanistan, both striving for democracy, might constitute wishful thinking. Conversely, snubbing Turkey, Peru, the Philippines, Uganda and a host of other flawed or pretend democracies would greatly offend otherwise friendly governments.
The point here is that Biden, like all his predecessors, will in the end be obliged to deal with the world as it is, not as he would like it to be. As Barack Obama demonstrated in 2009, making a fine speech in Cairo about new beginnings in the Arab world feels good but ultimately signifies little. When the Arab spring faltered, the US backed the bad guys – in Egypt’s case, the dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sisi – because it suited its selfish geopolitical interests.
China and Russia, and other undemocratic outcasts such as Saudi Arabia, will count on rediscovered realism to temper Biden’s plan in practice, even if he persists with old-school American rhetoric about values and rights. Only if he and his allies attempt something meaningful, such as actively defending Hong Kong’s shattered freedoms, will Beijing feel the need to push back.
Unlike Eritrea or, say, Belarus, there is much China can do if Washington’s pro-democracy tub-thumping grows unbearable. On issues such as the pandemic and the climate crisis, Beijing’s involvement is indispensable, and Biden knows it. All manner of economic, diplomatic and political leverage could be used to deflect US pressure. Most provocative is the suggestion, recently recycled by Vladimir Putin, that Russia and China may forge an anti-western military alliance, potentially drawing in lesser powers such as North Korea.
This probably won’t happen. But it’s just possible that Biden’s well-meant but polarising “alliance of democracies” will deepen divisions and unintentionally spawn a new “axis of evil”. Unlike the much-hyped original, this one would be truly formidable.