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Evaluating Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy: A Missed Opportunity for Democracy

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Patrick Quirk and Tess Mcenery

The next presidential administration should view democracy promotion as a statecraft tool proven to advance U.S. interests rather than a normative crusade.

Summary: The article critiques President Biden’s foreign policy, highlighting failures in deterring Iranian aggression and inadequately supporting Ukraine against Russia, while acknowledging the administration’s correct emphasis on democracy and human rights. However, a gap exists between rhetoric and action, especially in not consistently applying human rights standards globally and supporting actions that undermine U.S. moral authority. It argues for a foreign policy that genuinely supports democracy, not just for altruistic reasons but because democratic states are more stable and economically beneficial partners. The piece also notes the challenges of competing with authoritarian models promoted by countries like China and Russia, stressing the importance of a democracy-focused U.S. foreign policy for national security and economic interests.

Is the world on fire because of Joe Biden’s foreign policy? Perhaps. The administration has certainly not done its best, from its failure to deter Iranian aggression to insufficiently arming Ukraine in its defensive war with Russia. Yet one thing the White House has gotten right is that U.S. foreign policy should be “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights” based on the recognition that democracy is one of our greatest assets in the contest with authoritarianism.

Despite this stated principle, the Biden administration—as many administrations before it—faces a gap between rhetoric and practice, underinvesting in advancing democracy overseas and failing to hold all countries accountable to the same human rights standards. The administration’s support for the war in Gaza, a human rights and humanitarian crisis that risks wider regionalization by the day, is facilitating a return to cynicism about democracy and human rights rhetoric, and it is an easy way to dismiss U.S. moral authority to support democracy anywhere.

This cynicism is bolstered by analysts who argue that national security around democracy is “divisive” and that the United States needs a foreign policy that “helps democracy deliver for Americans, not one that asks Americans to deliver ever more for democracies abroad.” Yet, the fact remains that the U.S.-led democratic order has delivered the greatest period of prosperity and human flourishing in history. Without U.S. leadership and consistency with foes and allies alike, pro-democracy rhetoric won’t stand much of a chance against the coordinated authoritarian attack on the global rules-based order.

With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away and the world racked by crises, both candidates must be able to convince the American people that their administration can advance our national interests. History shows that a foreign policy that maximizes all of our national assets—including our successful partnerships with other democracies around the world—is crucial to doing just that. The Hamas terrorist attack and Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza have created an era-defining inflection point for the freedom and human rights of not just Palestinians and Israelis but people across the globe. It is, therefore, more vital than ever for the United States to authentically center democracy and human rights in its foreign policy.

Supporting democracy—particularly in strategic locations—is not an altruistic exercise. We can and should support democracy advocates and strong political institutions because doing so aligns with American values. However, the main reason we promote democracy through a combination of diplomacy, investment, and foreign aid is because it is good for the United States. Scores of studies show that democracies are more reliable trading partners, less likely to go to war with one another, and less likely to incubate and export transnational crime and terrorism.

By contrast, authoritarians are unpredictable, can generate instability, and comprise regulatory regimes unfavorable (if not hostile) to U.S. businesses. Some of the least free states produce the most instability. From the Sahel to the Middle East, weak states characterized by predatory elites governing unaccountable institutions have consistently been breeding grounds for terrorist cells that attack American interests, servicemembers, and allies. Democracy abroad is also better for U.S. businesses, as countries with transparent regulations and processes are more reliable markets for American companies. According to the Atlantic Council’s Freedom Index, which ranks countries on a composite score of economic, political, and legal freedom, four of the five top emerging markets for U.S. companies are free (South Korea) or mostly free (Brazil, Mexico, and India).

A foreign policy with democracy support at its core also positions the United States to compete with its chief adversaries, namely China. The Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin alike understand that other countries’ political systems affect their national security and have, therefore, been widely promoting their authoritarian model. The CCP is working to create a world safe for the communist party—one composed of authoritarian regimes—by exporting surveillance technology, autocratic governance practices, and other repression modalities. The CCP trains political parties in the global south to promote authoritarian solutions to governance challenges, coopting journalists and investments in the media sector to shape reporting on these issues.

The exporting of authoritarianism is neither limited to nor led exclusively by China. Two of the United States’ most significant allies—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—are the leading wielders and exporters of digital authoritarianism in the Middle East, collaborating with China, Russia, and Israel to access surveillance tools such as NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target people and governments across the globe. The UAE also takes top honors as one of the world’s leading money launderers, feeding the destabilizing behavior of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, enabling Russian autocrats to evade sanctions over the war in Ukraine, and being “grey listed” by the Financial Action Task Force for enabling foreign terrorist financing.

Authoritarian regimes across the globe are learning from one another, if not actively collaborating, to crush democratic movements at home and rewrite international norms to advance their interests. Russia has embodied the truism that “internal repression begets external aggression,” destroying all domestic opposition and independent media while interfering in elections across the globe, deploying Wagner mercenaries from Syria to the Sahel, and invading Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and other autocracies are unabashedly trying to create a world safe for autocrats.

A world made up of a constellation of autocratic regimes, especially those that are U.S. allies, is bad for America and good for Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. To advance U.S. economic and security interests, American foreign policy must have supporting democratic governance as a central component.

What does American support for democracy look like in practice? It’s hardly the image of democracy at the point of a sword that detractors like to invoke. The two predominant and most visible tools are complementary: foreign assistance programs that strengthen the capacity of democratic institutions or actors within and outside government and U.S. diplomatic engagement that champions local democracy advocates and holds despotic regimes accountable for their actions.

In addition to coordinated diplomacy and development assistance, departments and agencies across the U.S. government craft human rights criteria for export controls; deploy financial sanctions and visa restrictions to combat oligarchs and human rights abusers; condition and restrict military aid based on human rights standards; and provide economic support for countries targeted by foreign malign actors. All of these tools recognize that democracy is inherently imperfect, and the cooperation enabled by a wide variety of multilateral tools—ranging from the Open Government Partnership to the Freedom Online Coalition—is critical.

Studies show that this investment delivers real results. A survey of U.S. democracy promotion programs conducted between the critical post-Cold War period of 1990 and 2003 found that democracy assistance had “clear and consistent impacts” on overall democratization, including civil society, judicial and electoral processes, and media independence. And despite the recent global democratic recession from 2012 to 2022, eight countries veering toward autocracy bounced back to democracy in 2023. International democracy support and protection were an important factor in securing these gains.

The next presidential administration should view democracy promotion as a statecraft tool proven to advance U.S. interests rather than a normative crusade. Fundamentally, it is in American interests to hold itself and its allies to the same democracy and human rights standards as its autocratic foes. While the United States will never be perfectly consistent, exceptions for itself and its friends undermine the very international system the United States worked so hard to build. A world composed of rights-respecting states is better for U.S. and allied security and economic interests and makes it much more difficult for the CCP, Kremlin, and authoritarians in the Middle East and beyond to expand their influence.