Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.-The Biden administration opened its second Summit for Democracy this week with a panel featuring India’s Narendra Modi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. As the leaders of their countries, both have pursued similar forms of exclusionary nationalism.
Indeed, both Modi and Netanyahu were — as they spoke — facing political crises at home in response to their attempts to permanently sideline democratic opposition.
This was a seemingly discordant note with which to begin a democracy conference. Even so, it is very much in keeping with what the Biden administration means when it says that the United States is fighting a global battle for democracy against autocracy.
The administration’s interpretation is best captured in its 2022 National Security Strategy:
The most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision [of a free, open, prosperous, and secure world] is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.
The salient division in the world, then, is not between democracies and autocracies but between countries that support the existing international order and the two autocracies — China and Russia — that are seeking to reshape it in illiberal ways.
But this raises some awkward questions:
One: Which side are autocratic U.S. allies on if, like Saudi Arabia and UAE, they wage wars of aggression, undermine the democratic political processes of other countries, and use technology for repression?
Two: Which side are democratic countries on if they support China’s efforts to reshape the international order? This is quite common, because many of the things that China does to “tilt the global playing field to its benefit” are things that poor countries—democratic or not—must do if they are to achieve economic development.
Three: Which side is the U.S. on? Because the U.S. violates the rules-based order and engages in coercion on a regular basis. Leaving aside a long list of examples under earlier presidents and looking only at the Biden administration, the U.S. is currently incapacitating the world trade dispute resolution system; supporting Russia’s argument that it can exempt itself from any economic agreement (in this case, throttling Ukraine’s trade) merely by invoking national security; building a comprehensive blockade on Chinese businesses’ access to certain advanced technologies; seeking to destroy China’s most successful private multinational company, Huawei; and maintaining an extraterritorial sanctions regime that has done terrible damage to Iran’s economy.
So the particular list of allegations against Russia and China, which does not apply equally to both countries, also fails to clearly distinguish the “democracy” team from the “autocracy” team. But the Biden administration has a deeper rationale in mind. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”
What is the nature of that threat? Often the administration accuses China of exporting its authoritarian model in the form of surveillance technology — technology that companies in the U.S. and allied states also sell. Or they highlight China’s campaign to change “democratic norms” at the United Nations. For example, China has sought to elevate collective rights, such as the right to economic development, to the same level as individual rights.
Members of the Biden administration have argued that such a goal would dilute individual rights and empower autocratic states to speak in the name of their people.
Beijing also rejects the “universal values” that the U.S. champions and seeks respect for “the diversity of civilizations,” including those that do not recognize liberal democratic rights and freedoms.
Finally, Biden has made the point that if Chinese authoritarianism is stable and prosperous while U.S. democracy is dysfunctional and stagnant, democracy will lose its appeal around the world.
The idea that a popularity contest between two powerful countries is what determines the choice of political regime in other countries is, in any case, both implausible and insulting.
Why, then, is the idea that China poses a potentially existential threat to democracy so widespread in Washington? Because over the last two decades, the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism (“free markets and free individuals”) — which underwrote the narrow concept of democracy that drove the Third Wave of democratization and supplied the intellectual foundations for the U.S. political elite in recent decades — has disintegrated at home and abroad.
This ideology’s loss of legitimacy is a global phenomenon, but in Washington it was experienced as the outcome of a series of increasingly disastrous setbacks for U.S. economic and military aspirations, starting with the dotcom crash and 9/11, ramifying through the failures of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Iraq War, and the Doha Round of WTO negotiations, and culminating in the 2008 global financial crisis and the Great Recession.
The sense of crisis only grew over the following decade as previously marginalized political currents represented by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders suddenly posed a serious challenge to the political status quo in the United States.
For mainstream American political leaders, the three essential parts of the post-Cold War global system — U.S. military hegemony, free market globalization, and a specifically neoliberal vision of democracy and human rights — were inseparably interwoven.
Today’s China, though a product of that very system, was also the most prominent country to reject liberal democracy and U.S. hegemony. And in the years since 2008, it has been a step or two ahead of other countries — in some ways constructive and in some horrifying — as every country moves beyond the system.
Though China’s success within the “rules-based international order” has given it a major stake in sustaining and shoring up significant parts of the system, that success has also made China far more powerful than more antagonistic countries like Russia or North Korea.
So it’s true that the Biden administration does not see the world as divided between democracies and autocracies. But it does see the world as divided between democracy in the abstract — understood to be the same as U.S. military and economic power and the alliances supporting it — and autocracy in the abstract, represented by the only peer competitor facing the United States, China.
This emerging consensus in Washington is driven by insecurity and defensiveness rather than a serious analysis of the real forces endangering democracy around the world.