Joe Biden arrived in the White House in January, hailing the moment as a victory for democracy and vowing to push back against the advance of authoritarianism around the world. But over his first 100 days in office, it has frequently been the likes of Russia and China setting the international agenda.
Mr. Biden’s democracy promotion effort is still young. A key step will see a June meeting of the G7 expanded to include India, Australia and South Korea for the first time, and Mr. Biden has also promised to host a larger “summit for democracy” this year. But there are already signs of resistance from countries that see the new President as raising tensions by pushing for Cold War-style groupings that divide the democratic world from the authoritarian one.
This month has seen Mr. Biden tested on multiple fronts, with Russia staging a massive military buildup on its border with Ukraine, and China increasing its air and naval incursions into Taiwanese territory. Though Russia has since announced the withdrawal of the bulk of its forces near Ukraine – after the U.S. arguably blinked first and cancelled the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea – both Moscow and Beijing have appeared keen to probe just how far Mr. Biden would really go to support a democracy in peril.
A similar question lingers over Afghanistan. Mr. Biden’s decision to bring the last U.S. troops home effectively puts an end to the biggest democracy promotion effort of this century – and raises the prospect of the Taliban returning to power.
Meanwhile, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny languishes in jail, and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi – whose election victory in Myanmar was undone by a China-backed coup d’état – has disappeared back into house arrest as violence mounts in a country that once appeared to be leaving its dark history behind.
“The autocrats are winning, unfortunately. Democracy declines. Spheres of influence and geopolitics are back in game,” said Franak Viacorka, foreign policy adviser to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the woman many believe won last year’s presidential election in Belarus. Instead of running her country, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania last year when Russian-backed Alexander Lukashenko launched a crackdown on democracy supporters.
“I think Biden faces many challenges,” Mr. Viacorka said. “He [inherited] a world in trouble, and the world expects too much from him personally. I think maybe he can’t imagine how much hope people have for him and his presidency.”
One hundred days, of course, is not a lot of time to undo everything that happened during the four years Donald Trump was in the White House, when the U.S. signalled that it no longer cared how other governments treated their citizens. The Trump era was a time when the “globalists” – a loose term applied to those who accepted and enjoyed the U.S.-led post-Cold War international order – were forced to retreat, while autocratic and nationalist regimes pursued their aims without fear of losing favour in Washington.
In his speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said Chinese President Xi Jinping and others “think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies.” Mr. Biden vowed that democracy would prevail: “Autocrats will not win the future. We will.”
Reversing the current of history is never easy. Shortly after coming to office, Mr. Biden made a priority of sending messages to those he thought had taken advantage of the United States’ years of distraction.
The Biden administration imposed new sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia for meddling in the U.S. election and against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey for breaking with NATO and buying Russian-made anti-aircraft systems. Sanctions were also introduced against two dozen Chinese officials the U.S. says have undermined Hong Kong’s partial autonomy from Beijing, days before high-level talks in Alaska at which the two sides publicly rebuked each other.
Mr. Biden also made Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convinced Mr. Trump to support Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, wait an embarrassingly long time for a first phone call from the new U.S. President. He has refused to deal at all with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, communicating only with the Crown Prince’s aging father, King Salman.
Now comes the more substantive work of forging new ties between what remains of the democratic world. First up will be the June summit of the G7 in Cornwall, England. The expanded gathering has been nicknamed the D-10, with the “D” standing for democracy. Plotted on a map – with India, Australia and South Korea joining G7 members Canada, the U.S., Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy – the D-10 also looks like a ring of allies surrounding Russia and China.
“I think [the D-10] feeds a sense of encirclement – of China being encircled by Biden and his allies,” said Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The U.S. and China are now entering a period of protracted struggle.”
Last week, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, a close ally of Mr. Putin’s, wrote in an article for state media that relations between his country and the U.S. have “shifted from rivalry to confrontation, essentially returning to the Cold War era.” Moscow is in the process of drawing up a list of countries it considers “unfriendly” – who will be banned from hiring Russian staff at their embassies and consulates in Russia. The U.S. and Canada both made the 10-country list reported in Russian media this week.
Mr. Biden has also vowed to host a “summit of democracies” sometime this year, leading to questions about who will or won’t get an invitation from the White House. Is Turkey still considered democratic enough? Is Hungary? What are the implications of inviting Mr. Erdogan or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and perhaps being seen as endorsing their policies? What are the risks associated with excluding those NATO members?
Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a New York-based global risks consultancy, predicted that Turkey, Hungary and perhaps even Poland may find themselves excluded from the democracy summit, as Mr. Biden’s White House draws up a new definition of who the United States’ friends are.
“Biden is much more focused on the common values of allies,” Mr. Bremmer said. “It is clear to Americans on both sides of the aisle [in Congress] that China is the principal national security concern – and that NATO doesn’t cut it.”
But Mr. Bremmer said a true return to a Cold War-like world of geopolitical blocs is unlikely given the extent that the U.S. and China, in particular, are economically reliant on each other. Alongside his democracy promotion, Mr. Biden has also brought the U.S. back into the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change, signalling his administration’s willingness to co-operate where possible with countries it otherwise views as strategic rivals.
Despite the growing tensions with Russia, Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden agreed in January to extend a treaty limiting the number of nuclear warheads their countries can possess. And at the height of the Russian military buildup around Ukraine, Mr. Biden proposed a one-on-one summit to discuss the multiplying problems in the relationship between Moscow and Washington. That meeting is expected to take place in mid-June, on the heels of the expanded G7 summit, with Mr. Biden also visiting NATO headquarters while he’s in Europe.
Ironically, one of Mr. Biden’s key campaign promises regarding foreign policy could be undone by democracy. Negotiations to resume the Iran nuclear deal are threatened by the possibility of a hardliner winning Iran’s presidential election, which is scheduled for June 16. And the shape of the next government in Israel – which has vociferously opposed the Iran nuclear deal – is also still in question after the country’s fourth inconclusive election in the past two years.
Ms. Yu of Chatham House said she saw Mr. Biden’s efforts more as “democracy protection” than democracy promotion. The U.S., she said, is now more concerned with stopping the spread of authoritarianism – which accelerated during Mr. Trump’s time in the White House – than converting countries to its style of governance.
“It’s an emerging fight,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, a close aide to the jailed Mr. Navalny, of the growing rift between the world’s democratic and authoritarian states. “I don’t think Biden’s goal is really achieving democracy throughout the world. But he would like the world to be more stable and to uphold U.S. values.”
Mr. Biden’s task, however, is complicated by the fact that many around the world wonder whether the United States is really “back,” as Mr. Biden says, or whether another nationalist and isolationist figure such as Mr. Trump could emerge in four years’ time. “Nobody believes Biden is forever,” Mr. Bremmer said. “The level of belief that the U.S. can return to the previous status quo is very low. The world is very different than it was four years ago.”
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