Joe Biden’s foreign policy doctrine views the future relationship between democracies and authoritarian regimes as a competitive one, accompanied by a battle of narratives. Nondemocratic regimes have become brazen in their repression and many democratic governments have regressed by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law. The US, under Donald Trump, was not immune to such trends. One European thinktank warned last week that there remains a risk that the US could slip into authoritarianism.
The Biden administration has announced the first of two virtual “summits for democracy” next month to bring together government, civil society and business leaders from more than 100 nations. This might seem a bit rich, given America’s history of befriending dictators and overthrowing elected leaders it did not like. Invitations have gone out to a group so broad it includes liberal democracies, weak democracies and states with authoritarian characteristics. Mr Biden deserves a cheer for seeking a renewal of democracy, asking attendees to reflect on their record of upholding human rights and fighting corruption.
The world faces a return to great-power politics, where global rules take a backseat to historical spheres of influence. Russia’s menacing of Ukraine is a case in point. No one would choose this situation, but democracies have to face it. As the EU has noted, the high seas, space and the internet are increasingly contested domains. Mr Biden is a realist. He is prepared to cooperate with countries from Poland to the Philippines, where democracy has been going backward, to deter Moscow and Beijing. The world is also not black and white. India, a troubled democracy, watered down this month’s final Cop26 communique, backed by autocratic China.
Beijing is the ghost at the US democracy-fest, a fact underlined by Mr Biden’s invite to Taiwan. Sino-US relations can be competitive, but not so fevered that neither can work together. Vaccine nationalism was a warning about how soft power could be weaponised. It’d be wrong to rationalise US actions by demonising its rivals. China’s alternative economic and political system does not make conflict inevitable, though Beijing’s sabre rattling and US defence spending makes it harder to dodge. This month’s videocall between US and Chinese presidents suggested their nations were lorries speeding along the highway of international relations and in need of a crash barrier.
New rules of the road are essential in trade where Mr Biden has continued Mr Trump’s tariff hikes on Chinese exports. The US has seen a backlash to the economic upheaval induced by trade openness that should have been dealt with by redistributive policies. In their absence, the result was runaway US inequality and a richer, unequal China. Mr Biden argues he is making the economy work for ordinary Americans, and so helping recover their belief in democracy. Yet, without reform of global trade rules the benefits of higher US wages will flow largely to nations like China that suppress household income.
In response, Mr Biden seeks coalitions with democratic allies to replace the current model of liberalisation. The Chinese historian Qin Hui contends that on the left globalisation is as popular in China as it is unpopular in the west. Prof Qin suggests that Chinese concern over growing inequality should be allayed by political reform so workers can strengthen their bargaining position. This seems a remote possibility. China has grown wealthy without becoming more democratic. Prof Qin’s views may resonate in Washington, but they strike the wrong note in Beijing, which has previously banned his work, and prefers instead slogans signalling a crackdown on high incomes. Mr Biden sees, both at home and abroad, democratic values under attack. The US president has identified the challenge. The hard part is to meet it.