Democracies vs. Autocracies: The Risk of Framing Geopolitics as Us … – JURIST

The author, a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune, explores the weaknesses of the democracy vs. autocracy binary in modern geopolitics…

President Joe Biden has repeatedly characterized the state of world affairs as a battle between democracies and autocracies, with America leading the coalition championing the democratic cause. According to the United States, this coalition aims to show the world that government of the people, by the people and for the people is the best model, and to prevent dictatorships from profiting from their abuses.

Biden’s approach to foreign policy, however, hasn’t exactly reflected this worldview, nor should it. It isn’t wise to split the world into “us” vs “them” teams.

In our intertwined, globalized world, it’s simply not possible to fully disengage with non-democracies. And non-democracies and democracies both come in many different forms. But the rhetoric without the reality causes damage too. Considering the state of nation-states today, leaning into this binary distinction doesn’t seem to serve U.S. interests.

Most obviously, it draws attention to the hypocrisy of U.S. engagement around the world. Biden, as much as any president before him, has staked our credibility on U.S. values and democracy. But the Biden administration has also largely continued America’s longstanding a la carte approach to bilateral engagement, seeing fit to remain close to bad actors who thwart democratic values, allowing U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military partnerships to strengthen repressive regimes. This only feeds into Russian and Chinese talking points to Global South partners that the United States’ fixation on values is all talk and no substance.

See Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, and Niger, all of which have offered the Biden administration opportunities to lean in on an approach that prioritizes democracy. In each case so far, it’s punted.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies and one of the most repressive regimes on earth, and yet it remains one of our closest security partners. For decades, the United States has effectively been its security guarantor, with thousands of troops stationed in the country and billions of dollars in sales of weapons and other military hardware. In return, the United States gets little but a bad reputation, since the Saudi regime has declined to even help keep oil prices down in hard times.

We also have a “steadfast commitment” to Israel, which receives nearly $4 billion in U.S. assistance every year. The treatment of Palestinians has long raised questions about the nature of Israel’s democracy, but the extremist nature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government has been impossible to ignore. It has not only expanded illegal settlements in the West Bank and further institutionalized discrimination against the Palestinian people, but Netanyahu has taken direct aim at the last remaining checks on his coalition’s power with his illiberal judicial reforms.

In addition to maintaining our firm bilateral commitments to each of these undemocratic regimes, the United States is now expending significant political currency trying to secure a peace deal between the two that would bring America little more than even greater defense commitments.

President Biden also recently rolled out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was shunned by Washington not so long ago for fueling human rights abuses and discrimination, even being refused a visa in 2005 for “severe violations of religious freedom.” Despite leading the world’s largest democracy, Modi is unapologetically illiberal and has steadily increased religious intolerance and repression across the country. But Biden’s team has showered him with praise, viewing India as an essential partner in countering China.

Niger has been a close U.S. security partner for over a decade and a country the United States held out as a positive example in a region where democracy has been on the decline. So the recent coup there was a wakeup call. But instead of calling a coup a coup, the U.S. government has played the waiting game, reluctant to risk losing a counterterrorism outpost as the cost for standing up for democracy. If the United States continues with business as usual with Niger’s junta, it will send a strong message about how the administration really values democracy.

The clear lesson emerging is that democratic values matter a lot less than winning the geopolitical influence game. In each of these cases, a thread can be drawn directly to great power competition and the American fear of losing ground to China or Russia.

At the same time, democracy is losing its shine in many countries. Some voters believe their democratic governments are coming up short, so they are falling for the lure of populist strongmen with authoritarian tendencies. Look at Hungary and Turkey, whose leaders have harnessed the allure of identity politics while steadily chipping away at democratic foundations. In Argentina, a far-right libertarian outsider just took 30% of the vote in the presidential primary, a response to the abject failure of the political class to address decades of economic crisis. Even in the United States, democracy isn’t looking so secure, with Donald Trump, under multiple indictments for actively trying to steal the 2020 election, still on track to win the Republican nomination for 2024 by a landslide.

Meanwhile, our “us” versus “them” approach only strengthens their hand by incentivizing countries to form an opposing bloc that’s stronger together. China and Russia are both using this opportunity to rally countries against liberal domination on the world stage. Consider the recent enthusiasm to join BRICS, a group of emerging economies looking to change the global system to better suit their needs.

All of this suggests that talking democracy is cheap, and the United States and its allies would be better off taking more action to help democracies deliver instead. This means working at home to strengthen our liberal values and to ensure accountability for anti-democratic behavior. It means applying more U.S. support to strengthen democracies and good governance and reducing our support for repressive regimes whose behaviors do not support long-term U.S. interests. And it will require having a humbler attitude about democracy’s ability to deliver, which doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work and earning trust in institutions.

Democracy is a journey, not a destination. We need to invest more in that journey, but we don’t need to talk about it so much.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”




Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST’s editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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