Biden pushes democracy abroad as a matter of national security

Biden pushes democracy abroad as a matter of national security

Why We Wrote This

President Biden has restored democratic rights to a central role in U.S. foreign policy. This may take time to bear fruit, but the new administration considers it crucial to America’s own future.

Laszlo Balogh/AP

Andras Arato, director of one of Hungary’s few remaining independent broadcasters, Klubradio, which lost its government license earlier this month. The Hungarian government has been adopting increasingly illiberal policies to silence critics.

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February 18, 2021

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The first signs of international response to President Joe Biden’s move to make human rights and democracy central to U.S. foreign policy are not entirely encouraging.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia has released a prominent political prisoner, and the Egyptian government freed a prominent critic’s relatives.

But this week Egypt detained them again, and in Myanmar the generals have taken power again in a coup. Hungary just revoked the license of one of its few remaining independent radio stations, and there is no sign that either Moscow or Beijing will pay much heed to Washington’s strictures.

That will not deter the new U.S. president. He seems to have concluded that in today’s world, where anti-democratic China is a rising power, it is in America’s national security interest to make common cause with its major allies to support human rights and democratic values.

During the Cold War, these were the issues that served as ideological dividing lines with the Soviet Union. They have been clouded more recently by U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. President Biden hopes to restore their luster.

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They are blips on the radar screen, scattered across the globe. But taken together, they constitute an early sign of the impact – and limitations – of America’s move to reassert human rights and democratic accountability as core values of its foreign policy.

So far, the limitations are winning.

But that is “so far.” As with any exercise of soft power, the limitations always tend to be quicker to appear and easier to measure. It will take time to truly gauge the impact of the new U.S. policy, after four years during which the White House downplayed human rights as a policy priority.

There have been flickers of response to President Joe Biden’s change of direction.

Just weeks after Mr. Biden took office, Saudi Arabia freed one of its most prominent political prisoners, Loujain al-Hathloul, after more than 1,000 days of imprisonment. 


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In another Middle Eastern autocracy, Egypt, the signals have been mixed. Only days after the U.S. election, the government freed imprisoned relatives of a prominent Egyptian American human rights activist, Mohamed Soltan, who lives in the United States. But this week several of them were rounded up and jailed again.

And there’s been no sign of change in the “illiberal democracies” of Hungary and Poland on the eastern flank of the European Union. Hungary last week revoked the license of one of its few remaining independent radio stations. 

Since Poland and Hungary are both NATO allies, and Egypt depends on U.S. security aid, Washington perhaps hopes to use its leverage to nudge them toward change. “We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe,” a State Department spokesman said. “That includes with our close security partners.”

The administration will be less optimistic about having an early impact on Vladimir Putin’s government, which first tried to poison, and then jailed, opposition politician Alexei Navalny. In Myanmar, the army generals who have ousted the reelected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi are unlikely to pay much heed to American demands that they step aside. The Chinese authorities seem impervious to U.S. strictures despite increasingly lurid news reports of the scale of their repression of the Muslim Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

These governments would seem to have too much invested in their anti-democratic policies to change course. Their response to criticism has been pretty much what Washington will have foreseen: “Mind your own business.”

Still, there’s reason to look beyond this early score card.

Marieke Wijntjes/AP/File

Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading Saudi women’s rights activist, poses for a photo in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 2017. The Saudi authorities released her from prison last week after nearly three years behind bars.

President Biden is not the first U.S. leader to take office pledging to bake human rights and democratic values into his foreign policy agenda. These used to be the issues that served as ideological dividing lines with the Soviet Union. But since the end of the Cold War their importance has been clouded by controversies over avowedly pro-democracy military engagements in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and, above all, Iraq.

This administration’s approach seems both narrower, and longer term. Narrower, because it’s a response to the growing influence that autocratic nationalists enjoy on the world stage – a trend the administration hopes to begin restraining, in alliance with other democracies. Longer term, because Mr. Biden will have no illusions that the tide can be turned easily or quickly – especially in the face of China’s growing economic weight and international reach.

He will also be aware of the arguments against a “values-based” foreign policy. Realpolitik, the term coined in 19th-century Germany, maintains that power lies at the heart of all politics. And the words of an English prime minister of that epoch, Lord Palmerston, offer another riposte. There are no “eternal allies” in foreign policy, he said, only eternal interests.

But the new U.S administration seems to have decided that in today’s world it is indeed in America’s national interest to make common cause with its major allies to support human rights and democratic values.

Administration officials have also suggested that a retreat from that commitment would further embolden autocracies and weaken democracies. In that context, Saudi Arabia’s early nod toward President Biden’s concern for human rights may be significant. Its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, enjoyed former President Donald Trump’s fulsome embrace despite his harsh crackdown on dissenters.

Still, the deeper effects of America’s resumed commitment to human rights may become clear only years from now – a result of a message heard not so much in the halls of government as among street protesters. And in prison cells.

Natan Sharansky, an Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident, made that point not long before last year’s U.S. presidential election in urging world democracies to show “solidarity” with Hong Kong as a strand of what he termed a necessary response to “fear societies” like China.

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He recalled how, during his imprisonment in the USSR, he heard that then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan had denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Those words, he said, had given him and other inmates reason to “hope.” He said that also explained why he’d denounced Mr. Trump’s comment, during the former president’s rapprochement with North Korea, that its leader, Kim Jong Un, “loves his people, and his people love him.”

Such statements, he said, undermined America’s “moral standing.” And they “dampened dissent” rather than inspired it. That kind of impact may be hard to measure, but it matters. Indeed for Mr. Sharansky, among the best-known Soviet dissidents of his generation, dissent is nothing less than “the most powerful unconventional weapon against dictatorship.”

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Mark Sappenfield
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