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Geopolitics

America, Defender Of Democracy? Why The World (Still) Isn't Buying It

The West must address the degradation of democracy domestically, and worldwide. It's on the right side in the war in Ukraine. And in China. But what doesn’t ring true is President Biden’s flaunting the democratic cause as a foreign policy stick.

Profil view of Joe Biden

Will President Joe Biden's China strategy contribute to reviving, expanding and bettering democracy worldwide?

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Democracies are in poor shape, and one discerns not just a deterioration of democratic regimes, but a more blatant process of regression. The so-called Third Wave of democratization, which the author Samuel Huntington observed as lasting from 1974 into the 1990s, has slid backward over the past decade.

We are even seeing a "counter-wave" in so-called advanced democracies. According to Bastian Herre, an analyst and researcher, figures show a double decline in liberal democratic systems and electoral democracies, complementing a double rise in electoral autocracies and "plain" dictatorships, which dispense with the theater of elections.

The trend has two main aspects: One is an internal shrinking of democracy taking place, in contrast with the mid-20th century, without abrupt events like an invasion or a coup. The other is that, again unlike the Cold War period, there is no yearning for a revolutionary alternative, as the Soviet Union has ceased to exist.

The United States' current chief rival in the world, communist China, is not exporting its institutional model.

So the question is: will President Joseph Biden's China strategy, which effectively presents itself as a fight between democracy and autocracy, contribute to reviving, expanding and bettering democracy worldwide?


There are signs to suggest otherwise and that it might even worsen the democratic decline.

Firstly, the precedent of U.S.-Soviet rivalry is a necessary reference. At certain points and depending on the state of tensions, the United States fomented democracy abroad. But more frequently it was inclined to simply change regimes and even favor (conservative) dictatorships whenever democratic initiatives in the Third World harbored reformist ambitions or threatened its interests.

Latin America has particularly suffered from the United States' inconsistent promotion of democracy, which may be one reason why states in the Global South are strongly disinclined now to be in any way tied to the vicissitudes of its foreign policy.

What dictatorships does U.S. sell weapons to?

It is not unusual for the democratic clamor to produce double standards — especially when aspirations and business clash. Examples abound.

Between May and September 2022, the U.S. State Department approved arms sales worth just over U.S. $3.4 billion to the United Arab Emirates, $2.91 billion's worth to Egypt, just over $3 billion to Saudi Arabia, $450 million to Pakistan and $397 million to Kuwait. Nobody would classify these states as democracies. Yet the administration did not hesitate to use democracy as a pretext to exclude certain states from the June 2022 Summit of the Americas.

In May, it made no reference to regime types when it organized a summit of 10 ASEAN member states. ASEAN includes four authoritarian governments, five problematic democracies and a Sultanate or monarchy. Washington also dispensed with grading regimes for its recent U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit.

Heads of delegations including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, second row second right, pose for a family photo with US President Joe Biden, first row left, at the Summit of the Americas, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Los Angeles

Heads of delegations at the Summit of the Americas, June 10, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/ZUMA

Washington has its own democracy problem

Thirdly, as authors Michael Brenes and Van Jackson pointed out in a July essay in Foreign Affairs, great-power rivalries have been bad for internal democracy. The Cold War, they contend, exacerbated inequalities inside the United States and did not favor working-class sectors. So, we must definitely beware of claims that a new Cold War with China could somehow benefit the Western middle classes.

Global defense of democracy is last on a list of 14 priorities for Americans.

Since 1947, the increase of martial threats has become endemic, fanning social fears that's led to bloated defense budgets at the expense of other essential public needs. In the long run this weakens the economy, feeds social unease and undermines diplomatic credibility.

Fourthly, Biden recognized from the start of his mandate the delicate state of democracy in his own country, following his predecessor's attempted coup that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. There was talk of a possible civil war, and recent polls have shown that more than 40% of Americans fear the risk persists.

The public is so concerned in fact, that a Morning Consult poll published on September 13, revealed "the global defense of democracy" to be last on a list of 14 priorities for Americans!

U.S. opinion seems unmoved then by a global confrontation between democracy and autocracy.

The problem with "crusades"

Fifth: Leaders and academics broadly agree that tackling great global challenges and reviving a battered multilateral order will not come about with an attitude of With or Against Washington. Indeed, this may be the plain and simple premise that underpins the face-off between democracies and autocracies .

Does all this mean it is impossible or unnecessary to revitalize democracy at home? Just the contrary. It is a matter of urgency, especially in the West and particularly here in Latin America.

But at the same time, making this objective a veritable crusade is counter-productive, both for the world and for global peace. Let us never forget the philosopher Immanuel Kant's observation that lasting peace can never be imposed.

*Totaktlian is an international affairs specialist and vice-dean of the private Torcuato di Tella University in Buenos Aires.

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-Analysis-

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