Joe Biden said at a news conference in Kinshasa

Joe Biden said at a news conference in Kinshasa

It is the element of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy that overlaps most significantly with his domestic agenda: defending democracy.

His drive to buttress democracy at home and abroad has taken on more urgency as Russia wages war in Ukraine, China expands its power and former President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters attack American democratic norms and fair elections.

In a speech in Philadelphia last week, Biden warned about the threat to democracy in the United States and said American citizens were in “a battle for the soul of this nation.”

Joe Biden said at a news conference in Kinshasa

Joe Biden puts support of democracy at center of agenda, at home and abroad

In a speech in Philadelphia last week, Biden warned about the threat to democracy in the United States and said American citizens were in “a battle for the soul of this nation.”

Even as he hammers home that message before the U.S. midterm elections, Biden’s efforts to bolster democracy abroad are about to come into sharper focus. The White House is expected to announce a second multinational Summit for Democracy. And the National Security Strategy, which could be released this month, will highlight reinforcement of democracies as a policy priority, officials say.

On his most recent overseas trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in Congo that the United States would help the country with “preparations for next year’s free, fair and on-time elections” — an emphasis on the sanctity of elections that echoes Biden’s defense of the 2020 U.S. presidential election against Trump’s persistent attempts to undermine its results.

Pursuing parallel policies to strengthen democracy at home and abroad allows the Biden administration to focus on a single central message, while the president’s political aides shape the identity of the Democratic Party around it.

And it gives Biden the standing to claim he is the torchbearer of an American foreign policy tradition that contrasts sharply with Trump’s isolationist “America First” approach and praise for autocrats. That tradition, liberal internationalism, revolves around the idea that global stability comes from democratic systems, free markets and participation in American-led multinational organizations.

“I think the rhetorical — and I would say sincerely moral — emphasis is welcome, as is the effort to draw democracies together,” said Larry Diamond, a scholar of democracy at Stanford University.

But in recent years, liberal internationalism has come under criticism from politicians, policymakers and scholars well beyond the Trump camp, and Biden risks being seen as naive or imperialistic in centering his foreign policy on strengthening democracies.

Critics point to the disastrous wars and nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan that were carried out in the name of democracy. And they say the decades long American push for free trade and open markets has fueled global inequality, environmental catastrophe and the empowerment of authoritarian figures and groups like the Chinese Communist Party, which now presents an anti-democratic but materially successful governance model to the world.

Officials in the Biden administration say they are approaching the defense of democracy with a sense of humility and are open to learning from other nations.

On his travels last month, Blinken unveiled a new U.S. strategy for Africa that has democracy support at its core. But he also said at a news conference in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, that the United States did not “want a one-sided, transactional relationship.”

He praised Congo for being a “strong participant” in the Summit for Democracy that Biden convened in Washington last year.

Congo is a nascent democracy. After a troubled presidential election in 2019, it had its first peaceful transfer of power. Blinken promised the country an additional $10 million “to promote peaceful political participation and transparency” in elections next year, for a total of $24 million in such programs overseen by the United States Agency for International Development.

Biden’s aides say their approach emphasizes “democratic resilience” rather than “democracy promotion,” unlike efforts by earlier administrations. They argue they are strengthening democratic nations and cooperation among them rather than pushing for changes of political systems or governments.

The framing is defensive rather than offensive, with a recognition that democracies are under threat, often from internal forces, in ways they have not been in decades.

And the officials also say global challenges such as climate change, the pandemic and economic recovery are best addressed by democracies working in concert.

Furthermore, they argue, no other recent administration has had to rally partners and allies urgently to confront the challenges posed by China and Russia, which in different ways are undermining what U.S. officials call the “rules-based international order.” Administration officials say there is a competition between democracies and autocracies to demonstrate which can deliver for their people and the world.,joe-biden-the-standing-to-claim-he-is-the-torchbearer/6

But in tackling those broad issues, the Biden administration will have to determine on a case-by-case basis whether to work with authoritarian nations or prioritize the principles in its “democracy versus autocracy” line.

“It makes it more difficult when you’re framing it this narrowly to reach out to those states you might need,” said Emma Ashford, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Stimson Center. “It might leave out space for more global issues — the things you might need to talk to autocracies about.”

In the Middle East, Biden has visibly calibrated his position on autocracies, meeting in July with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia despite vowing earlier to make that nation a “pariah” for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, by Saudi operatives. Biden’s aides said the president was focused on working with Saudi Arabia on diplomacy with Israel, global energy security, competition with China and ending the Yemen war.

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