A boost for Biden’s global democracy agenda

A boost for Biden’s global democracy agenda

President Joe Biden speaks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, May 17, 2024. (AP)
President Joe Biden speaks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, May 17, 2024. (AP)
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US President Joe Biden has faced criticism for making “revitalizing democracy the world over” a key goal of his administration. Yet his agenda might be taking stronger root across much of the West and beyond, and could outlive his administration, whether it ends in 2025 or 2029.
An illustration of the appealing nature of his message was on display on Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit. This global event, the brainchild of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary-general and Danish prime minister, featured keynote speakers from around the world, from the Asia Pacific to the Americas.
The speakers included Republican US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Lai Ching-te, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The event coincided with the publication of research based on interviews with almost 70,000 people worldwide, which found that faith in democracy remains high around the globe, with 85 percent of those polled agreeing that democracy is important to their country.
This is a timely reminder, given that 2024 is a banner year for elections, during which an estimated 2 billion people in dozens of nations will go to the polls.
The research also found, however, that governments generally were not seen to be living up to the democratic expectations of their citizens; only a little more than half of those polled were satisfied with the state of democracy in their country. This dissatisfaction was not limited to nondemocratic nations; it was also prevalent in several Western countries with long democratic traditions.
A good example was the US, where former President Donald Trump will once again be on the ballot for the Republican Party in the presidential election in November. Still tarred by the assault on the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, he has openly stated that should he win, he will be a dictator on the first day of his second term.
The consequences of a Trump victory are not only important domestically but internationally. During his first term, foes of the US around the world, from Venezuela to Iran and Russia, relished the disorder he brought to Washington. In particular, the Jan. 6 debacle was watched with glee by those nationalist populists around the world who try to defy calls for the rule of law and democratic norms to be respected.
Other think tanks, such as the US-based Freedom House, in recent years have also regularly highlighted the hostile environment democratic governance faces around the globe. A key challenge, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is the growing concern about the increasing influence of Moscow and other authoritarian and/or autocratic states.
According to Rasmussen, there is a “trend which shows we risk losing the Global South to the autocracies. We are witnessing an axis of autocracies forming, from China to Russia to Iran. We must act now to make freedom more attractive than dictatorship, and unite through an alliance of democracies to push back against the emboldened autocrats.”

Economic modernization and liberalism will be the impulse for future democratic reforms.

Andrew Hammond

Yet there are some in the US, and beyond, who would prefer Biden not to overemphasize democracy-based political rhetoric. They argue, for example, that such ideas sometimes make a simplistic, binary distinction between “good” and “bad” that can sit awkwardly in a fast-changing, complex world of ambiguity and uncertainty, where there is frequently a need to work with states that lack democratic traditions but with which the US has shared interests.
Some critics instead favor an international approach by Washington based more on classic, quantifiable national interests. They argue that other states, especially developing ones, might be more likely to aspire to emulate the US because of its material prosperity, rather than any appeals based on its democratic virtues.
Economic modernization and liberalism, it is suggested, will be the impulse for future democratic reforms and help counteract the appeal of alternative, authoritarian models of development that have brought significant indebtedness to key US allies.
The implication is that Biden’s agenda might best be delivered by putting significantly more emphasis on new economic-reform and infrastructure packages for Africa, Asia, and the Americas, including signature initiatives such as the G7-backed Build Back Better World initiative, to demonstrate in a practical way the US intent to invest in low and middle income countries.
Yet, as important as this economic agenda is, it is not incompatible with an agenda for democracy. Indeed, value-driven, high-standard, and transparent partnership schemes that address the developing world’s huge infrastructure-funding challenges, such as Build Back Better World, can reinforce Biden’s wider agenda.
This is important because there is recognition that a broad, multifaceted approach is needed to ensure that freedom and democracy flourish. This is why it is so important that Biden now embeds in his agenda for the remainder of his presidency the need to make democracy “more responsive and resilient.”
The truth behind Biden’s assertion that “proving democracy is durable and strong” is a central challenge of our age is highlighted in the important book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
Its core concept is that in recent generations democracies have not, generally speaking, collapsed as a result of a military coup or armed revolution. Rather, they have broken down gradually as public institutions and political norms have been weakened from within.
This is why, during his time as vice president between 2009 and 2017, Biden was given an active role in issues relating to several countries, including NATO and EU ally Hungary, in which he spoke out against corruption and in support of the consolidation of democratic institutions, with an emphasis on the independence of the judiciary.
In this key election year, a boost to the US promotion of democracy around the world is to be welcomed. Biden’s support for this long-standing agenda will outlast his administration in what might be a long battle for fresh ideas in the field of international relations.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.


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