If nothing else, the Biden Administration’s Summit for Democracy heightened attention to the erosion of democracy in many parts of the world. Now it must take action to combat it. For an administration that has talked tough on democracy and human rights but allowed other U.S. interests to prevail in every significant policy decision to date, the first step may be simply to explain how democracy fits into its foreign policy. In particular, it should clarify how support for democracy is fundamental to the emerging contest with China.
Since taking office, Biden and his team have been preoccupied with the return of great power competition, continuing the previous administration’s policy shift toward confrontation with Beijing. New weapons systems—such as anti-surface warfare and hypersonic weapons—are being rolled out while longstanding commitments in other parts of the world—such as Afghanistan and the Middle East—have been rolled back.
This recalibration is important, but there is a danger of overcorrection. The United States risks unduly militarizing its response to the China threat at the expense of other diplomatic tools.
“Know thy enemy,” the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu counseled. The United States is lurching toward a clash with China without clarity regarding either the geography or the nature of the struggle ahead. In terms of geography, Washington’s attention has locked onto Taiwan as the presumptive battlefield for a Sino-American confrontation. But this focus is too narrow. Taiwan will always be at the center of U.S.-Chinese tensions (much like Berlin during the Cold War) but it will probably not be the chief flashpoint: Both sides are developing high-end military capabilities that will make it difficult for either to prevail there. More likely, the contest between the two will take place on a more far-flung stage.
As to the nature of the Sino-American struggle, it will probably be a long and grinding contest, one that plays out globally. It will be more complicated than the Cold War, in that it will include elements of cooperation as well as competition. Over the past thirty years, both the United States and China have benefitted significantly from a global market for capital, goods, and services, and both share an interest in seeing this preserved. The United States also needs Chinese cooperation on a range of new transnational threats, from climate change and global pandemics to terrorism and non-proliferation. As Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president and deputy secretary of state, has observed, “Ask yourself how you’re going to deal with problems like Iran and North Korea without China; well, you don’t get very far.”
In this sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative dance, political and economic tools are likely to take precedence over military ones. U.S. success in deterring China will depend as much on attracting other countries as allies as on deploying the most sophisticated weaponry. As China eyes how aggressively to assert its claims in the South China Sea, for instance, an important part of its calculus will be how the rest of the world will react. Will it face in return an economic boycott, with its exports (which represent 18 percent of gross domestic product) shut out of global markets? Will it provoke the political condemnation of the rest of the globe in international fora and the media? China may judge these to be too high a price.
Consequently, the critical question will not be how to defend Taiwan, how to attack China, or how to protect the homeland, but rather what policies the United States should pursue toward the lands caught in between the two superpowers. How does it build the political, economic, and security coalitions to balance China? With its Belt and Road Initiative, China has laid out its strategy as to how it will win friends and court influence around the world. The United States still needs to develop its own.
This is where democracy plays an essential role. Democracy—when it functions properly—is the United States’ superpower. Beijing’s repressive domestic policies and Chinese-centric global vision repel rather than attract outsiders. China can offer other countries money and weaponry, but not an ideology with universal appeal. The United States can, provided it gets its own house in order. Tellingly, China’s State Council acknowledges this, claiming in the run up to Biden’s Democracy Summit that China is itself a democracy: “There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests in many forms.” But whether it labels itself a democracy or not, the Chinese government’s heavy-handed treatment of its own citizens runs contrary to the human spirit.
Democracy provides the best glue we know for holding societies together. Countries that are democratic enjoy greater popular legitimacy. Over the long term, they tend to experience better governance and economic performance. And while not every country can easily become democratic, the adoption of democracy’s core principles of transparency, participation, accountability, and inclusion can increase a government’s legitimacy and performance, and nudge it in that direction over time.
To succeed in its confrontation against Beijing, the United States should put democracy at the heart of its alliances and partnerships around the globe. With its traditional allies in Europe and Asia, it should recommit to defending together democracy globally, including from asymmetric threats from authoritarian foes. The United States should seek to attract new countries as allies by convincing them that authoritarianism has no future, as well as by helping them shore up nascent democratic institutions. And it should assist weak and failing states to develop “good enough” governance, so that they can better manage the aforementioned transnational threats that jeopardize their stability and our common welfare.
A return to our first principles as a nation, it turns out, is critical not just to our domestic tranquility but also to our fortunes abroad.
Stephen R. Grand is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the executive director of the Network for Dialogue.
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