Biden Takes His Battle for Democracy Case by Case

President Biden has made it his mission to wage what he momentously calls “the battle between democracy and autocracy.” But what to do when the ones he believes are undermining democracy are friends?

In the case of Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday pushed through Parliament new curbs on an independent judiciary, Mr. Biden has chosen to speak out. The vote in Jerusalem, he declared, was “unfortunate,” the fourth time in a week he chastised Mr. Netanyahu for his drive to enhance his own power.

But the president’s battle for democracy can be situational when it comes to America’s allies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who has presided over a wave of Hindu nationalist violence and repression of dissent, was feted at the White House with a state dinner and little public criticism. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was rewarded with a visit and a presidential fist bump despite his murderous reign.

“Consistency is a challenge for most administrations when it comes to democracy and human rights concerns around the world, and this administration is no exception,” said David J. Kramer, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President George W. Bush. “It’s easier to speak up when our enemies and competitors engage in authoritarian abuses,” he added. “It’s harder when it comes to friends and allies.”

The democracy-versus-autocracy framework has been central to Mr. Biden’s vision of his presidency since the beginning, fueled by the struggle against his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who tried to overturn an election to hold onto power after being voted out of office. Mr. Biden has likewise defined the central foreign policy challenge of his term — defeating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — as part of that overall cause.

It is, after all, a politically appealing construct — right and wrong, good guys versus bad guys. But it is one that predictably becomes more complicated in the Situation Room than it seems at the podium during a grandiloquent speech. Given other American interests, like military bases or intelligence cooperation or economic entanglements, deciding when to speak out forcefully for democracy can prove tricky.

Even some senior officials around Mr. Biden privately feel uncomfortable with the duality of his black-and-white approach, noting that some of America’s friends have rule of law without being particularly free (Singapore leaps to mind) while others are even less committed to Western notions of human rights but still are helpful allies (the United Arab Emirates, for example).

Mr. Biden has found it necessary to exercise restraint with countries that are unarguably autocratic. While he recently called President Xi Jinping of China a “dictator” at a political fund-raiser, he has said little specifically about Beijing’s brutal repression of its Uyghur minority or its crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong.

That becomes even harder when it comes to American allies. Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year identified 27 countries that had backslid on democracy since 2005, including friends like Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, Thailand and Turkey.

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pushed through legislation to curb the power and autonomy of the National Electoral Institute in what critics called an effort to restore one-party rule. Mr. López Obrador said he was only trying to make elections more efficient but Mexico’s Supreme Court last month struck down a key part of his plan.

Mr. Biden has not been especially vocal about democracy in any of those countries. Indeed, he has welcomed to the White House the president of the Philippines and has visited Poland twice and Mexico once while indicating support for the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey. The reasons are not mysterious — he needs the Philippines to contain China, Poland to help stand up to Russia, Mexico to stem illegal immigration and Turkey to permit Sweden to join NATO.

Of course, pressing other countries on democratic regression is that much more complicated because another backslider on the Carnegie list is the United States itself. When Mr. Biden talks about democracy elsewhere, he regularly concedes that America is still working on its own.

Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that promotes democracy, said Mr. Biden “should get some credit for being willing to exert U.S. leadership” on the issue but “his rhetoric needs to be backed with concrete actions” and financing.

“He should also be more evenhanded in the standards to which he holds other nations to, especially U.S. allies,” Mr. Abramowitz added. “Close friends must be able to speak the truth to each other, but President Biden basically gave Prime Minister Modi a pass on Indian democratic backsliding, at least publicly, while properly calling out Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

Other presidents have wrestled with the conflict between the ideals they espoused and the realities they confronted, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In his second inaugural address, Mr. Bush committed to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” and vowed to condition relations with “every ruler and every nation” on freedom, a standard he never fully met any more than his predecessors did.

Mr. Biden has sponsored two “summits of democracy” and announced a third to be held in South Korea. In his State of the Union address this year, he declared that since he took office, “democracies have become stronger, not weaker” while “autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger.”

Still, after two and a half years in office, Mr. Biden does not have a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state for democracy. His first choice, Sarah Margon, withdrew after Republican opposition stemming from past tweets on Israel.

Mr. Biden’s willingness to slam Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial plan while remaining less vocal about issues in places like India underscores the role Israel plays in American politics. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has long been a lightning rod for criticism, and support for the country has increasingly become a partisan issue in Washington.

With a long record of support for Israel, Mr. Biden maintains he has the standing to offer friendly advice. In the past week alone, he has telephoned Mr. Netanyahu to press him to seek compromise and issued three public statements urging him to build broader consensus before proceeding. “It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” a White House statement said Monday.

With Mr. Netanyahu defying him, the question is whether Mr. Biden will go beyond jawboning. The United States provides billions of dollars a year in security aid to Israel, but Mr. Biden appears unlikely to use leverage beyond entreaties to pressure Mr. Netanyahu to back down.

“So far, Biden’s pressure has only been rhetorical, and not only is that insufficient to challenge Netanyahu’s expanding authoritarianism, it indicates how out of sync Biden is with his own voting base,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a longtime critic of Israel’s handling of the Palestinians.

The president’s aides said his words were important. “I wouldn’t say it’s just rhetoric,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary. “When the president speaks, it sends a message.”

To Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, the president’s outrage over democratic erosion in Israel feels selective. For one thing, they argue the prime minister’s plan to limit the authority of the courts is not anti-democratic but instead puts more responsibility in the hands of elected leaders.

Moreover, Mr. Biden has advanced legislation on “the slimmest possible majority” plenty of times. Indeed, Vice President Kamala Harris just matched the record for most tiebreaking votes in the Senate in American history.

“There’s no question Israel is being treated differently,” said John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a nonpartisan organization in Washington focused on advancing the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership.

He noted that in France, President Emmanuel Macron ran roughshod over parliament to enact unpopular pension changes without the broad consensus Mr. Biden has insisted Mr. Netanyahu seek, generating strikes, street demonstrations and sporadic violent protests. “Yet you’ll search in vain for even a single word from President Biden of real criticism against his French counterpart’s handling of these purely internal French matters,” Mr. Hannah said.

Richard Fontaine, chief executive of Center for a New American Security, said America’s approach to promoting democracy abroad “has always been a model of inconsistency.” Mr. Biden is right that the world currently faces a contest of democracy versus autocracy and that the United States should stand up for the former, he said, but he must balance it against other objectives.

“The inconsistency and whataboutism are inevitable byproducts of a foreign policy that seeks changes in other countries’ domestic situations,” he said. “That’s not ground for abandoning the effort to support democracy abroad — just for understanding that it’s no easy task.”

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