In Age of China Rising, Has US Democracy Promotion Lost Its Edge as Foreign Policy Goal?

Jeff M. Smith
·11-min read

On the campaign trail and in his first months in office, President Joseph Biden repeatedly touted democratic values as a centrepiece of his administration’s foreign policy. He has regularly stressed the importance of working with democratic allies, opted to retain the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision pioneered by the Trump administration, and upgraded the “Quad” grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.

What’s more, the Biden administration is planning to organise its own “Summit for Democracy” in late 2021 (not to be confused with the Copenhagen Democracy Summit Biden will host in May). It will “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values.”

For all the talk of democracy’s importance, however, the Biden administration has said conspicuously little about democracy’s promotion abroad. The recurring theme in the President’s rhetoric is democratic consolidation: Strengthening democracy at home and among existing democratic partners. In a February 2021 address, Biden insisted America’s “galvanising mission” is to “demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people in this changed world.” At a March 25 press conference, he spoke of “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” insisting: “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”

The Biden administration’s reticence reflects the growing skepticism cast on US democracy promotion efforts in recent years. The criticisms aren’t novel but they have grown louder and sharper, in part due to heightened scrutiny of the health of America’s own democracy, and in part due to criticism of its recent democracy promotion track record. At the same time, China’s rise is creating new obstacles for the US democracy promotion advocates, limiting America’s leverage by providing autocratic governments or backsliding democracies with a viable alternative.

In fact, China’s rise is creating challenges even for the Biden administration’s more modest democracy consolidation agenda. Its burgeoning rivalry with China has further incentivised the US to partner with regimes that are geopolitically aligned but less than democratic. “I think [US and Vietnamese] interests and our vision of the kind of region and world in which we want to live is almost completely aligned,” explained U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink (and current nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific) in a recent speech.

How can the Biden administration reconcile its focus on democratic consolidation with the need to build flexible coalitions of strategically aligned but politically diverse countries in the Indo-Pacific? And how should it approach the thornier issue of democracy promotion? Does America still have the authority, capability, and will to promote democracy abroad in a multipolar order with autocratic alternatives?

Values and Interests

The young 21st century has been unkind to US democracy promotion advocates. Although it was not the catalyst for the conflicts, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq evolved into democracy-building exercises. While both governments are now democratic, the two decades of dreadful violence and instability they have suffered dealt a heavy blow to the US democracy promotion brand inside and outside the US.

Many corners of the globe were already highly sceptical of US democracy promotion efforts. That the US government counts among its partners a wide variety of partial democracies and outright autocracies—from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Turkey to Pakistan, and Singapore to Thailand—has bred tremendous cynicism about the authenticity of US democracy promotion rhetoric. Instead, it’s viewed by critics as an avenue to attack unfriendly regimes while the US coddles compliant dictators, promoting its own narrow strategic interests under the guise of liberal values. While popular, the argument is betrayed by a more complex reality.

First, it ignores the fact that the US continues to promote democracy among its autocratic partners, sometimes at a cost to the strategic partnership. The human rights and democracy records of US partners are frequently, sometimes fiercely, criticised by the US Congress, State Department, and myriad US non-profit organisations. At times, the US government has applied sanctions, suspended aid, or cancelled arms deals in response to democratic backsliding or human rights violations by otherwise friendly regimes. Sometimes, these efforts have come at the sacrifice of other US interests.

Second, the US government is occasionally forced to make difficult choices that pit “values” against “interests.” Most often, democracy promotion complements other US foreign policy interests. Democracies make better strategic partners. They are less likely to go to war with other democracies. They are less prone to violent political upheavals. With democracy promotion, values and interests frequently align. But not always.

Sometimes the US is forced to choose between a hardline approach to democracy promotion and engagement with an autocratic state. Sometimes, it chooses the latter for reasons that are self-evident: The political character of a regime is one of several variables that influence inter-state relationships, from diplomatic, economic, and people-to-people ties to strategic alignment, defense relations, and multilateral cooperation. As a variable, regime type carries greater weight for the US than it does for China or Russia but it’s not so influential as to render other vital economic or national security interests irrelevant.

Third, as a democracy itself, the US government’s decisions and relationships must at least be somewhat representative of the views of the American public. Even as they see the spread of democracy as a virtue, even a pillar of the American ethos, in reality Americans prioritise their own security and prosperity over aspirational democratic projects abroad.

In a February 2021 Pew Poll, Americans were asked which issue “should be given top priority as a long range foreign policy goal.” Perhaps, unsurprisingly, protecting American jobs and defending the country from terrorist attacks were the top two answers among Democrats and Republicans combined. In a long list twenty foreign policy priorities, “promoting democracy in other nations” took 20th place, dead last. Put another way, there are at least some limitations on how far the American public will support democracy promotion efforts that threaten their own security or prosperity.

Democracy through Autocratic Engagement

Fourth, when assessing US engagement with autocratic regimes, it is increasingly the case that there are not only other interests under consideration but legitimate questions about the most effective way to do so.

Consider a hypothetical example in which a democratically-elected government is accused of human rights violations, democratic backsliding, or a drift toward authoritarianism. The democracy promotion purist might counsel sanctions or a suspension of diplomatic relations to compel a course reversal.

This was once a more terrifying prospect for many capitals, creating tremendous pressure to recalibrate their policies or risk incurring a heavy cost. The rise of China, and the emerging China-Russia nexus, have diminished some of this leverage by providing economic, military, and diplomatic alternatives.

What if an activist approach that sought to punish the backsliding democracy pushed them closer to China or Russia, eager as they are to patronise governments that have run afoul of the US? The end result might be less democracy, fewer checks and balances on the autocratic impulses of the leadership, and less leverage for the US to influence future developments.

There’s a risk of understating the tremendous influence the US still enjoys in many corners of the globe. No government wants to face US sanctions or have its access to the US financial system curtailed or be the target of congressional hearings. The vast majority of capitals want more options, not less, and desire to remain engaged with both the US and China. But a changing geopolitical landscape demands adjustments to US strategy and the tools used to incentivise democracy’s spread.

Democracy Promotion in a New Era

Early indications suggest the Biden administration seeks to prioritise democratic consolidation and resilience over democracy promotion. Yet, even if democracy promotion is to assume a humbler form, it should not be abandoned altogether.

Beneath every high-profile failure lies a sea of quiet successes. Every year U.S. officials and citizens are doing laudable work monitoring local elections in Tunisia, providing technical assistance to the election commission in Malawi, helping persons with disabilities access voting booths in Ukraine, or supporting peace and reconciliation efforts in Kosovo. They are training judges, promoting anti-corruption programmes, and supporting the development of a free press across the developing world. Their efforts may be the target of derision from global commentators but they are vital to the societies transitioning to democracy or doing their best to keep it.

That said, a 21st-century democracy promotion agenda may need to look more measured, focused, and nuanced than the 20th-century agenda. It will need to take into account new limitations on America’s ability to shape events abroad and new strategic imperatives produced by China’s rise.

It is no longer merely a question of whether America should promote democracy but whether it can, and how it can do so most effectively. Sometimes, America’s options will be limited and the best hope for freedom is to engage less-than-democratic regimes, using more modest incentives and levers of power to encourage gradual democratisation.

At the “low end,” the US should continue to use its diplomatic toolkit to support education, the development of civil society, judicial reform, transparency, and media freedom. It should continue to create economic and diplomatic incentives that reward governments that enjoy popular legitimacy. At the “high end,” the US should act decisively in cases where human rights violations or democratic backsliding reach extreme levels, like military coups, genocides, or the ushering of populations into concentration camps. The US government should still draw clear red lines around flagrant abuses, irrespective of strategic convergence in other arenas.

It is in the “middle” where the most adjustment may be required, including when and how to apply pressure on undemocratic but strategically aligned regimes when they are acting responsibly on the world stage but denying their citizens full political rights. It is here democracy promotion advocates will have to walk a finer line, more delicately balancing carrots and sticks, values and interests, idealism, and effectiveness.

The US government will also have to grapple with how to respond to the passage of illiberal laws, or the emergence of illiberal rhetoric, or perceived democratic backsliding among existing democracies, a challenge front and centre for the Biden administration’s democratic consolidation agenda.

Democratic Consolidation and the China Challenge

Even without embracing a vigorous democracy promotion agenda, the Biden administration has a difficult task ahead. It aspires to make democratic values a centrepiece of its foreign policy while building functional coalitions in the Indo-Pacific where it can’t afford to exclude non-democracies. “Too many countries flunk that test but remain tantalisingly poised between the big powers,” notes Janan Ganesh. “It would be an act of masochistic self-denial to let them slip into a rival’s morally undemanding patronage.”

How can the Biden administration square this circle? The Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision championed by the Trump administration and adopted by President Biden presents a way forward. The Biden administration should make clear to Indo-Pacific capitals that their relationship with the US will be determined by a variety of variables, including regime type and domestic policies. Whether you are “free and open” at home matters to the US. But whether you are contributing to a “free and open” region abroad also matters to the US.

Just as democracies can be irresponsible international actors, partial democracies and autocracies countries can act responsibly on the world stage. Their foreign policies can contribute to a free and open regional order if they support freedom of navigation and the rule of law, refrain from threatening or attacking their neighbors, provide others aid in times of distress, contribute to global public goods, and resolve their disputes peacefully.

Most autocracies will face a ceiling in the type of relationship they can enjoy with the US, but not being a democracy will not result in disqualification from cooperating for mutual benefit when interests align—even if that cooperation is predicated on the US continuing to advocate for democratic reforms or criticising attacks on political freedom.

China’s rise, and its expanding partnership with Russia, have given autocrats a new lease on life, erecting new obstacles for advocates of democracy promotion and democratic consolidation. As Hal Brands and Charles Edel recently observed, “the era of effortless democratic dominance is over.” If the game has changed, the answer isn’t for America to leave the playing field, it is to make some key half-time adjustments and get back to work.

This piece was first published on ORF.

Jeff M. Smith is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, focusing on South Asia. He previously served as Director of Asian Security Program at the American Foreign Policy Council. Smith has testified as an expert witness before multiple congressional committees, served in an advisory role for several presidential campaigns, and regularly briefs officials in the executive and legislative branches on matters of Asian security. He is the author of Cold Peace: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the 21st Century (Lexington Books, 2014); and the author and editor of the forthcoming Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).

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