It’s Time to Talk About US Illiberalism
In failing to address the United States' actions in the world, Joe Biden's "Summit for Democracy" proved to be just a cynical step toward another Cold War.
As I transition out of the direct policymaking world, I’ve finally had the time to read full articles and reports, not just the executive summaries. So far it’s been an eye-opening experience.
After witnessing years of depraved and blatantly illegal US actions under the “war on terror,” I’ve been struck by how nearly every mainstream think tank paper, beltway expert report, or opinion article somehow still talks about other countries’ actions as if they are operating inside a vacuum. They rarely, if ever, offer any context as to why a country is acting the way it is, and there’s little to no effort to understand how US actions might shape what other countries do.
The hysterical rhetoric we see related to China positions the United States as a victim—an underdog fighting the good fight for the rest of the free world. That’s a nice story, and perhaps at one time it might have been true; it’s certainly the story on which I was raised, one told in American public school textbooks and by White America to justify its privilege. It also, conveniently, removes any agency from or responsibility of the United States government for the crises in which we now find ourselves.
President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” last week echoed those themes, warning about rising authoritarianism and urging countries to come together for democratic renewal. But the attendee list betrayed a lack of good faith on Biden’s part. The summit used the rhetoric of democratic renewal as a means to further divide the world into spheres of influence.
The summit’s ostensible goals (fighting back against corruption, mass inequality, and human rights abuses) are laudable and important to building democratic control of the global economy. But defining the democracy versus authoritarian binary as a contest between the United States and China is a clunky analogy, at best, for the current moment.
There is a democratic crisis, but the United States is not the liberal underdog it wants to portray itself as. Indeed, we cannot seriously tackle the challenge of global authoritarianism without first recognizing that the US government’s actions are helping fuel that authoritarianism both within and beyond our borders. Hosting a “pro-democracy” conference that invites the likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsanaro, and Félix Tshisekedi gives the game away and makes it clear that the US is part of the problem.
If the Summit for Democracy is any indication, Team Biden believes that messaging and executive attention are the primary challenges that democratic nations must overcome. This is not to say that the programs and strategies announced at the Summit are harmful, or unhelpful. But these million dollar programs mean little if the overall approach to US engagement in the world doesn’t change, or if Washington refuses and fails to apply the standards it applies to other nations to its own behavior at home.
Unfortunately the president’s opening speech was less a necessary reckoning with the reasons why democracy is not working for people in the developed world, and more a regurgitation of professed values with little regard for the structural changes required to actually build and reinforce the legitimacy of democratic governance around the world. In refusing to turn a critical eye toward democratic failures and the need to remedy them, Biden is repeating a critical mistake made by his predecessors. He’s using democracy to justify continued US, and Global North, dominance in the world, rather than working to build a more equitable governance system that addresses the problems brought on by the current system.
Notice that nowhere in Biden’s democracy agenda is a reevaluation of US military operations abroad or of the effect that US security cooperation can have on the internal politics of Washington’s partners. Nor does it seem that the Biden administration will stop arming authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Egypt—even though activists from those and other countries argue that this is one of the best things the US could do to support democracy.
Washington’s failure to listen to those closest to the harms wrought by authoritarian regimes is perhaps unsurprising, but it is nonetheless disheartening. These activists are alluding to a critical lesson of Cold War and post-9/11 US foreign policy that Team Biden seems to have missed: it is not messaging that determines whether people support or oppose the US government, or decide to join non-state armed groups. It is rather the intractability of government corruption and the enduring threat of state violence or US-enabled atrocities that motivates outrage and violence directed toward the United States. Poverty, failed governance, and repression invoke feelings of disenfranchisement and create a sense that the only solutions to these problems lie outside the norms of civil society. Those feelings are only compounded when the abusers have the unceasing backing of supposedly human rights-supporting liberal democracies.
China was the unspoken elephant on the zoom during Biden’s summit. While it didn’t come up during the president’s opening remarks, Beijing has been at the forefront of his administration’s rhetorical focus on democracy. Like so many of its predecessors, the Biden administration is steering the American people into a superpower competition for elite-driven geopolitical and economic reasons, using a supposed concern for democracy and human rights as cover. That approach will only fan the flames of nationalism in both countries and undermine the universality of human rights and democracy more broadly.
This binary worldview may be useful for helping to sell the administration’s agenda, but in manifesting it, the United States is helping to create a monster of its own making. It is an uncomfortable, unspoken truth in Washington that US foreign policy has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the US responds to perceived threats in ways that make the world less, not more, secure. And while the Chinese government’s corruption and human rights abuses are a matter of record, a phony pro-democracy campaign splitting the world into competing spheres of influence has no chance of triggering positive change within the Chinese state.
The perception among many policymakers, outside a progressive few, is that the Cold War was a success because the US “won” and that America’s post-9/11 wars have also been largely successful—or, in the case of Afghanistan, failed only because the US lacked the will to win. But these wars, which have collectively led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, were not successes for people in Haiti, Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Chile, or El Salvador, to name just a few of their victims. And yet the mindset underlying these conflicts—that the United States must secure world dominance lest our capitalist freedoms be overtaken by Chinese Communism (or Soviet Communism, or Islamism)—is driving Washington into a new global conflict.
Superpower competition, and the proxy conflict and zero-sum approaches it engenders, is not conducive to the development of stable democracies. Instead, it has more often than not led to the installation of authoritarian and corrupt foreign proxy governments, with little to no concern for the consent of the governed. During the first Cold War, and continuing on into the post-9/11 era, the United States has helped create failed states, levied economy-collapsing sanctions in the name of democratic regime change, facilitated and/or committed war crimes and mass atrocities, and supported autocrats with our soldiers and our guns.
These atrocities have an intimate link to the popular demonization of ideologies and identities outside of the White American norm in our culture, and the neo-fascism with which our current democracy is currently grappling. The policies that led to them rely on a fundamental Othering of entire countries and peoples as ‘threats’ to Americans—enflaming racism, xenophobia, and, ultimately, displays of white nationalist fervor like January 6, 2021, along the way.
And so we come full circle to the Summit for Democracy, a seemingly benign, cheery event meant to build solidarity and support for the universal aspirations of human rights and accountable governance. By fitting its “democracy agenda” into the framework of a global competition with China, however, the Biden Administration transparently belies its own objectives.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the US, once again, instrumentalizing democracy and human rights for unspoken geopolitical and economic interests is the last thing that would help activists around the world who are organizing for change.
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Thanks for writing this great piece, Kate. You put words to what so many of us our feeling and observing.
it's almost like material conditions structure ideology which in turn reinforces material conditions. wish someone would develop a cohesive theory of political economy around this.