When Joe Biden stood on City University’s stage in July 2019, the presidential candidate wasn’t just looking to give an address on his worldview. He was looking to make a statement about democracy and America’s defense of it worldwide.
“I will ensure that democracy is once more the watchword of US foreign policy — not to launch some moral crusade, but because it is in our enlightened self-interest,” he told the New York City crowd. “We have to champion liberty and democracy.”
But this week has shown just how difficult championing democracy and opposing autocracy in any truly meaningful way will be for President Biden.
On Monday, Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s civilian leadership in a coup, ending its decade-long democratic experiment. The next day, a Russian court sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to nearly three years in prison, striking a devastating blow to the pro-democracy movement threatening Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Together, these two international crises highlight a major challenge Biden will face over the next four years, just as other presidents before him did: how to support democratic movements in places where the US doesn’t have actually much leverage, and where doing so could end up hurting the very movements the US wants to support.
In Myanmar, the US has few options to push the ruling generals to reverse course, especially since it provides almost no financial assistance to the government. As for Russia, any American effort to bolster democracy in and around it is viewed as a threat to be stamped out and delegitimized. Last October, shortly after the Kremlin poisoned and nearly killed Navalny, Putin’s regime claimed the dissident worked with the CIA.
American leaders with high hopes of ushering in a more democratic future inevitably run into the harsh reality of their limitations and the opposing forces working against them. “Every administration for the last 30 years has struggled with this,” said Erin Snider, an expert on US democracy promotion at Texas A&M University.
Myanmar and Russia, then, show the Biden administration is already in the thick of this dilemma.
“It’s certainly posing an early test of the commitment they’ve made,” said Patrick Porter, chair of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “It may not have been this difficult for the Biden administration had they not built their foreign policy around this issue.”
Promoting democracy is one thing. Promoting democracy successfully is another.
Progressives made promoting pro-democracy movements worldwide a cornerstone of their foreign policy platform in 2020, and Biden has repeatedly emphasized that his administration will seek to follow that approach as well.
But as the cases of Myanmar and Russia make clear, this is a lot easier said than done.
Washington took a quick first step in showing its displeasure with the governments in Naypyitaw and Moscow, with Biden calling the military takeover in Myanmar a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding Russia “immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny.”
Some skeptics view such pro forma statements as feckless, but most say it’s better for Biden’s team to make clear where it stands than not. “I’d rather see an administration that speaks out against these regimes, imposes costs, and continues to champion the Navalnys of the world,” a senior Democratic staffer in Congress told me.
But statements are the easy part. The hard part is not only deciding how much to support a nation’s democratic movement, but also the best way to lend that support.
Take Myanmar. After declaring the military’s takeover a “coup” on Tuesday, the Biden administration said it would cut aid to the government while still sending money to pro-democracy and civil society groups.
But State Department officials told reporters that day that the amount of financial support the US provides the regime is “very little, almost none,” which means that cutting aid will likely do little to change the generals’ minds.
Biden is also looking into the possibility of placing economic sanctions on Myanmar in the coming weeks. But while that would potentially give the US additional leverage over the military generals ruling the country, it could backfire.
That’s because some experts have warned that doing so could end up increasing authoritarian China’s already immense economic influence in Myanmar while pushing out democratic countries like South Korea and Japan, which have worked to develop economic and military ties to the country and break China’s “stranglehold” there.
And though China has had a complicated relationship with Myanmar’s military regime, it’s unlikely closer ties between the two countries will bode well for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement — or for the Biden administration’s efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
“The events in Myanmar will test how much the competition with China serves as the organizing principle of US foreign policy under the Biden administration,” a congressional Democratic staffer told me.
As for Russia, Biden has already shied away from resetting relations with the country, so it’s unlikely he’ll care too much about opposing the Kremlin. But Putin blamed the US for its support of large anti-regime protests in 2011 — protests Navalny helped lead. Experts say that’s when the dictator chose to counter Washington instead of work with it, leading to the Kremlin’s interference in the past two presidential elections and hack of the US government.
If Biden wants to stop US-Russia relations from spiraling even further, he might not want to do more than offer condemnatory statements. And if he wants to help Navalny’s movement, showing too much enthusiasm for it could backfire. “In some cases, the US wrapping its flag around you could hurt your legitimacy at home,” the University of Birmingham’s Porter told me.
What’s more, it’s not clear the US actually has many ways of successfully pushing Russia to change. The Kremlin rejects any efforts at democratization in Russia and its surroundings, while pro-democracy groups like Navalny’s get stamped out the second they become overly threatening. The best way to punish Russia would be to get European nations to curb ties with Moscow, but that’s always proven hard for any US administration to do.
No one expects Biden, or any US administration, to depose autocrats and usher in full-blown democracies over his four or even eight years. At most, the US can move the needle a little bit so that, over time, a country liberalizes so organic democracy movements can grow. But even incremental progress requires trade-offs, ones that require the president and his team to assess how much they value a foreign nation’s democratic leanings against everything else.
Biden, then, is the latest American leader to face this problem, one that also bedeviled his predecessors. “I don’t think that any president has been absolutely stellar on this front,” said Texas A&M’s Snider.
The question now is if the dramatic events in Myanmar and Russia — all in the first two weeks of his presidency — lead Biden to reconsider democracy promotion as the “watchword” of his foreign policy. If he doesn’t, he risks falling short of his lofty goals.
“It’s a test you can only flunk,” Porter told me.