“We’re in a contest, not with China per se, but with autocrats and autocratic governments around the world as to whether democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” President Joe Biden told the global public on June 13.
Biden and the G7 are pumping a democracy-led international development initiative to counter China’s Belt and Road projects. But with Biden taking the message to NATO, which released a statement on June 14 calling China a “systemic challenge,” the competition is not only economic, but increasingly, military.
China’s reaction to Biden’s statement against autocracy was swift. It used it to paint Biden’s motives as “sinister,” a claim that will now have more weight with the world’s dictators. By targeting not just China, but other autocrats, Biden has, in the short-term at least, just made America’s fight against China much more difficult.
Many dictators previously had perfect reason to ally with the United States against China. Russia is worried about China’s immigration and influence in its vulnerable far east. Saudi Arabia can be appealed to due to China’s repression of Islam and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs. Vietnam is engaged in a tense military standoff with China over the South China Sea. American use of those issues to bring dictators in these countries onboard against Beijing will now be harder, as their thoughts linger on America being out to get them too.
On the other hand, Biden’s clarion call against dictatorship is true to American values, and the values of the democracies that have most of the world’s economic power. Europeans, Japanese, Indians, Brazilians, and Canadians deeply believe in democracy, and with Americans, compose nine of the world’s top-10 economies. They need to hear such an explicit call to “competition” with autocracy in order to unify and reject China’s influence internationally, and from their own societies.
The fight against autocracy is no longer just the military battle of World War II, or the brushfire wars against the Soviet Union. Now, due to China’s economic success, it includes the fight behind closed doors against Beijing’s political influence in our own capital cities.
America standing against dictatorship unequivocally, without hypocritical photo shoots with Saudi autocrats or kissing up to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, will encourage freedom fighters in some autocracies to democratize their societies, defend them against China’s malign influence, and make them more reliable allies against China.
Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson implied some of this in their joint statement at the G7, the “New Atlantic Charter,” which explicitly revitalized the original Atlantic Charter of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, signed on a battleship in 1941.
The New Atlantic Charter affirms much of the original Atlantic Charter, including support for democracy, free trade, and freedom of the seas, but adds a warning against something new, explicitly taking aim at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The new charter states that the United States and Britain “oppose interference through disinformation or other malign influences, including in elections, and reaffirm our commitment to debt transparency, sustainability and sound governance of debt relief.”
The New Atlantic Charter, however, fails to explicitly take a stand against autocracy.
This is where Biden’s statement, made on June 13 at the G7 Summit in England, breaks the mold, not only of the Trump era, which sought to cooperate with countries like Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, but with European leaders today, who hastened to soften Biden’s language, and with the entire strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, in which America supported dictators in the third world when they were “our” dictators.
Biden’s statement against autocracy in general is so bold as to deserve a new name: the Biden Doctrine.
In the past, America preferred market democracies, but if forced to choose between supporting an anti-communist dictatorship, or leaving it weak to eventually be overthrown by communist rebels by which it would gravitate to the Soviet bloc, we chose the former. We supported anti-communist dictators despite their human rights abuse and the claims of hypocrisy leveled against us, because we thought that we needed them in the fight against the Soviets, the world’s most dire and immediate authoritarian threat.
Now China has taken the place of the Soviets in a New Cold War, but Biden changed the strategy entirely. He is explicitly allying against autocracy as a form of government, and by implication, America is allying with pro-democratic local populations the world over.
That generalized opposition to autocracy is an existential threat to “our” dictators, and one that China will use to try and bring them over as “Belt and Road countries” or into its budding alliance system, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China could even use the Biden Doctrine to appeal to democracies that prefer a non-ideological international system, pointing out that democratic countries like India are members of the SCO, and the BRI is offered to democratic and autocratic countries alike.
America’s counter-argument is iron-clad: that the world is trending towards autocracy, and an explicit stand must be made against it, now or never. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to defend democracy.
If Biden follows through on his doctrine, it could mean supporting pro-democratic forces in Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. We likely already do this, subtly and quietly so as not to harm our attempts to ally with these countries against China and Russia. But now that our opposition to autocracies is explicit, democratic movements in these countries will be able to demand our assistance, the lack of which will be called hypocrisy.
America has moved from realpolitik, to idealism and “competition” with autocrats, backed by economic and military strength. It’s bold, risky, and could end in diplomatic disaster, if our allies cleave to China’s offer of a non-ideological world, or a hard global fight of democracies against dictatorships. Our prior autocratic allies could be torn asunder by democratic revolutions, some of which could fail and lead to their alliance with China.
The fight will not be trivial, as autocrats often choose civil and international war in preference to giving up their dictatorial power. They feel entitled to their power, with which they manage their countries efficiently, unlike the United States, they say. They will not welcome American “meddling” that could turn them into the violent chaos of Syria and Iraq. These will be the arguments that China uses against us, with greater force now that the Biden Doctrine is explicit.
Look at Thailand. After the coup in 2014, President Barack Obama protested, and State Department officials lambasted the deterioration of human rights in the country. Obama cut aid and scaled back annual U.S. military exercises with the country, which gave China and Russia the opportunity to expand their presence and influence in America’s oldest regional ally. American access to all of Southeast Asia was at risk, as most other countries in the region were already pro-China.
With Biden’s new statement, China will have another argument for delivery to the generals of Thailand and Myanmar. The latter also suffered a coup, in February. America is against autocrats, and for the democratic overthrow of their governments, Beijing will say. This will reaffirm what the Thai and Burmese generals already believe. But student democracy protesters in these countries will be reinvigorated.
American diplomats in places like Vietnam and Saudi Arabia are doubtless already fielding concerned calls from their hosts. Democracy activists in those countries will seek American support anew. Our diplomats will have a dynamically tricky job at balancing these interests, and American interests, in allied autocracies. Squaring the Biden Doctrine with attempts to keep pro-American dictators onside will be hard going.
But there is a silver lining to the sulfurous diplomatic clouds that are about to erupt from the tectonic global shift of the Biden Doctrine. The world has heard from our President, in no uncertain terms, that America stands for democracy and against dictatorship. Advocates of democracy the world over will be inspired by the doctrine, and will seek to help the idea of America, and redouble their own democratic exertions, for the ultimate victory of people who believe in freedom. Today is a proud day for this idea, and a hopeful one, for democracy around the world.
Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.