Can Biden Walk the Walk on Democracy?

He’s said the right things, but his actions on Afghanistan, Russia, and Cuba are not promising.

Democracy, it was said by more than a few after Donald Trump was defeated in 2020, has been saved. And America, President Joe Biden likes to repeat, is “back.” “No President of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view.  That’s just part of the DNA of our country,” Biden said after meeting Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In this and dozens of other speeches, testimony before Congress, and alliance confabs, the Biden administration has trumpeted its commitment to democracy the world over. But it’s not much more than rhetoric.

Start with Hong Kong, where, after several years of escalating erosion of Beijing’s pledge to maintain the “one country, two systems” policy that was a condition of the handover from the U.K. to China in 1997, the Chinese government cracked down hard in April and May 2020, imposing new national security laws. Since then, democratic activists have been arrested en masse; free newspapers have been shut down; pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s legislature have been ousted; and new pro-Beijing curricula have been introduced in schools. The reaction from Washington and European capitals was suitably shocked, but in concrete terms, little was done to preserve the remains of Hong Kong’s democracy.

The European Union, whose leaders were delighted to welcome anyone other than Donald Trump back to alliance gatherings, and who joined with President Biden in calling for renewed enforcement of democratic norms, have been shy to stand up to China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron moved quickly in the wake of China’s Hong Kong crackdown to “smooth over” ties. Washington was slightly tougher in responding to Beijing’s predations—at least under Trump. It was the Trump administration that imposed the first Hong Kong related sanctions, and Biden has piled on a few more. Where this administration may possibly have exacted a price for China’s wanton assault on Hong Kong rights is with a new warning to U.S. companies about the risk of doing business there.  

But that’s the last of the good news. Take Afghanistan: The initiative to withdraw from Afghanistan began with Donald Trump, but was seamlessly embraced—and even accelerated—by his successor. U.S. commitments to the democratically elected Afghan government to involve it in negotiations with the Taliban were ignored under Trump, and more enthusiastically ignored under Biden. U.S. troops who had—without combat or incurring major casualties—backed the Afghan army against the Islamist extremists left a major U.S. airbase under cover of darkness without first informing their Afghan hosts.

Since the United States began its withdrawal, the Taliban has taken over much of the country—at least 85 percent, per their most recent claims. Dozens have been brutally executed. U.S. intelligence predicts the democratically elected Afghan government is likely to fall soon. Women and girls have been bounced from school, returning to the severe Islamist strictures of pre-2001. Many would be forgiven for seeing U.S. policy as a betrayal of democracy.

Elsewhere, the news is almost uniformly bad. A Trump administration crackdown on Russia and on a key pipeline that will enable Russia to circumvent Ukraine in supplying gas to Europe has been reversed by the Biden administration. Indeed, the Biden administration has counseled Ukrainian leaders to stop complaining about Washington’s betrayal over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Putin’s stepped-up assaults on Russian democrats was rewarded with a summit by President Biden. Europe and the U.S. both reacted angrily to Belarus’ brazen midair interception of a Ryanair flight carrying a Belarusian dissident, but Russia’s support for that operation has gone unmentioned. (Belarus doesn’t matter much, making it easier for the United States and Europe to remember their pro-democracy principles.)

There’s more, a veritable litany. Demonstrations in Cuba demanding democracy elicited a positive statement from the White House, and then … a total headfake, with the Biden administration imposing sanctions on entities already sanctioned by the Trump administration. Palestinian elections, which were postponed in June, brought minor hand-wringing from the administration, amid a resumption of aid that had been cut off under Trump. In Iran, the Biden administration has displayed an almost pathological lack of interest in the human, political, religious and civil rights of the Iranian people, not to speak of Iranian exiles in the United States. And of course, there are the long-term betrayals of pro-democracy demonstrators and fighters in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, not to speak of Africa and Latin America.

Needless to say, this is not all Joe Biden’s fault. Indeed, it is not even mostly his fault. Many of the anti-democratic seeds that have flowered in recent months were sown years ago. Donald Trump never held himself out as a champion of freedom. Both he and, perhaps even more baldly, Barack Obama disdained the notion of America as champion of the downtrodden, at least abroad. His repudiation of the George W. Bush so-called “freedom agenda” was specific and purposeful. Obama couched his indifference to foreign tyranny in the cloth of respect for “cultural differences.” And Trump just didn’t care—as he put it bluntly, “America first.”

But Joe Biden’s political career was not forged in the post-9/11 foreign policy crucible; he is a veteran of the Cold War, and largely signed on to the notions encapsulated in Reagan’s shining-city-on-a-hill vision of America in the world. Indeed, this is the very man who stood with arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms and then-former Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan (and against the Ford White House) to personally welcome Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the United States. So when he finally reached the pinnacle of his own political career, few were surprised to see him sing paeans to NATO, alliances, and democratic ideals.

The paeans are beautiful, and the rhetoric is welcome after four years of exile. Donald Trump talked a terrible democracy game, but his policies in support of Ukraine, China’s Uyghurs, Hong Kong, the people of Cuba and many more, however, were often laudable. With Biden, it seems the reverse is true. Not long after taking office, Biden said, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” Yes indeed. When?