President Biden has set out to wage what he calls momentously “the battle between democracy and autocracy.” But what to do when the ones he believes are undermining democracy are friends?
In the case of Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through Parliament on Monday for new restrictions on an independent judiciary, Biden chose to speak. The vote in Jerusalem, he declared, was “unfortunate”, the fourth time in a week that he chastised Netanyahu for his drive to enhance his own power.
But the president’s battle for democracy may be situational when it comes to America’s allies. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has presided over a wave of Hindu nationalist violence and a crackdown on dissent, was feted at the White House with a state dinner and little public criticism. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has been rewarded with a visit and a presidential fist bump despite his murderous reign.
“Consistency is a challenge for most administrations when it comes to democracy and human rights around the world, and this administration is no exception,” said David J. Kramer, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President George W. Bush. “It’s easier to talk when our enemies and competitors commit authoritarian abuses,” he added. “It’s harder when it comes to friends and allies.”
The democracy versus autocracy framework has been central to Biden’s vision of his presidency from the start, spurred by the fight against his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who tried to overturn an election to stay in power after being voted out of office. Mr. Biden has also defined the central foreign policy challenge of his tenure, defeating the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as part of that overall cause.
It is, after all, a politically attractive construct: right and wrong, good guys versus bad guys. But it’s one that predictably gets trickier in the Situation Room than it looks at the podium during a bombastic speech. Given other US interests, such as military bases or intelligence cooperation or economic entanglements, deciding when to speak out for democracy can be tricky.
Even some senior officials around Biden are privately uncomfortable with the duality of his black-and-white approach, pointing out that some of America’s friends have rule of law without being particularly free (Singapore springs to mind), while others are even less committed to Western notions of human rights but still useful allies (the United Arab Emirates, for example).
Mr. Biden has found it necessary to exercise restraint with countries that are indisputably autocratic. While he recently called China’s President Xi Jinping a “dictator” at a political fundraiser, he has said little specifically about Beijing’s brutal crackdown on its Uyghur minority or its crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong.
That becomes even more difficult when it comes to American allies. Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year identified 27 countries that had regressed in democracy since 2005including friends like Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, Thailand and Turkey.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pushed through legislation to limit the power and autonomy of the National Electoral Institute in what critics have called an effort to restore one-party rule. López Obrador said he was just trying to make the elections more efficient, but last month Mexico’s Supreme Court struck down a key part of his plan.
Mr. Biden has not spoken especially about democracy in any of those countries. In fact, he has received the president of the Philippines at the White House and has visited Poland twice and Mexico once while indicating his support for the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey. The reasons are not mysterious: he needs the Philippines to contain China, Poland to help deal with Russia, Mexico to stop illegal immigration and Turkey to allow Sweden to join NATO.
Of course, pressing other countries about democratic regression is much more complicated because another repeat offender on the Carnegie list is the United States itself. When Biden talks about democracy elsewhere, he often admits that the United States is still working on its own.
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that promotes democracy, said Biden “should get some credit for being willing to exercise American leadership” on the issue, but “his rhetoric must be backed with concrete action” and funding.
“It should also be more impartial in the standards it holds other nations, especially America’s allies,” Abramowitz added. “Close friends should be able to tell the truth to each other, but President Biden basically gave PM Modi a pass on Indian democratic rollback, at least publicly, while he properly calls out PM Netanyahu.”
Other presidents have grappled with the conflict between the ideals they espoused and the realities they faced, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In his second inaugural address, Bush committed to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” and vowed to condition relations with “all rulers and all nations” on liberty, a standard he never fully met any more than his predecessors.
Mr. Biden has sponsored two “democracy summits” and announced a third to be held in South Korea. In its state of the union this year, he declared that since he took office, “democracies have gotten stronger, not weaker” while “autocracies have gotten weaker, not stronger.”
Still, after two and a half years in office, Biden does not have a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state for democracy. His first choice, Sarah Margon, withdrew after Republican opposition stemming from earlier tweets about Israel.
Biden’s willingness to criticize Netanyahu’s court plan while remaining less open on issues in places like India underscores the role Israel plays in American politics. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has long been a lightning rod of criticism, and support for the country has increasingly become a partisan issue in Washington.
With a long record of supporting Israel, Mr. Biden maintains that he is in the position to offer friendly advice. In the last week alone, he has phoned Mr. Netanyahu to pressure him to seek a compromise and issued three public statements urging him to build a broader consensus before proceeding. “It is unfortunate that today’s vote was carried out with the slimmest possible majority,” a White House statement said Monday.
With Netanyahu challenging him, the question is whether Biden will go beyond the pipe dream. The United States provides billions of dollars a year in security aid to Israel, but it seems unlikely that Biden will use his influence beyond pleas to pressure Netanyahu to back down.
“Until now, Biden’s pressure has only been rhetorical, and not only is it insufficient to challenge Netanyahu’s expanding authoritarianism, but it indicates how out of sync Biden is with his own voter base,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a longtime critic of Israel’s handling of the Palestinians.
The president’s aides said his words were important. “I wouldn’t say it’s just rhetoric,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary. “When the president speaks, he sends a message.”
To Netanyahu’s supporters, the president’s outrage over the erosion of democracy in Israel seems selective. On the one hand, they argue that the prime minister’s plan to limit the authority of the courts is not undemocratic, but instead puts more responsibility in the hands of elected leaders.
Additionally, Mr. Biden has advanced “smallest majority possible” legislation many times. In fact, Vice President Kamala Harris just equaled the record for the most tie-breaking votes in the Senate in US history.
“There is no question that Israel is being treated differently,” said John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for Homeland Security of America, a nonpartisan organization in Washington focused on promoting the strategic partnership between the United States and Israel.
He noted that in France, President Emmanuel Macron trampled parliament to enact unpopular pension changes without the broad consensus that Biden has insisted Netanyahu seek, sparking strikes, street demonstrations and sporadic violent protests. “However, he will look in vain for even a single word from President Biden of actual criticism against his French counterpart’s handling of these purely internal French affairs,” Hannah said.
Richard Fontaine, executive director of the Center for a New American Security, said the US approach to promoting democracy abroad “has always been a pattern of inconsistency.” Mr. Biden is right that the world currently faces a contest between democracy and autocracy and that the United States must defend the former, he said, but must balance it with other goals.
“Inconsistency and whataboutism are inevitable by-products of a foreign policy that seeks changes in the internal situations of other countries,” he said. “That is not a reason to abandon the effort to support democracy abroad, just to understand that it is not an easy task.”