President Biden has made it his mission to wage what he epoch-makingly calls « the battle between democracy and autocracy. » But what to do when those he believes are undermining democracy are friends?
In the case of Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got parliament to approve new limits on an independent judiciary on Monday, Biden chose to speak out. The vote in Jerusalem, he said, was « unfortunate », the fourth time in a week he rebuked Netanyahu for pushing him to consolidate his power.
But the president’s battle for democracy can be situational when it comes to America’s allies. Indian 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. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been awarded a visit and a presidential punch despite his murderous reign.
« Consistency is a challenge for most administrations when it comes to democracy and human rights issues around the world, and this administration is no exception, » said David J. Kramer, 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 engage in authoritarian abuse, » he added. « It’s more difficult when it comes to friends and allies. »
The democracy versus autocracy framework has been central to Biden’s vision for his presidency from the outset, fueled by the fight against his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who sought to overturn an election to hold on to power after being voted out of office. Similarly, Biden has called the central foreign policy challenge of his mandate—defeating the Russian invasion of Ukraine—as part of that overarching cause.
After all, it’s a politically appealing construct: right and wrong, good guys versus bad guys. But he’s predictably more complicated in the Situation Room than he looks on the podium during a bombastic speech. Given other American interests, such as military bases or intelligence cooperation or economic entanglements, deciding when to speak out forcefully for democracy can prove tricky.
Even some senior officials around Biden are privately uncomfortable with the duality of his black-and-white approach, noting that some of America’s friends have the rule of law without being particularly free (Singapore comes to mind) while others are even less loyal to Western notions of human rights but are still useful allies (the UAE, for example).
Mr. Biden has found it necessary to exercise restraint with countries that are unarguably autocratic. While she recently called Chinese President Xi Jinping a « dictator » during a political fundraiser, he said little specifically about Beijing’s brutal crackdown on its Uyghur minority or its crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong.
This becomes even more difficult when dealing with American allies. Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year identified 27 countries that had backslid on democracy since 2005including friends like Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, India, Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, Thailand and Turkey.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pushed legislation to curb the power and autonomy of the National Electoral Institute in what critics have called an effort to restore one-party rule. Mr. López Obrador said he was just trying to make the election more efficient, but last month Mexico’s Supreme Court overturned a key part of his plan.
Mr. Biden has not been particularly vocal about democracy in any of those countries. In fact, he welcomed the president of the Philippines to the White House and visited Poland twice and Mexico once, 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 resist Russia, Mexico to curb illegal immigration and Turkey to allow Sweden to join NATO.
Of course, pressing other countries on democratic backsliding is much more complicated because another backslider on the Carnegie list is the United States itself. When Mr. Biden talks about democracy elsewhere, he regularly admits that America is still working itself.
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that promotes democracy, said Biden « should have some credit for being willing to exercise US leadership » on the issue, but « his rhetoric must be backed up with concrete action » and funding.
“It should also be more impartial in the standards it holds to other nations, especially US allies,” Abramowitz added. « Close friends need to be able to tell each other the truth, but President Biden basically gave Prime Minister Modi a pass on India’s democratic backslide, at least publicly, correctly calling Prime Minister Netanyahu. »
Other presidents have struggled 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 pledged himself to « the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world » and promised to condition dealings with « every ruler and every nation » on freedom, a standard he never more fully met than did his predecessors.
Mr. Biden has sponsored two « democracy summits » and announced that a third one will be held in South Korea. In his State of the Union address this year he declared that since he took office, « democracies have gotten stronger, not weaker » while « autocracies have gotten weaker, not stronger ».
However, after two and a half years in office, Biden does not have an assistant secretary of state for democracy confirmed by the Senate. His first choice, Sarah Margon, withdrew after Republican opposition stemming from previous tweets about Israel.
Mr. Biden’s willingness to criticize Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial plan while remaining less vocal 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 for criticism, and support for the country has increasingly become a partisan issue in Washington.
With a long history of support for Israel, Biden says he’s in the position to offer friendly advice. In the last week alone, you’ve telephoned Netanyahu to urge him to seek a compromise and made three public statements urging him to build a broader consensus before moving forward. « It is unfortunate that today’s vote was held with as narrow a majority as possible, » a White House statement said on Monday.
With Mr. Netanyahu challenging him, the question is whether Mr. Biden will go beyond the jaw. The United States provides billions of dollars a year in security aid to Israel, but it seems unlikely that Biden will use leverage beyond pleas to pressure Netanyahu to back down.
“So far, Biden’s lobbying has 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 voting base,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a longtime critic of Israel’s handling of Palestinians.
The president’s aides said his words mattered. « I wouldn’t say it’s just rhetoric, » said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. « When the president speaks, he sends a message. »
To Netanyahu’s supporters, the president’s outrage at Israel’s democratic erosion seems selective. For one thing, they argue that the prime minister’s plan to limit the courts’ authority is not undemocratic, but instead places more responsibility in the hands of elected leaders.
In addition, Mr. Biden has advanced “thinnest possible majority” legislation many times. Indeed, Vice President Kamala Harris he just equaled the record for most Senate tiebreaker votes in American history.
« There is no question that Israel is being treated differently, » said John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a nonpartisan organization in Washington focused on advancing the US-Israel strategic partnership.
He noted that in France, President Emmanuel Macron trampled parliament to enact unpopular pension changes without the broad consent Biden insisted on Netanyahu, spawning strikes, street demonstrations and sporadic violent protests. “Yet you will look in vain for even one word from President Biden of a genuine critique against his French counterpart’s handling of these purely domestic French issues,” Hannah said.
Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, said the American approach to promoting democracy abroad « has always been a model of inconsistency. » Mr. Biden is right that the world is currently facing a competition between democracy and autocracy and that the United States should defend the former, he said, but he must balance it with other goals.
« Inconsistency and disorder are inevitable by-products of a foreign policy that seeks changes in other countries’ internal situations, » he said. « This is not a reason to abandon the effort to support democracy abroad, only to understand that it is not an easy task. »