It doesn’t take a genius to see that a subtext of President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” last week was an effort to raise the ideological stakes in the competition between the US and China. And only a fool would believe that the strategy will work without a healthy dose of diplomatic hypocrisy.
The notion of an “alliance of democracies” (in part to counteract an alliance of autocracies) is neither crazy nor new. Assisting fellow democracies is a rationale for US defense commitments to South Korea and Japan. The democratic nature of Taiwan is what makes it a sympathetic cause.
What’s more, Biden rightly sees that the frank amorality of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” transactionalism was at odds with any effort to get tough on China. In part because Trump hoped to make a deal to increase Chinese purchases of American soybeans, for example, he spent the early part of 2020 showering praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful containment of the new coronavirus. Oops.
It’s also true that without some kind of moral foundation, it’s hard to make a strong case for an active US foreign policy outside of North America. Since at least Franklin D Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, the US has acted on the view that American freedom is intertwined with smaller democracies’ efforts to evade foreign domination.
All that said: If this summit — like Biden’s diplomatic boycott of the Olympics and his continuation of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports — was really about containing China, then America’s commitment to democracy is going to have to be pretty loose.
Consider, for example, America’s old enemy Vietnam, which has been intermittently at odds with China for decades and has been growing friendlier with the US over the years. Vietnam is not only a natural ally in an effort to contain Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, it’s also a useful economic partner. Any attempted “decoupling” of the American and Chinese economies would involve not only more US manufacturing but also more in new economic partners such as Vietnam.
Inconveniently, however, Vietnam continues to be the same Communist Party-dominated autocracy that it’s been ever since the fall of Saigon. A foreign policy based on an ideological commitment to democracy would counsel against including the country in any new alliances designed to contain the influence of China. Or consider India. Emphasizing India’s democratic nature is a way for the US to rationalise a change from its traditionally cool relationship and instead embrace it as an ally against China. And warmer relations with India naturally mean a chillier relationship with Pakistan.
But South Asia is not the same as it was 20 years ago, when Pakistan was a military dictatorship and India was governed by the cosmopolitan liberals of the Congress Party. Back then, a realignment towards India and against the Sino-Pakistani alliance seemed like
a straightforwardly pro-democracy idea. Today’s Pakistan is more democratic than it was under Pervez Musharraf’s rule, while India has become less so under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Yet the geopolitical logic of the realignment — India is a valuable ally against China — remains in place. Any honest argument in favour of it should acknowledge that it does not really hinge on democracy at all.
Even more provocatively, remember that the US allied with Pakistan in the first place because India was allied with the Soviet Union against its neighbour and rival China. Eventually, a US locked in cold war with the Soviet Union (and a shooting war in Vietnam) realised it should try to ally with China, and under President Richard Nixon basically pulled it off. Now China is on the rise, these alliances have mostly reversed and the US is drawing closer to both quasi-democratic India and undemocratic Vietnam.
Toughest of all is Russia. US relations with Russia have been on a downward spiral for years, and the Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border seem like a more pressing issue than competition with China. This is where the so-called pivot to Asia comes in. Biden is now the third consecutive president to take office promising that pivot — and the third consecutive president to learn how difficult it is to execute.
Still, if Nixon and Kissinger could reach a rapprochement with Beijing — including an ambiguous fudge about the status of Taiwan — is it really so unthinkable that the US could seek a real rapprochement with Moscow?
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter.
A co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he is also the author, most
recently, of “One Billion Americans”