President Biden has made it his mission to wage what he calls “a war between democracy and autocracy.” But what if those who believe they are undermining democracy are friends?
In the case of Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday pushed through the legislature new ways to deal with independent crime, Mr. Biden chooses to speak. The vote in Jerusalem, he declared, was “regrettable,” the fourth time in a week that he criticized Netanyahu for his efforts to increase his power.
But the president’s battle for democracy may be on hold when it comes to America’s allies. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has led Hindu violence and repression of non-conformists, was celebrated at the White House with a dinner with little public criticism. Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was he was blessed with a visit and a presidential punch regardless of his murderous reign.
“Consistency is a challenge for many administrations when it comes to democracy and human rights around the world, and this administration is different,” said David J. Kramer, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President George W. Bush. “It is easy to talk when our enemies and competitors have committed brutal acts of violence,” he added. “It is very difficult when it comes to friends and associates.
The system of democracy against democracy has been the center of the vision of Mr. Biden in his presidency from the beginning, which was boosted by the fight against the former President Donald J. Trump, who tried to overthrow the election to stay in power after the vote. Mr Biden has also described the central political challenge of his time – defeating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – as part of the overall agenda.
It is, after all, a political construct – right and wrong, good and bad. But it’s one that turns out to be more difficult in the Situation Room than it looks on the podium when speaking out loud. Considering other American interests, such as military forces or strategic alliances or economic problems, choosing the right time to talk about democracy can be difficult.
Even some officials around Mr. Biden secretly do not feel comfortable with the doubling of his black and white approach, noting that some of America’s friends have laws without being too liberal (Singapore jumps to mind) while others are not committed to Western ideas of human rights but are still useful (United Arab Emirates, for example).
Mr. Biden has found it necessary to exercise self-restraint with countries that are independent. When he recently He called China’s President Xi Jinping a “dictator” while raising political funds, he has said little about Beijing’s crackdown on the Uyghur minority or their rights violations in Hong Kong.
This is particularly difficult when it comes to America’s allies. Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year identified 27 countries that have regressed in democracy since 2005including friends such as Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, India, Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, Thailand and Turkey.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pushed legislation to end the power and independence of the National Electoral Institute in what critics say is a bid to restore one party. López Obrador said he only wanted the elections to go smoothly, but the Supreme Court in Mexico last month. touched on an important part of his plan.
Mr. Biden never mentioned democracy in any of these countries. Indeed, he was welcomed to the White House the president of the Philippines and they are he went to Poland twice and Mexico once show support for selling F-16 weapons to Turkey. The reasons are unclear – they need the Philippines to have China, Poland to support Russia, Mexico to stop illegal immigration and Turkey to allow Sweden to join NATO.
Of course, pressuring other countries to return to democracy is more difficult because one of the backsliders on Carnegie’s list is the United States itself. When Mr. Biden talks about democracy elsewhere, he always admits that America is still working on its own.
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that promotes democracy, said that Mr. Biden “should receive credit for being willing to lead the US” on this issue but that “his words must be backed up with real actions” and money.
“He also needs to be more straightforward about the standards he holds to other countries, especially US allies,” added Mr. Abramowitz. “Close friends should speak the truth to each other, but President Biden gave Prime Minister Modi the opportunity to backtrack on India’s democracy, at least publicly, while calling out Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
Other presidents have struggled with the conflict between the ideals they were promoting and the realities they faced, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In his second inaugural address, Mr. Bush committed himself to the “great goal of ending violence in our world” and vowed to establish relations with “every ruler and every nation” on freedom, a standard he did not fully meet as his predecessors did.
Mr. Biden sponsored “two Democratic conventions” and announced the third to be held in South Korea. In his own State of the Union address this year, he announced that since he took office, “democracies have become stronger, not weaker” while “people’s governments are shrinking, not stronger.”
However, after two and a half years in office, Mr. Biden does not have a confirmed Democratic Senate secretary. His first choice, Sarah Margon, withdrew after criticism from Republicans from past tweets about Israel.
Biden’s willingness to criticize Netanyahu’s judicial system while remaining silent on issues in places like India underscores Israel’s role in American politics. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has drawn criticism, and support for the country has been a controversial issue in Washington.
With a long history of support for Israel, Mr. Biden is said to be in a position to offer compassionate advice. In the last week alone, he said Netanyahu called to force him to agree and he made three public statements encouraging him to agree more before continuing. “It’s unfortunate that today’s vote was made by such a small number of people,” he said at the White House on Monday.
With Netanyahu taunting him, the question is whether Biden will go beyond jaw-dropping. The United States gives billions of dollars a year in defense aid to Israel, but Mr. Biden seems unable to use more power than complaints to force Mr. Netanyahu to back down.
“So far, the pressure on Biden has been rhetorical, and it’s not enough to challenge Netanyahu’s administration, it shows how far Biden has diverged from his votes,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a long-time critic of Israel’s treatment 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.”
For the followers of Mr. Netanyahu, the president’s anger over the erosion of democracy in Israel is deciding the choice. For one thing, they say the prime minister’s intention to reduce the power of the courts is not anti-democratic but to put more responsibility in the hands of elected leaders.
Additionally, Mr. Biden has executive orders on “very few people” most of the time. Yes, Vice President Kamala Harris just like history for the largest Senate vote in American history.
“There is no question that Israel is being treated differently,” said John Hannah, director of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that focuses on improving US-Israeli relations.
He also said that in France, President Emmanuel Macron had disrupted parliament to introduce unpopular pension reforms without the broad consensus Mr. Biden had urged Mr. Netanyahu to seek. leading to demonstrations, street protests and occasional violence. “Yet you still don’t have a single word from President Biden criticizing his French counterpart for his handling of French affairs,” Hannah said.
Richard Fontaine, director of the Center for a New American Security, said America’s approach to promoting democracy in other countries “has always been an example of disagreement.” Mr. Biden is right that the world is now facing a competition between democracy and autocracy and that the United States should stand for the former, he said, but he needs to balance it with other goals.
“Disagreements and disagreements are inevitable because of a foreign policy that wants to change in other countries,” he said. “This is not a reason to stop trying to support democracy abroad – just to understand that it is not an easy task.”