As presidential candidate, Joe Biden pledged to make democracy and human rights cornerstones of his foreign policy agenda. As the administration approaches the 100-day mark, is Biden keeping his promise?
In speeches and actions, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have emphasized the fundamental importance of democracy and human rights issues for overall U.S. foreign policy. “Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests,” Blinken said on March 30 while presenting the State Department’s annual human rights reports, “and the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.”
In foreign policy, as in all things, actions speak louder than words, but in this case, even articulating the principle was an accomplishment. It is often argued that, in dealing with other countries, the United States can pursue either democracy and human rights or our national security interests, but not both. Biden and Blinken have rejected this notion as a false choice. The two priorities are inseparable: the advance of democracy and human rights around the globe is a core national security interest.
The administration’s approach in its early days is not sitting well with everyone, however. Foreign policy “realists,” as well as those in both parties who feel that the United States should not be “lecturing” others given our own challenges, find themselves in strange alignment with authoritarian regimes discomfited when America adopts a leading role in advancing democracy and human rights around the world. Rulers in Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and elsewhere dislike being called out for their human rights abuses, to say nothing of facing sanctions for such behavior. “The United States should lower the tone of democracy and human rights and talk more about cooperation in global affairs,” said Yuan Peng, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank.
A flurry of recent articles presenting the realist perspective have warned that pressing the regimes of Putin and Xi on human rights concerns will drive them closer together in opposition to the United States and do nothing to improve conditions on the ground. “To denounce Putin for his human rights abuses constitutes mere decency,” Robert Kaplan writes, “but it won’t get us far in terms of confronting the eternal dilemma of Russia.” He and the others in his camp call for engagement with Beijing and Moscow, regardless of our worries over human rights: “The painful truth is that Putin has not only to be deterred and morally denounced, but engaged.”
Elbridge Colby takes a similar line with regard to China. “Americans must refocus on what our foreign policy should be about,” he writes. “That means, beyond defending ourselves from attack, making sure we can determine our future free of external coercion and being able to trade and invest overseas on terms that promote a broad-based national prosperity.” The headline of a third recent piece—“Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia”—speaks for itself.
Some right- and left-wing political groups argue that given our own problems, we are in no position to judge foreign governments on their adherence to democracy and human rights. Others allege that U.S. efforts on democracy and human rights are uneven and inconsistent, applied only to advance U.S. interests where convenient and to bully regimes we dislike while ignoring the abuses of friendly dictators.
The answer to such criticism is not to drop democracy and human rights from the foreign policy agenda, but to pursue a more consistent and coherent policy on these issues. The Biden administration appears to be aligning itself more with groups that recognize the interdependence between democracy and human rights on the one hand and security and economic interests on the other.
The way a regime treats its own people is often indicative of how it will carry out its foreign policy, and this is especially true of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. They eliminate any potential challenges to their authoritarian systems through intimidation, arrest, imprisonment, and even assassination of journalists, critics, opposition figures, and members of ethnic or religious minority groups. They similarly pursue foreign policies in which they advance their own economic and security interests at the expense of human rights and democratic governance throughout the world. Both leaders view democratic practices, whether at home or abroad, as a threat to their grip on power and consequently seek opportunities to undermine democracy and prop up likeminded leaders.
Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 as part of a bid to prevent the creation there of a successful democratic alternative to the system he oversees. Russian forces also occupy 20 percent of the territory of Georgia, another neighbor aspiring to join the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies; intervened militarily in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; and support Venezuela’s illegitimate strongman, Nicolás Maduro. In addition to Russian intelligence services interfering in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections, they also deployed “active measures” in the 2018 French presidential election, the Brexit vote, and other elections, in addition to attempting a coup in Montenegro in 2016. Stamping out human rights and weakening democracy are strategic priorities meant to protect the Russian regime and advance its global influence.
Xi, meanwhile, has tried to crush the movement for Hong Kong’s civil liberties, violating a 1997 agreement with the United Kingdom that guaranteed the territory’s autonomy until 2047. China’s military buildup and increased muscle-flexing along its borders pose a threat to an arc of countries from India to Japan, most notably Taiwan. The corrupt and coercive practices that underpin Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative have left many states with burdensome debt and co-opted leaders who deny their citizens’ rights and breed instability.
The Biden administration has not been shy in expressing its criticism of such behavior by Moscow and Beijing. It has imposed sanctions on officials in each regime for human rights abuses: for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Russia and for the genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs in China. In response to a question on whether he considered Putin a “killer,” Biden said he did—a welcome change from the stance of his predecessor.
“We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people,” Biden said recently. “And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other likeminded partners.”
Blinken has agreed with his predecessor’s last-minute designation of Chinese authorities’ systematic persecution of the Uyghurs as “genocide.” In his first meeting with top Chinese diplomats in Anchorage last month, he spoke bluntly about U.S. concerns regarding the Chinese government’s treatment of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said, adding, “That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
Beyond Russia and China, the Biden administration has imposed new sanctions on officials responsible for repression under the Lukashenka regime in Belarus and the military junta in Myanmar. It plans to host a Summit for Democracy later this year. Biden also understands the need to speak candidly about the challenges we face here at home, and how democratic institutions and values have allowed us to address our shortcomings.
The administration’s short record has not been spotless, however. Biden’s Treasury gave Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a pass when it announced sanctions for the vicious 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His administration has shown no interest in withholding the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt despite that country’s appalling human rights record, which includes arrests of American citizens.
Still, compared with the previous administration, the Biden administration is off to a promising start in elevating democracy and human rights as a foreign policy priority. Because of this emphasis, relations with Moscow and Beijing have been rocky, though Biden was able to agree with Putin to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty during his first week in office. And Biden was quicker than most presidents to announce a nominee for assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
There will be times when interests other than democracy and human rights become more urgent in the short term. We will sometimes cooperate with regimes whose human rights records are abysmal. But these should be limited exceptions with clearly articulated rationales, not the guiding rule. And even when other interests may temporarily take precedence in terms of action, we should never hesitate to speak out in defense of democratic norms and values.
This view is shared by a task force of policy experts organized by Freedom House, the McCain Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a recent report, “Reversing the Tide: Towards a New US Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism,” the group calls for “an urgent, bold, generational response that places support for democracy and countering authoritarianism at the heart of our foreign policy and national security strategy,” warning that the “rise of authoritarianism, coupled with the erosion of democracy, threatens global stability, America’s economic and security alliances, and respect for human dignity.”
Such a response requires a multidimensional approach, including sanctions for egregious abuses; stronger anticorruption efforts; support for an open, secure, and reliable internet; and pushback against disinformation and online extremism. It entails investment in the pillars of an open, accountable, inclusive, and democratic society, including election integrity, independent media, and civil society. Emergency support for democracy and human rights activists in hostile environments is essential. So too is ending democracies’ enabling of nefarious behavior, whether by providing safe havens for foreign dictators’ ill-gotten gains or supporting aid and investment programs that lack adequate safeguards against graft. Corruption and kleptocracy go hand-in-hand with authoritarian governance and need to be confronted directly.
American leadership in the cause is indispensable, but the United States cannot and should not go it alone. Working together with other democratic governments and partners in the civic and private sectors is the best way to support democracy and human rights around the globe. To be effective, the strategy also requires matching rhetoric with actions as often as possible. It’s not enough simply to name and shame authoritarian regimes, important though that may be. When we say their behavior is “unacceptable,” we must do something to show that we do not in fact accept it.
Democracies make better, more reliable allies and trade partners, whereas authoritarian regimes are prone to aggression, repression, and even sudden implosion, producing instability and flows of refugees rather than long-term peace and prosperity. Currently, however, democracy is in decline and authoritarian practices are on the rise worldwide. To ignore the abuses of leaders like Putin and Xi based on a supposition that they will become more cooperative and support American interests would be naïve and wrong. Collaborating with or going soft on authoritarian regimes will not change their character, make their flaws disappear, or help us on other issues in the long run. In fact, giving such leaders a pass will convey weakness on our part, increase the damage caused by their misrule at home and abroad, and betray all those in Russia, China, and elsewhere around the world who are struggling for a freer and more democratic future for their countries.
Citing these realities, the task force report argues that “responding to the crisis of democracy must be a top national security priority.” So far, at least, the Biden administration seems to agree.