Prima Facie, Biden Stamps Democratic Solidarity as the Nucleus of America’s Grand Strategy

posted by Eleanor Shiori Hughes on April 1, 2021 - 2:00pm

Just a few days after President Biden had his first call with Xi Jinping in February, I attended a GU Politics webinar and had the rare opportunity to ask State Department Spokesperson Ned Price and Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby about how the Biden administration plans to approach the fragile balancing act of competing and cooperating with China. Price first conveyed Washington’s objective to outpace China as a strategic competitor, but then noted the necessity to find common ground with Beijing on transnational issues like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. He ended his response by saying that America “can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Meanwhile, Kirby labeled China as “the number one pacing challenge” and pointed out that Beijing makes it evident through their increased investments in their own military capabilities that their priority is to impede the United States’ presence in the Indo-Pacific.

A little over a month later, the Wilson Center, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, organized a webinar entitled “Discussion on a Grand Strategy of Democratic Solidarity,” moderated by its Director of the Asia Program, Abraham Denmark. The two panelists, Dr. Hal Brands, the Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Dr. Charles Edel, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, dissected ways in which the world’s democracies can collectively respond to the intensification of illiberal activities as embodied primarily by China and Russia on the global stage. Their remarks are based on an article that they co-wrote for The Washington Quarterly, “A Grand Strategy of Democratic Solidarity.” Dr. Kori Schake, Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, also participated as a discussant.

Introducing their recently-published article, Dr. Brands pointed out that there is no novelty behind this specific American grand strategy; rather, it is the nomenclature that is new. Starting with the Cold War period, the United States frequently signaled messages to its democratic friends that the Cold War entailed a struggle between the liberal international order (as envisioned by Washington) and autocratic governance (as embraced primarily by the Soviet Union).  Dr. Brands then referred to President Truman’s address before a joint session of Congress in March 1947 outlining the Truman Doctrine as a case in point. Though Washington forged relationships with totalitarian actors during the Cold War (which is still the case today), the goal of this grand strategy was to harness a strong coalition of democratic-minded friends in concert with the United States to resist the Soviet Union’s goal to cement its illiberalism worldwide.

With the advancement of globalization and the prevalence of democratic practices in the post-Cold War era, it became unnecessary to employ this grand strategy to its fullest extent. According to Dr. Brands, however, this proved to be short-lived, and the resurgence of authoritarianism as exercised mainly by China and Russia merits its resurrection for several reasons including first, the aforementioned harmonious era of democratic dominance has come to an end. No democratic country can singlehandedly combat the realpolitik behind the rise of authoritarianism, as it is very much global in-nature. Second, the institution of this grand strategy needs to reflect the current battle over ideas between the liberal international order and that of authoritarianism. Finally, by coordinating more closely with our democratic friends and allies in fortifying an extensive and enduring network against illiberalism, Washington has an opportunity to shelve concerns about its role in shaping good governance.

Next, Dr. Edel highlighted the eight pillars of their grand strategy of democratic solidarity – technological collaboration and combatting corruption, to name a few. But just as important in the study – as well as the execution – of a sound grand strategy is deciphering how a state (in this case, the United States) can reconcile with constraints in exerting its overall statecraft. This is why Dr. Edel illustrated some of the challenges that his and Dr. Brands’ grand strategy may present but then also unearthed a few historical references demonstrating how their idea can rectify these hindrances (once again, I am only highlighting a few of them).

One point of criticism could potentially be that this strategy will compel countries to take sides between Washington and that of Beijing and Moscow, thereby facing the risk of being fastened into an unfavorable strategic position in an era of great-power competition. Dr. Edel then hinted that convening a Summit for Democracy too soon, for example, could be detrimental to countries whose economies are deeply intertwined with the Chinese market such as Malaysia and Indonesia. In recognizing the multidimensional nature of collective democratic solidarity, he then iterated that this grand strategy provides all countries the maneuverability in making incremental steps towards deepening their involvement in the liberal international order.

Second, particularly after the insurrection at Capitol Hill on January 6th, Dr. Edel mentioned that some believe that the United States does not have the moral high-ground to rally a coalition of democratic nations in its endeavor to craft this grand strategy.  And while this kind of domestic dissent is not something that can ever be tolerated, no democratic country – or institution for that matter – will ever be perfect. Deeply-rooted political cleavages and prejudices remain in the United States, but this should not preclude Washington from exercising democratic leadership abroad.  If anything, as evidenced by the Cold War era, advancing our global influence in pursuit of democratic solidarity can galvanize a movement within our borders to get our domestic house in order and improve our institutions at home. As he rightfully asked, if the United States does not take the helm in championing democratic values on a global level, who will?

Finally, Dr. Schake highlighted a few parts of their co-written article worth commending, but then also critiqued areas of that could undermine their proposal to the point where it can succumb to failure. First, she applauded the scholars for adequately examining whether or not the current composition of the liberal international order can be maintained both now and in the future. In addition, she was pleased with how their work outlined some of the obstacles that could arise by implementing their proposal rather than just illustrating a rosy picture where the strategy is devoid of flaws.

As for areas she flagged that should have been examined more closely in their article, Western countries have openly condemned human rights infringements, for example, without firmly enforcing policy measures that are reflected in these statements. She referenced President Obama’s drawing of a “red-line” in Syria back in 2013 but then failing to formally act on it. This trend appears to be a revolving door in U.S. foreign policy, as President Trump perpetuated this, too. Though the Biden administration is still in its infancy, Dr. Schake is nervous that once again, adversaries will have the bandwidth to weaponize this gap by lambasting the United States and the rest of the liberal international order on its failure to act on their words. To end her remarks, Dr. Schake tasked both authors to explore deeper into how they plan on convincing Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and other business stakeholders to welcome their grand strategy. She begged to ask if business entities will have to undergo a complete bifurcation from the Chinese market. If so, she asked Dr. Brands and Dr. Edel to identify what they would entail.

In Closing:

This grand strategy as proposed by Dr. Brands and Dr. Edel is ambitious at a time where realpolitik drives much of the decision-making in implementing policies both in the United States and the world writ-large. For the time being, President Biden’s foreign policy agenda in advancing a rules-based international arena is prima facie centered on close and constant consultation with our allies and partners. The administration made that very clear, for example, after convening the first Quad summit – albeit, a virtual meeting – with the heads of state from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States on March 12th. During the summit, all four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to distribute public goods (in particular, vaccines) in the Indo-Pacific region; initiate collaborations in the maritime arena; produce a working group on climate-related issues, among others. On the other hand, the United States and much of the world continues to grapple with the reality of maintaining ties with China and Russia. 

In considering Washington’s interests and objectives in upholding democratic values, is cooperation and competition with China mutually exclusive to the point where a Great Schism should be considered? Based on Biden’s foreign policy goals and the deliverables that his administration has presented so far in pursuit of its vision to strengthen democratic values, it is imperative that we also ask ourselves the following question: Will pushing a narrative in support of Dr. Brands & Dr. Edel’s grand strategy give the liberal international order its best chance in combatting the immediate and long-term challenges of illiberal interference both at home and abroad?