Biden in the Face of Authoritarian Regimes

When it comes to authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow, the American president’s firm language will not suffice. Western allies should start by reinforcing their democratic defenses.

The first high-level Chinese-American encounter since Joe Biden’s administration took office, organized on March 18 and March 19 in Anchorage, Alaska, was not supposed to bring about concrete progress. But it was supposed to allow the two powers to get a read on one another, in a relationship that is shaping up to be the structuring geopolitical axis of the decade. From this perspective, the face-to-face could not have been more instructive.

The discussions were “tough and direct,” a high-ranking American official on acknowledged on Friday, March 19. The talks, which brought together Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on one side and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, who is responsible for foreign policy, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the other, began the night before with a frank and hostile exchange in the presence of reporters.

The Americans accused China of threatening “the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” of having undertaken an “assault on basic values” by organizing a “genocide” in Xinjiang, and criticized its harsh policies regarding Tibet and Hong Kong and its cyberattacks. The Chinese responded by calling out the “condescension” from Americans who are “not qualified to say that [they want] to speak to China from a position of strength” and would do well to clean their own house first. American citizens themselves, they argued, “actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States” that Washington wants to impose — and argued that the antiracist movement Black Lives Matter is proof of that.

A 2-Pillar Strategy

Like Biden, Blinken and Sullivan knew what they were getting themselves into when they announced new sanctions against China two days before the meeting, condemning the oppression of pro-democracy militants in Hong Kong. The new Democratic administration wants to show that it is uncompromising when it comes to human rights, and Biden has said that he is “proud” of Blinken’s performance. But their Chinese interlocutors are no longer restraining themselves to the usual bittersweet kind of diplomacy; they are presenting themselves as representatives of an alternative to liberal democracy. They have no intention of allowing Washington to dominate the worldwide stage, and for that matter, are contesting the United States’ right to assume the leadership role. The United States, declared Yang, “does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world.”

This is the challenge for Joe Biden in the face of authoritarian regimes, someone who has built his diplomacy on two pillars: values and allies. He wears those values high and proud while serving as the head of a weakened democracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who declared “liberalism obsolete” two years ago, has, for that matter, invited the American president to a live debate — this coming from a man who has never agreed to debate a candidate for the Russian presidency. Putin was reacting to Biden’s remarks saying in an interview with ABC that he considered the leader of the Kremlin a “killer,” after which Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultation.

Firm language will not suffice. The Biden administration must, in fact, work with its allies to reduce Western dependency on value chains, and reinforce and renew democratic institutions in the free world — a long-term project.

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