On our side democracy, the good guys; and over there Russia, China and the others, the bad guys? The world is not as simple as President Joe Biden imagines it to be.
Joe Biden’s two-day Summit for Democracy last week was a strange event. To put it simply: It was a summit of hypocrisy. First of all, the United States is not exactly a model of a functioning democracy. After all, Donald Trump refused to acknowledge a certified election result and proceeded to incite his fanatical supporters into storming the Capitol. And he’s not the only offender: 19 out of 50 states have recently enacted laws that complicate voting for Black people and ethnic minorities. Paralyzing polarization and increasing violence signal an ominous erosion of American democracy. Before the Biden administration lectures others, it should first put its own house in order.
Incidentally, the curious guest list refutes the suggestion that Biden’s primary concern was to unite upstanding democracies against the autocracies of the world. On the contrary, the invites included such disreputable figures as the Brazilian tropical Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is inclined toward despotism, and the representatives of dark “democracies” like Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Pakistan (which preferred not to attend out of consideration for China). Some 30% of the summit’s participants came from countries that are listed in the relevant Freedom House ranking as “partly free” or “not free.”
The fight for democracy was not the decisive criterion, but rather a strategic consideration. As Time editorialized, “The gathering is really about creating a coalition against China and Russia.”
It was probably also a little about election campaigns. As the worldly Klaus von Dohnanyi pointed out, there are only 4 million Americans of Hungarian descent, so there is no reason to ignore Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. On the other hand, about 20 million immigrants and their descendants come from Poland, an important voter group, so Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice government was invited, although he undermines an independent justice system in a highly authoritarian manner.
None of this is a trivial matter. However, far more significant is the core of Biden’s worldview: He wants to divide the family of nations into two groups, two blocs, two enemy camps. However, that doesn’t do justice to its complex structure at all. A few more remarks about this.
First, democracies are indisputably exposed to the rivalry and hostility of the major authoritarian powers, China and Russia. However, the crisis of democracies cannot be attributed to China and Russia’s machinations. The actual danger comes from our own shortcomings, weaknesses and democratic fall from grace. The causes for the crisis are growing poverty, increasing inequality and worn-out public services, not the influence and interference of Beijing or Moscow.
Second, the United States has not been successful in democratizing the world through military means, and Biden will not succeed with a propaganda campaign either. The propensity toward authoritarianism is increasing from Myanmar to Sudan, and you can’t just wish the authoritarians away. Democracies must secure themselves against the authoritarians, but they cannot be transformed. John F. Kennedy’s goal is still recommendable today: Make the world safe for diversity through contact and communication.
Third, the world cannot be divided into two camps because there aren’t many countries that want to become part of a geopolitical bloc. In Africa, as in Asia, they are more concerned with maintaining their independence and not having to decide on one or the other major power. They are more concerned instead with preserving ambiguity, allowing the possibility of dealing with all the major powers objectively.
Fourth, even if countries have the same ideology and value system, that does not necessarily mean that they also pursue the same interests. Democracies often have different, even opposing interests, but autocracies also don’t consistently strive to meet identical foreign policy goals.
Fifth, Democracies and autocracies can, however, very well have common concerns, interests and goals. Pandemics like COVID-19, the fight against climate change and containment of nuclear proliferation within the framework of a purposeful policy of peace are humanity’s problems which necessarily require coordination and cooperation between democracies and non-democracies. To divide the world up into two enemy camps for ideological reasons would hinder crucial multilateral cooperation, if not entirely prevent it, as Javier Solana, the former secretary- general of NATO and European Union foreign policy chief, already pointed out at the beginning of the year. If, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports, it is indeed the view of our new foreign minister that the community of the West should define itself not by distinguishing itself from aggressive autocracies, but rather through emphasizing its own strengths and intentions to cooperate, then she faces precarious conversations ahead in Washington.
Realpolitik is necessary in the field of foreign relations. August Ludwig von Rochau coined the term. Recently in Die Welt, Jacques Schuster dug up Rochau’s definition, which I’ve been thinking about for decades. It belongs on Biden’s desk: “Realpolitik does not exist in a hazy future, but in the present’s field of view. It finds its task not in realizing ideals, but in achieving concrete goals. Finally, realpolitik is an enemy of all self-deception. It is a matter of conscience for it to see people and things as they are and to want what it can accordingly.”