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Biden-Putin meeting sets up a test for America's new democracy agenda
Biden argues that the central challenge of our time is to show that democracies deliver results - will America produce results at home and abroad?
All eyes are on Geneva this week, where U.S. President Joe Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The main thing to watch in the weeks and months to come is the policy follow-up from this meeting – that’s when the real work is done. Biden has framed his trip in ambitious terms, saying that this is a key moment for democracies to come together to deliver results and counter authoritarian countries like Russia. After the NATO meeting in Brussels, Biden said:
“…we have to prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the needs of our people.
We have to root out corruption that siphons off our strength; guard against those who would stoke hatred and division for political gain — this phony populism; invest in strengthening the institutions that underpin and safeguard our cherished democratic values, as well as protecting the free press and independent judiciaries. All of those run the agenda.
That’s how I’ll prove that democracy and that our Alliance can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the needs and the needs of our people.
This is going to be looked at 25 years from now as whether or not we stepped up to the challenge, because there’s a lot of — a lot of autocracies that are counting on them being able to move more rapidly and successfully in an ever-complicated world than democracies can. We all concluded we’re going to prove them wrong.”
This sharply contrasts with the central frame of “America first versus soulless globalism” that guided the Trump administration’s approach to the world. Biden’s approach comes at a time when the world is more than a decade and a half into a global recession of democracy, with the tides of freedom turning against open societies in recent years, as groups like Freedom House have recorded.
Does Biden’s central message have a chance to win over Americans and people in other key democratic countries? The evidence is mixed and points to a difficult fight ahead within leading democracies in winning the messaging war that democracies can deliver results.
On the positive side, there is broad skepticism towards Putin in leading economies and many democratic societies. Pew recently found strong majorities of the public in key countries have little or no confidence in Putin. If Russia’s selling a clear alternative, very few people are buying it in most countries with open and vibrant civil societies.
By contrast, Pew also found that America’s image in key countries around the world has bounced back strongly with Biden in office. That echoes a trend seen in the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration in 2008 and 2009. But stronger favorable numbers for America among key partners overseas doesn’t automatically translate into a more effective foreign policy, especially when it comes to turning back the negative trends for freedom in the world.
Among the biggest challenges to Biden’s efforts to bring the world’s democracies together to counter dictators and autocrats comes from within America. The call, as it were, is coming from inside the building.
As Greg Sargent at the Washington Post and others have noted, Biden’s central argument for advancing democracy abroad is complicated by rising authoritarianism at home. Top Republicans continue to shrug their shoulders at efforts to erode America’s democracy, and the GOP has tried to sweep the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th under the rug. On the left, voices of illiberalism have grown more prominent as well – finding little of value in the country’s political traditions or aspirations. These negative trends in America’s democracy have left a mark around the world, as countries question America’s strategic reliability.
Another thing the public in other countries are questioning is whether America’s democracy is a good model to follow. In the Pew survey, a majority of the public in 16 countries surveyed says that America “used to be a good example but has not been in recent years” (57 percent). Another 17 percent say America’s democracy has never been a good model.
This crisis of confidence in America’s ability to produce results in its own democracy makes Biden’s central argument harder to sell. Another challenge America has faced is the crisis of efficacy in its own foreign policy over the past two decades – three U.S. presidents repeatedly stating lofty goals for its foreign policy and falling well short at best. Putin has thumbed his nose at the United States for years, and he may end up ignoring many of Biden’s demands.
Foreign policy experts will look for tangible wins in the diplomacy with Russia on cybersecurity, arms control, and Syria, rather than just empty statements and ink on paper in agreements that don’t fundamentally change the overall dynamics with Russia.
But equally important will be for Biden and leaders in Congress to deliver on the issues that matter most to Americans – continued progress on the pandemic and the economy, and additional public investments to help America compete in the world.
In response to a question about America’s allies being rattled by the instability within America’s political system and how that affect his ability to deliver on his promises to the world, Biden tried his best to sound a hopeful note, saying “watch me” and examine what he gets done on his agenda:
“But, at the end of the day, we’ve been through periods like this in American history before where there has been this reluctance to take a chance on your reelection because of the nature of your party’s politics at the moment.
I think this is passing. I don’t mean easily passing. That’s why it’s so important that I succeed in my agenda — the agenda, whether it’s dealing with the vaccine, the economy, infrastructure. It’s important that we demonstrate we can make progress and continue to make progress. And I think we’re going to be able to do that.”
Therein lies the challenge – for Biden to succeed in proving that democracy can produce results in the world, he needs to show tangible results building on his recent successes at home at a time when the political pathways for getting big things done continue to narrow.