Finding where to sit at Biden's Summit for Democracy

On accepting its invitation, the Ardern Government should encourage deliverables that reflect New Zealand’s inclusive vision, writes Professor Robert Ayson.

There are good reasons why we are hearing a lot about American democracy as the Biden Administration takes office. If anyone needed reminding of the strain four years of Donald Trump’s presidency had placed on the institutions underpinning America’s democracy, the siege of the United States Capitol building illuminated the problem with terrifying starkness.

Two weeks later, in the poem that stole the inauguration show, Amanda Gorman insisted that “while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated”.

In his inaugural address, Biden sought to rededicate the US to its constitutional principles: “Today,” he intoned, “we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

Biden’s principal aim in sending that message was to heal some of the wounds of a politically divided America. How well his Administration is able to achieve this matters to other democracies too.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Biden’s message of unity was one that resonated with New Zealanders. But her Government will also be seeing a fair bit about democracy in the new Administration’s foreign policy. And this is about much more than principle.

Months before he had secured his party’s nomination to take on Trump, Biden argued in a Foreign Affairs essay that “democracy is not just the foundation of American society. It is the wellspring of our power”.

Trump infamously admired the world’s autocratic strongmen, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, and, at least for a while, China's Xi Jinping. In contrast, America’s traditional allies, many of them leading democracies, were often insulted and ignored.

That will change under the Biden team, which wants democracy to be the criterion that separates America’s allies from its adversaries. Nearly two years before he became Biden’s Secretary of State nominee, Anthony Blinken co-wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece:

“Today, the rise of an alternative, techno-authoritarian model of governance is the principal threat to the community of democracies. Autocrats, fearing democracy’s strength and appeal, have weaponized the tools of social control they use at home to sow division within and among democracies.”

For Blinken, rebuilding and harnessing this community of democracies is the way America restores its international leadership. As he asserted in his Senate confirmation hearing, the day before Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris were sworn in:

“We can revitalize our core alliances—force multipliers of our influence around the world. Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran, and North Korea and to stand up for democracy and human rights.”

What’s that, you say, nothing there about China? But Blinken had already covered off that even bigger subject in his prepared testimony: “We can outcompete China," he had said, “and remind the world that a government of the people, by the people, can deliver for its people.”

That Beijing should be the leading target for the cooperating democracies was already clear in candidate Biden’s thinking. “To win the competition for the future against China or anyone else,” his campaign website and the Foreign Affairs piece both read, “we must sharpen our innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices.”

This goes to show that Wellington should bet on more continuity than change in Washington’s hardline view of China.

When Trump ended his short-lived diplomatic fling with Xi, and started blaming China for all of America’s ills (including the spread of COVID-19), he attached himself to the beltway consensus that the People’s Republic was America’s adversary in all sorts of policy areas.

The Biden team doesn’t fundamentally disagree, but will look to adjust Washington’s strategy. This means working more closely with traditional allies and partners to leverage extra pressure on China rather than relying so much on American power alone.

The Biden Administration will be seeking New Zealand’s involvement as a fellow democracy. This returns us to some familiar quandaries: just how much does New Zealand wants its China policy to be defined by its relationship with Washington, and how deeply involved does Wellington want to be in a US–China contest? But before we resort to the old bogey of the impossible choice Wellington may face between the two great powers, there are several modifying factors to be factored into the mix (aside from the simple fact that Biden’s most urgent policy challenges are domestic ones).

First, it’s not clear how deeply some of America’s traditional allies will commit themselves to the cause. Many of the world’s most established democracies belong to the European Union, which in the dying days of the Trump Administration struck a new investment deal with China, despite Washington’s protestations.

In a widely reported tweet, Jake Sullivan, on the way to becoming Biden’s National Security Adviser, indicated that the incoming Administration sought “early consultation with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices”. Any such consultation is likely to reveal limits to how much coordinated economic pressure the European democracies are willing to place on China.

Second, in the very important region that is Asia, Washington has valuable partnerships with democracies and non-democracies both. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reflects an especially heterogenous grouping of polities. A strict democracies-only approach would deny the Biden Administration the chance to work on important areas of common interest with the governments of Vietnam and Singapore, for example. These are New Zealand’s partners too, including in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Attempts to divide the region by regime type are bound to be strategically counterproductive. And even among the democracies, Washington will find significant differences of opinion on how much leverage on China should be applied: Indonesia and South Korea won’t necessarily see things the same way as Japan and Australia (who, by the way, aren’t quite the bullish US allies they once were).

Third, Biden needs China too, at least to some extent. That acknowledgement is contained in the flip side of another quote from his Foreign Affairs essay, which proposes “a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security”.

Those two short words “even as” are also a foreign policy opportunity for New Zealand. The more Wellington can define its Biden-era US relationship around global governance challenges, the more room there is for the inclusive view of international politics that suits New Zealand. That won’t necessarily be a costless enterprise for Ardern’s Government if it wants New Zealand to be seen as a serious performer on climate change.

But extra effort there would be a cost worth paying, including for New Zealand’s diplomacy closer to home. Helping South Pacific countries with climate change challenges would be a much better basis for US–NZ cooperation in the nearer region than seeing things through a competitive Indo-Pacific lens.

A similar logic should apply in the event the Biden Administration proceeds with the idea of a Summit for Democracy. Upon accepting the invitation it would undoubtedly receive, the Ardern Government should encourage deliverables that reflect New Zealand’s inclusive vision. This could include undertakings on new measures in the battle against violent extremism and malicious online content, building on New Zealand’s promotion of the Christchurch Call. Such a focus might just be of interest to some non-democracies too.

A gathering of this type doesn’t have to be viewed as a step towards a league or alliance of democracies, an old but potentially divisive mirage. Instead, New Zealand can take the high road and treat cooperation among democracies as a building block for wider international collaboration rather than a recipe for more intense competition in the Asia–Pacific. After all, Biden’s determination to recommit the US to global multilateralism—starting with the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization—is the best American foreign policy news Wellington has heard in a long time.

Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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