Biden has repeatedly affirmed his dedication to crafting a foreign policy plan focused on rebuilding alliances with like-minded partners in order to strengthen the United States’ position as a nation that protects and promotes democracy and human rights globally. He made this clear in recent remarks and, in an address following the insurrection at the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021, recognised the need to reinforce democratic norms and practices domestically.
Donald Trump’s efforts to chip away at democracy and democratic values came to a head when his supporters rampaged the US Capitol. An unprecedented event, extremists stormed the building in a desperate attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power after months of being led to believe that the election was ‘stolen’ from incumbent President Trump.
These disturbing events made the need to reaffirm collective trust in democratic institutions abundantly clear. In his address following the attacks, President-elect Joe Biden asserted that democracy in the US was under ‘unprecedented assault’. The task at hand has never been more clear: mend the broken pillars of democracy that not only support healthy government, but protect human rights–free and fair elections, rule of law, and accountability–and prove to the global community that ‘the signs of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are’.
Democracy in crisis
The US is far from the only democracy facing a crisis. According to the Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World 2020’ report, ‘democracy and pluralism are under assault’. 2019 was the 14th consecutive year in which the global community experienced a net decline in global freedom. While individuals living in 37 countries experienced improvements in their political and civil rights, those in 64 countries experienced deterioration of such liberties, including in States which have traditionally been heralded for the strength of their democratic institutions. There are a number of reasons for such declines. In wealthy States, populists have risen to power by capitalising on voters’ perceptions of the political failings of their elected leaders. Populist leaders have also elevated identity politics above actual policymaking, sowing the seeds of division by attacking the symbols of the ‘establishment’ and playing on the prejudices and grievances of the majority.
Advocates of democracy and human rights have historically turned to the United States as an example of a successful and stable regime. The Trump administration, however, ‘has failed to exhibit consistent commitment to a foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and human rights.’ Domestically, Trump spent the months prior to the US Presidential election on 3 November 2020 attacking an essential component of democracy: free and fair elections. He cast doubt on mail-in ballots, attacked key elements of the electoral process, and claimed fraud as his loss grew increasingly imminent. Following repeated confirmation that he had lost re-election, Trump encouraged his supporters to object to the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Biden. Trump’s attacks on democracy domestically not only threaten the stability of US institutions and the safety of the American people, but also legitimises actions antithetical to a healthy democracy among adversaries abroad.
A faltering democracy is not the only reason the United States has been losing its footing as a leader on the world stage. While previous presidents held international institutions and human rights bodies at arm’s length, the Trump administration has made moves to abandon them altogether. During his tenure as president, Trump withdrew the United States from a number of key international bodies, including the most recent announcement in 2020 that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the US would withdraw from the World Health Organization, effective July 2021.
Disregarding such international institutions, undermining democracy domestically, and embracing adversaries abroad has signaled to traditional allies that the United States cannot at present be considered a reliable partner in the effort to promote human rights and uphold democratic ideals. The two are intimately linked, as the values that define a liberal democracy are reflected in human rights norms and standards. Democracies that hold free and fair elections, support access to free media and information, and respect the rule of law are inherently signalling support for the rights of all people.
Upon assuming office in January, the Biden administration’s challenge is twofold: to reassure Americans that their democracy is still intact, and to mend fractured alliances abroad in order to continue supporting democracy and human rights globally. In July 2019, Biden laid out his foreign policy blueprint. Central to his plan was to strengthen the coalition of like-minded states that stand with the US in their pro-human rights, pro-democracy agendas. Despite the absence of the United States, other nations have continued critical efforts to encourage multilateralism. One such example is the Alliance for Multilateralism launched by France and Germany in 2019. Coalitions such as this one provide a perfect opportunity for Biden to act on his blueprint and rejoin traditional allies.
In recent remarks, President-elect Biden recognised that ‘rebuilding the full set of our instruments of foreign policy and national security is a key challenge’ upon taking office. When facing adversaries like China, Biden argued that ‘our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies’ with whom we have ‘shared interest and shared values’. But the task at hand is great. Biden noted that ‘the despair of our alliances and the disrepair of those alliances, and our absence from key institutions that matter to the welfare of the American people, and a general disengagement from the world’ are factors that will make the reinstitution of a foreign policy defined by multilateralism daunting, but certainly not impossible.
To start, the United States must ‘regain the trust and confidence of a world that has begun to find ways to work around us, or without us’. Biden’s approach starts with reinvesting in diplomacy. Biden spoke with leaders of the State and USAID agency review teams about the ‘critical early investment’ that must be made in diplomacy, ‘our development efforts and on rebuilding our alliances’. Furthermore, in order to ‘champion human rights’, Biden emphasises that the United States is ‘stronger and more effective’ when flanked by nations with a shared vision for the future of the world. These are among other reforms that Biden argues are necessary in order to tackle the strategic challenges the administration will face from Russia and China. ‘American engagement and American leadership’, Biden says, go hand in hand.
A Biden administration is expected to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2021. The Universal Rights Group has called on the Human Rights Council to undertake a greater role in ‘shoring-up worldwide democracy and democratic institutions, and in promoting free and fair elections’. President-elect Biden is poised to re-engage with other democratic nations and utilise the full strength of the multilateral system to drive progress on civil and political rights.
The power of example
In order to be an effective partner to its allies, the United States must first clean up its act at home. The US cannot expect to be recognised as a champion of human rights, including the rights that underpin democratic practices and norms, without reflecting those values domestically. Persistent racial injustice in American society, along with the ‘humanitarian disaster that the Trump administration has systematically created on our Southern border’ are human rights challenges that must be rectified in order to protect domestic democracy. Doing so will demonstrate to its allies that the United States is willing and able to support democracy and human rights abroad.
President-elect Biden would do well to look to the events of 6 January as an opportunity to recognise the fragility of democracy, as well as what can be done to strengthen it. Biden acknowledged the work that must be done in the United States in a statement following the insurrection at the Capitol. The events vividly demonstrated that ‘committing ourselves to the rule of law in this nation, invigorating our domestic and democratic institutions [and] carrying out equal justice under the law in America’ are among the essential steps to be taken. In this regard, there is no better path forward than multilateralism. If the Biden administration continues to accept this reality, the United States can engage with allies in order to develop sound efforts at rebuilding democracy domestically and promoting it globally.
President-elect Biden has repeatedly made his faith in multilateralism clear, concluding previous remarks by recognising that America cannot meet its most daunting challenges alone. Biden has adopted somewhat of a slogan regarding his approach to US foreign policy—to lead not only with the ‘example of our power, but the power of our example’. In doing so, the US ‘will champion liberty and democracy once more’. Should the Biden administration’s foreign policies live up to the promise of revitalising multilateralism to work with like-minded states in an effort to counter its adversaries, the US may once again reaffirm its position as a leader in the protection and promotion of human rights.
Featured photo: Joe Biden speaking at a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware. Johnathan Ernst/Reuters, 10 November 2020.
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