President Biden sees the United States as in a competition of governance systems with China; to win, the United States must show that democracy can deliver, writes Thomas Wright. This article originally appeared in The Atlantic.
A few months into Joe Biden’s presidency, it certainly seems like foreign policy has taken a back seat to domestic policy. The president’s top priorities are clearly tackling the pandemic and multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and economic-stimulus plans. However, this should not obscure a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy, not just from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, but also from his former boss Barack Obama.
Key elements of the Biden worldview are hiding in plain sight. You don’t have to look for leaks of secret documents. Just listen to what the president says.
“We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward,” he said in February, “and those who understand that democracy is essential.” The following month, he told reporters, “On my watch,” China will not achieve its goal “to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” In April, he repeated this theme, arguing that the world was at an inflection point in determining “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Then last month, he was even more specific, telling David Brooks of The New York Times, “We’re kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China.” Tellingly, he doesn’t just say this in his formal remarks; he brings up the subject all the time.
In Biden’s view, the United States and other democracies are in a competition with China and other autocracies. This is being exacerbated by a period of rapid technological change that could give China an opportunity to leapfrog the United States in certain areas. Biden regularly invokes his many conversations with Xi Jinping to observe that the Chinese leader is deeply ideological in his personal commitment to authoritarianism. Biden’s top Asia adviser, Kurt M. Campbell, has echoed that sentiment, saying that Xi has “almost completely disassembled nearly 40 years of mechanisms designed for collective leadership,” and that he is largely responsible for a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.
Beyond the rhetoric, the Biden administration is working with Congress to pass the Endless Frontier Act in order to counter China’s economic and geopolitical ambition, especially in technology; it has prioritized relations with Asian allies over bilateral diplomacy with Beijing; and it has pressed Europe to do more to counter China.
This has been a bit of a journey for the president. Two years ago, he spoke about why he thought reports of China’s strength were overstated, and made a remark that Republicans hammered him for during the 2020 campaign: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Now he worries that they are competition for America, and not only that—they might win. This belief underpins the Biden doctrine.
To many within the Democratic Party, the speed with which Biden has adopted this stance has been a surprise. Some in the party’s foreign-policy establishment hope that his views on China are not yet settled, and that he will moderate his rhetoric and outlook over time, deemphasizing the contest between democracy and authoritarianism. They worry that the United States could find itself embroiled in an ideological struggle with China akin to the Cold War. Like Biden in 2019, they think that China’s strengths are overstated, and that the U.S. can afford to be patient and restrained. They believe that while Washington must stand up for its interests, it also needs to quickly transition to a point of peaceful coexistence with China—basically a restoration of the Obama administration’s approach.
A Biden-administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss government deliberations, told me that while the top foreign-policy officials are simpatico with the president, some in the government share the restorationists’ concerns, while others have yet to grasp the significance of the president’s statements.
America’s allies in Europe, especially Germany, are also nervous about the emphasis on facing off with China. It is perhaps no coincidence that Biden published an article on the eve of his trip to Europe in which he downplayed the competition with autocracies, emphasizing instead the general need to prove democracy’s effectiveness.
But all of these concerns with his doctrine ignore an important geopolitical development that Biden has put his finger on. The old rules-based international order has come apart, and two broad constellations of countries are emerging in its place—one consisting of democracies, the other autocracies. Each side is motivated more by insecurity than by an ambition to transform the world in its image. Xi and his fellow autocrats worry that the free flow of information, the attractiveness of democracy, and economic interdependence would destabilize their regimes. Biden and America’s allies are concerned that Xi’s attempt to make the world safe for the Chinese Communist Party will undermine freedom and democracy, pushing international rules in an illiberal direction and empowering autocrats worldwide.
Neither is wrong in their assessment. America’s post–Cold War system has posed an indirect threat to authoritarian regimes. Indeed, in the 1990s and 2000s many Americans and Europeans thought that was a desirable side effect of globalization. And anyone who doubts that Xi’s regime challenges democracies overseas should just look at what is happening in Australia, where Beijing is using economic sanctions and other measures to punish that country for trying to protect itself against illicit interference and for calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Biden also understands that while America’s domestic democracy crisis is homegrown in many ways, it is also part of a larger international crisis. It can be addressed only by tackling the risks of unfettered globalization, foreign interference in elections, and networks of corruption.
The big questions concern what happens next. Biden has taken the vital first step of correctly diagnosing the strategic challenge facing the country. Like Harry Truman at the start of the Cold War and George H. W. Bush at its end, the president now has an opportunity to create a framework for a new era. It will not be easy.
On the campaign trail, Biden promised to convene a summit of democracies. That was appealing at the time because it offered a concrete idea of how to pursue a values-driven foreign policy. A senior Biden-administration official has told me, however, that they are fully aware of the limitations of such an approach. Democracies are too diverse a group; each has a largely different assessment of the overall challenge. Instead, the administration will have to work closely with individual allies and in small, informal groups. Senior officials believe you lead by doing, not necessarily by creating complex new institutions, at least not at the beginning.
Biden is off to a strong start in Asia, with plans to deepen cooperation among the Quad (a grouping of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia) to work on vaccine distribution and infrastructure. He has thus far lacked similar ambition and energy in his engagement with Europe, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a starkly different strategic assessment of China that is wary of competition and supportive of engagement. These differences will not be easily resolved.
Allies are also asking what Biden’s concept of a foreign policy for the middle class can do to advance prosperity in the free world as a whole. Some worry that it is just a softer version of Trump’s protectionism, skeptical of free-trade agreements and partial to tariffs. Biden officials privately acknowledge that this is an enormous challenge they will have to deal with. However, as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pointed out over the weekend, the G7’s breakthrough on supporting a minimum global corporate-taxation rate is a major success that will benefit middle classes everywhere, not just in the United States.
What makes Biden’s job complex is the fact that our era of competition is fundamentally different from the Cold War, thanks to the high level of interdependence between democracies and autocracies, especially China. Biden will have to lead democracies in agreeing on an appropriate level of engagement with China. This will surely mean, for example, strategically reducing ties in areas where dual-use technologies could assist Chinese military modernization or facilitate human-rights abuses. Still, it will generally be about managing risk and having allies respond collectively when one is subjected to aggression, such as the forced landing of a plane, punitive tariffs of the kind imposed on Australian wine, and the unfair arrest of another country’s citizens.
That complexity is not Biden’s only challenge. If any of this is to have lasting significance, informal and ad hoc groupings will not be enough. Biden’s foreign policy will ultimately need to lead to international agreements with like-minded countries that have broad support across the American political spectrum—no easy task given the level of polarization on Capitol Hill. This could include an agreement to deter and respond to economic coercion, creating trusted supply chains, or strengthening protections for democracy and human rights.
To implement his doctrine, Biden will have to be politically agile. Progressives have been vocal in criticizing his China policy, accusing the president of starting a cold war that could stoke anti-Asian sentiment. But this is a peculiar charge. After all, it was Bernie Sanders who made a foreign-policy speech in Fulton, Missouri, decrying authoritarianism, in an echo of Winston Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain address. And it was Elizabeth Warren who made the struggle against kleptocratic authoritarianism the centerpiece of her foreign policy as a presidential candidate. If anything, Biden is following in their footsteps. He should seek to enlist both senators in his efforts. Moreover, Biden should remind progressives that if the competition with China is not about values and democracy, then all that is left is to focus on China itself, which is truly a recipe for nationalism.
On the other side, conservatives will never agree with Biden wholeheartedly on foreign policy, but some are working with him on legislation pertaining to China. Many Republican senators are committed to U.S. alliances and emphasizing democracy and human rights in U.S. strategy, even if Trump and his supporters disagree with that stance. Some have even indicated that they would support multilateral organizations if they were necessary to compete effectively with China. Biden could take advantage of this gap between Republican senators and Trump to secure bipartisan support for key parts of his foreign policy.
Some presidents never find a doctrine. Biden has one. In his view, the United States is in a competition of governance systems with China. His response is not about spreading democracy at gunpoint or even democracy promotion per se, but about showing that democracy can deliver—at home and abroad. The question now is whether Biden can bring his administration, the country, and America’s allies along to embed this doctrine in U.S. foreign policy.