The Cynicism of Biden’s ‘Defense’ of Democracy

The “democracy vs. autocracy” framing is just a new version of dividing the world up into opposing blocs

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Paul Poast is half-right in his assessment of Biden’s foreign policy:

To put it bluntly, the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy is realpolitik from top to bottom. This isn’t necessarily bad. A realpolitik approach to foreign policy enables Biden to do what he can in the face of constrained U.S. capability. Liberal hegemony is easy when it’s easy to be a hegemon. But when it’s not, ideological purity is often sacrificed for the sake of national interests.

Poast gets the cynicism of Biden’s foreign policy right, but he underrates the importance of the president’s ideological framing of the conflicts that the U.S. is supporting. It’s true that “the protection of democracy doesn’t appear to be driving Biden’s foreign policy in practice,” as Poast says, but Biden does wrap up the same old hegemonist status quo in that packaging. For Biden, “defending democracy” is a convenient way to distinguish himself from the strongman-admiring Trump rhetorically and also pose as democracy’s global champion without having to act differently from the way that his predecessors, including Trump, acted on the world stage.

Biden often relies on the “democracy vs. autocracy” framing in his speeches and op-eds as a way of explaining and justifying U.S. policies in different parts of the world. He has even used this framing to pretend that the wars in Ukraine and Gaza are part of the same larger global struggle. According to the president, Americans are the “essential nation” and “[w]e rally allies and partners to stand up to aggressors and make progress toward a brighter, more peaceful future.”

That framing has negative consequences of its own, as Stephen Wertheim argued in the article Poast is responding to, by encouraging the administration to be hardline and inflexible in its approach to current conflicts involving the U.S. Wertheim says this of Biden’s “defend democracy credo”:

It fosters one-sided, maximalist policies that intensify conflicts without resolving them, while entangling the United States within them. Not since George W. Bush has a president so tightly linked democratic ideals with military instruments.

Read the rest of the article at Eunomia

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.