If Joe Biden is elected president, his most important—and most challenging—task in rebuilding America’s foreign policy will be actually be domestic in nature: To make democracy attractive again.
The world has long looked to the United States—the oldest democracy—for a hopeful and inspiring example of democratic ideals. And America has always had a revolutionary zeal to export its revolution’s ideology of liberal democracy. At the end of the Second World War and start of the Cold War, when the United States ascended to global hegemony, the number of democracies on the face of the earth was in the teens—several of them built or restored in Axis countries occupied by the United States. With the support of the United States, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, that number rose and rose. The roster of democracies grew even longer after the Cold War ended. The beginning of this century marked the first time in history that there were more democracies than autocracies.
The most powerful explanation for why this happened is also the simplest: The world admired America’s freedom and prosperity and disliked the examples set by autocracies (especially the Soviet Union) combining political oppression and economic failure. Democracy was more attractive because America was more attractive.
And this was good news for America. Democracies are generally more peaceful and attentive to domestic concerns of everyday life; they are less likely than autocracies to engage in wars and adventurism at the cost of welfare. Besides, democracies are much likelier to be U.S. allies than to ally themselves with adversarial powers.
But democracy is becoming less attractive. According to the Freedom House, democracy is declining around the world—in Lebanon, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Mali, Venezuela, and elsewhere.
This is, to a great degree, because American democracy is also becoming unattractive. The paralyzing polarization of the people and the two parties has made governing difficult. Compromise, a prerequisite for a democratic government to function, has become an insult. Congress’s approval ratings have never been lower, and the institution of presidency is not faring much better, according to Gallup.
These two trends—domestic democratic dysfunction and international democratic decline—did not begin with Donald Trump, though his administration has accelerated them. They have deep roots but became most painfully evident in the 2000s.
And 2020 has made things much worse, as the footage of police brutality against black people has made the American promise of equality before the law appear dubious before the American people and the world, the riots have made people wary that order and liberty cannot coexist, and the America’s incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it a laughingstock.
A potential Biden administration would need prove that democracy is still the best form of government. U.S. competition with China, Russia, and Iran is no less ideological than the Cold War was. Those states want to make the world in their own images, an ambition that includes promoting likeminded autocracies. The current sorry state of affairs in the United States strengthens their case against democracy. That these arguments are picking up steam globally is even vivid in American political debates, as some commentators on the center-left, like Tom Friedman, routinely praise China’s centralized system while right-wing intellectuals are dangerously fascinated by and fond of a kind of Christianist nationalism with a Putinist twist.
Rehabilitating American democracy for the world to see is not a task that Joe Biden, or any one president, can accomplish alone. It takes two to tango, and a new president will also need the Congress to once again become a legislating body (as opposed to a performative one, as it is now).
Joe Biden’s campaign’s theme has not been heavily ideological; rather it has focused on restoring the soul of America. That’s exactly what he needs to do. For the sake of the soul of America, he will need to put governance above ideology. He would have working to his advantage the widespread assumption that he will not seek re-election—so Republicans won’t have as much of an incentive as they had with Barack Obama of undermining his administration for electoral reasons.
And if Joe Biden wants to address huge challenges that transcend nationalities—such as climate change—he will be better served with a more democratic world, one with fewer Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings and more Angela Merkels and Tsai Ing-wens.