Don’t Divide the World Between Democracies and Autocracies

There are better ways to face our challenges than pushing for ideological blocs.

Throughout history, the United States has exhibited a predisposition to bifurcate an extraordinarily multi-faceted and complicated world in order to make sense of it. During the Cold War, the core purpose of U.S. grand strategy revolved around containing the Soviet Union and combatting communism in every region of the world. Post-9/11, Washington became a town hell-bent on waging war against transnational terrorism. President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, enacted in 2005, was powered by the theory that spreading democracy globally was the chief antidote to tyranny in our world. Today, China has replaced terrorism as the one global threat lawmakers and policymakers can rally against.

President Joe Biden is continuing this tradition. Much like his predecessors, Biden not only cherishes democratic governance at home, but is firmly convinced that it’s the answer to competing against Washington’s two largest autocratic foes: China and Russia. During the campaign, Biden promised to organize a Summit For Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” In his news conference last week, Biden raised concern about the decline of democracy worldwide and how it was in the U.S. interest to prove to the world that democracy in fact works. “I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy,” Biden said, “because that is what is at stake.”

Yet amid the consensus against China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and every other power the United States has gripes with, the most important questions are being shoved to the side. Is dividing the world between democracies and autocracies really the best bet for U.S. foreign policy? Is forming an anti-authoritarian bloc the most efficient and least costly strategy to meet what are in reality quite limited U.S. foreign policy objectives? What are the consequences, intended and unintended, of such a strategy?

There are several reasons to think the Biden administration’s preference for a global pro-democracy agenda may not be the best course of action for the U.S.

First, there are examples in recent history when an us-vs.-them framework produced calamitous costs to U.S. power and prosperity. While the Cold War may have ended on America’s terms, with the Soviet Union dead and communism a floundering ideology, the Cold War mentality also generated ideas like the domino theory: the notion that failing to stop communism in one country would inevitably lead to communism sinking its teeth into others. It’s an ideology that drove successive U.S. administrations to deploy hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into Vietnam, a strategic backwater in Southeast Asia highly adverse to foreign meddling. Seven years of ground combat resulted in more than 58,000 U.S. deaths, tens of billions of dollars in expenditure, and a U.S. Army broken and demoralized. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, motivated by the noble but naïve urge to rid the Middle East of tyranny and oppression, was less destructive to the U.S. military but no less harmful to America’s long-term strength.

Nobody is predicting a similar military or ideological conflict against China, of course. But neither can anyone be confident that following a democracy-vs.-autocracy script will be smooth or lead to unequivocal success for the United States.

Forming two distinct ideological blocs, as the Biden administration appears to propose, will make diplomacy on common threats more difficult, particularly in a world where challenges are increasingly transnational in nature. As David Adler and Stephen Wertheim wrote in The Guardian in December, “The commanding crises of our century cannot be found in the conflict between countries. Instead, they are common among them.” A bifurcated world between a U.S.-led democratic order on one side and a China-Russia-led autocratic order on the other tends to harden sentiments on both sides and limit space for cooperation. Over time, even the most simple but critical aspects of statecraft like agreements on tension reduction become insurmountable hurdles. A coalition of democracies pitted against a coalition of autocracies is the very opposite of the realism U.S. foreign policy so desperately requires—one that allows countries with different belief systems to collaborate on shared problems.

Finally, the more Washington insists on a global democratic order, the more likely others who don’t buy into it will cement coalitions of their own in order to limit U.S. power and influence. Russia and China, two neighbors who are traditionally wary of the other’s intentions in Asia, are becoming more intertwined at the same time Washington is seeking to contain both simultaneously. Moscow and Beijing are cooperating in more fields with more frequency, from exploring ways to bypass the U.S.-led financial system to engaging in joint military exercises and air patrols. While we shouldn’t overstate the possibility of a formal China-Russia alliance, U.S. policymakers shouldn’t be numb to these developments either.

We may want an easy solution to a complex problem. Foreign affairs, however, is very often a business where pursuing easy solutions with simple frames of reference can create even more problems. U.S. foreign policy should not be dogmatic, but flexible. Otherwise, Washington risks tying one hand behind its back.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.