Summit for Democracy: Preserving American Strategic Primacy

Published on 19 February 2021 at 13:25

Democracy is under threat both at home and abroad for the US and its allies. Rising far-right vigilante groups have become more violent and aggressive and have been encouraged by figures like Former President Donald Trump and European leaders alike. 

Moreover, the rise of China and an increasingly belligerent Russia in the Middle East and Europe continue to engulf upon and threaten the liberal international order established by the US.

In the aftermath of WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US helped develop an ecosystem of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, as well political and military institutions such as the EU and NATO. These clusters of institutions helped administer and bound relations between capitalist democracies, with America as the supreme hegemon. 

President Trump throughout his four years in office attempted to dissemble the liberal international order by breaking up traditional alliances and through his overt rhetoric against multilateralism. As a reassurance to its allies, President Biden wishes to convene a Summit for Democracy that seeks to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World”. Placing once again the US at the head of the table and Washington as the “Shining city on a hill”.

The summit would no doubt help in coordination and engagement between the US and its allies. However, critics of the proposed summit view it as America trying to reassert its dominance in the world by reinforcing a “blunt instrument” that will wedge powers against one another by emphasising division over cooperation.

This return of divisive multilateralism is undoubtedly a product of America’s post-WWII “better us than them” attitude towards its allies, which enabled the US to become the world’s strategic policeman and emboldened subsequent White House administrations on American statecraft across the world. 

One does not need to look no further than what Madeline Albright had to say back in 1998 when she was Secretary of State “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation”. 

However, this idea of American exceptionalism is no longer true. The US is in a period of structural decline due to changing balance of power amid China’s rapid economic rise, which is likely to be accelerated and surpass that of the US. 

Furthermore, China will continue to make major strides in military and technological capabilities, particularly artificial intelligence. Thus, the world should be in no doubt that the US and China will be mired in strategic competition in the following decades.

Front and centre of what Joe Biden describes as meeting “the challenges of the 21st century” will arguably mean ubiquitously confronting Chinese domestic and foreign policy. However, meeting the contemporary challenges requires transcending geopolitical confrontation Cold War impulses.

Therefore, rather than demarcating an alliance of democracies, the Biden administration should consider forming an eclectic summit of states from around the world instead, that can collectively coordinate policy to combat common challenges i.e., climate change and pandemic diseases. 

America’s most renowned strategic thinker in the time of the Cold War against Soviet Communism, George Kennan, professed that the victor would be declared by the degree to which each country could deal “successfully with the problem of its internal life”.

Thus, Joe Biden must overcome challenges at home with Covid-19, economic recession, racial division, and obscene levels of economic inequality before he can meet the challenges abroad. This requires the Biden administration to put an end to nation-building and proselytising, and rather immersing in massive social engineering projects that can heal the political polarisation at home. 

Veterans of the Obama administration, Jake Sullivan, and Salman Ahmed, now part of Biden’s national security team conducted a study on American foreign policy entitled a “foreign policy for the middle-class”, which advocates for alternative and progressive approach to international trade by making investments at home that will correspond to needs of working Americans.

Moreover, it calls on the US to end cumbersome foreign policy aspirations that do not respond to the needs of the American people and rather commit to broader engagement with the international community and bolster relations with its allies. For any American, this is a move in the right direction and could be a real source of unity at home.

Nonetheless, the US foreign policy over the last 75 years if anything has been imbued with the idea of manifest destiny, which has been the conviction of America’s importance and role in the world and that its domestic principles are inherently universal.

This self-perception has led to the US deploying American troops to more than 170 countries and constructing 800 military bases around the world as well endeavoring in devastating wars over the last few decades, the most potent of these are the so-called “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan which has resulted in a permanent presence in the Middle East. 

Today the US spends over half its budget on the Pentagon, overturning this would be a long and arduous process that is sure to be met with political division in congress.

Perhaps the US should delve into the Wisdom of its former President, Dwight D Eisenhower (Republican) who said, “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

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