According to President Biden, the defining feature of the international system is now competition between democracy and authoritarianism. “We’re at an inflection point,” President Biden stated in February, “between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward, and those who understand that democracy is essential.” His early meetings with foreign leaders have underscored just that point. Meeting with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India in March, Biden pledged his commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region that could deliver practical results to pressing problems. In Europe last month, he told reporters that the United States was in a contest with “autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.”
After witnessing four years of a US president’s fawning admiration for authoritarian strongmen, Biden’s words carry a refreshing, if familiar, resonance. That is because dealing with authoritarian regimes is not a new challenge, but rather the oldest one in American history.
The founding of the United States was justified as a fight against unlimited, arbitrary and unaccountable abuse of power by a remote king. That is why America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, based its revolutionary call to nationhood on the assertion that “a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Quite aside from serving as a justification for political rebellion, this statement articulated American opposition to the closed, authoritarian models of governance that they knew from abroad and feared would develop in their own country.
In fact, competition between democratic principles and autocratic rule sits at the heart of the Declaration. The document is based on the premise that governments must be based on the consent of the governed, that government’s purpose is to protect its citizens’ rights and secure their liberties, and that governments abusive of those ends forfeit their legitimacy. Liberty and subjugation are held up as rival systems and while the Declaration might not have described in precise detail the shape of the new American state, it nonetheless staked a clear position on the new country’s hostility to governments it deemed illiberal.
From the outset, a prominent strain running through American political thought has understood the country to be locked in a competition for influence with authoritarian rivals. The challenge has taken different forms and has been called by different names at different times. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans were warned of the dangers of monarchy, tyranny, and despotism. In the 20th century, it was autocratic regimes, fascism, and totalitarianism. Today, political debate and strategic planning are increasingly focused on struggling against authoritarian actors. And despite the differences between these systems, American political leaders have consistently declared them antithetical to the nation’s republican system, liberal ideology, and geopolitical interests. Such antipathy has served as perhaps the most important, and most consistent, feature of America’s relationship with the world even as the nature, and nomenclature of the challenge has changed.
None of this is to suggest that American opposition to authoritarian regimes has been perfectly consistent. History certainly provides examples of the United States choosing to accommodate regimes when it has been politically expedient, or because the country was not strong enough, either on its own or together with other states, to balance an expansionist state. And on several occasions, antagonism to authoritarian states was subservient to economic considerations. And yet, the clearest thread in America’s response to authoritarian regimes has been opposition — sometimes muted, generally explicit, and often hostile — coupled with a belief that democratic systems are better at promoting social stability, prosperity and security.
Such long-standing opposition is not the only reason why President Biden has adopted such an approach. Framing America’s challenge as an ideological challenge and predicating America’s response as values-driven stands as a response to former President Trump’s embrace of autocratic rulers abroad and degradation of democratic norms at home. It lends coherence to a strategy focused on defending democracy and helps explain the logic driving deeper cooperation among and between the democracies of the Indo-Pacific and Europe. It also is more likely to resonate domestically and help mobilize and sustain both political will and economic resources.
There are risks inherent in such an approach, including an inclination to overact, a tendency to read ideological contest into every international event, and a habit of targeting domestic opponents and vulnerable groups as ideological enemies.
Thus far, the White House seems aware of these risks, and is taking steps to mitigate them. It will need to continue doing so, especially as Biden commits the United States to an “extreme competition” with its rivals.
And yet, it is hard to think of a better, more succinct, and powerful framing of the contest as one of competition between rival systems. Not only does it stand squarely in line with America’s long tradition of anti-authoritarianism, but it also best captures the stakes in today’s struggle.