Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 15 June 2021


While Democracies Lecture, Their Adversaries Run Free

Team Biden confuses stern statements with progress on China, Russia and Iran.

World leaders pose at the G-7 Summit In Carbis Bay, England, June 11. PHOTO: LEON NEAL/WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES

As President Biden travels across Europe from one summit to the next, the memory of Donald Trump’s disruption is starting to fade, and the soothing pageantry of diplomacy is resuming its stately course. The familiar rituals are back. In Cornwall, England, meetings were held, communiqués were composed, and all was harmony and light, with the exception of intra-European squabbles over the rules governing sausage shipments from the mainland of Great Britain to Northern Ireland. More of the same is expected in Brussels. America is back, the West is back, multilateralism is back, and all is well.

There were rough spots, to be sure. Climate campaigners welcomed the grand proposals for dramatic cuts in emissions, but worried that this year’s Group of Seven communiqué did not include a coal ban. Health campaigners welcomed commitments to provide a billion doses of Covid vaccine to poor countries, but they warned that the pledges didn’t address distribution problems and fell far short of the need.

Observers were particularly struck by the G-7’s strong language about Russia and China. It condemned Russia’s “destabilizing behavior” and called on Moscow to crack down on cybercriminals. The language about China was even tougher. Besides expressing concern about “the situation in the East and South China seas” and opposing any “unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions,” the G-7 called on China “to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.”

It all sounded very impressive and was certainly a greater display of unity than former President Donald Trump ever managed to produce. Yet China and Russia appear unimpressed, as does Iran. Russia turned from consolidating its hold over Belarus to tightening the crackdown on internal dissent. China proceeded with the systematic destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties while moving forward with its ominous naval buildup. Iranian ships bearing mysterious cargos plowed steadily across the Atlantic toward its allies in the Western Hemisphere.

The harsh reality is that the U.S. and its allies are losing ground to their adversaries, and the balance of power is moving sharply against us. Worse, many Western leaders seem to have forgotten what it means to win.

Inserting the word “China” into a statement that has no resonance or consequence in the real world is not an achievement. Administering lectures to the Kremlin that change no one’s behavior is not a victory. Boosting Iran’s economy while it continues a systemic program of subversion across the Middle East is not progress.

Winning means getting Russia to withdraw from Syria, the Donbas and Crimea. A diplomatic victory is when China agrees to dismantle military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea. Success involves getting Iran to stop arming and funding armed militias and terrorist groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Losing, on the other hand, is something the West has become quite good at. Losing is watching construction continue on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as Russia declares the country’s largest opposition party an illegal conspiracy. Losing is moaning about Chinese behavior in the South China Sea as the military balance tilts toward Beijing. Losing is crafting intricate webs of ineffectual sanctions as Russia’s reach and control inexorably expand. Losing is wringing one’s hands and issuing eloquent critiques as China intensifies its crackdowns in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Mr. Biden is right to point out that the world’s democratic societies face an unprecedented challenge from well-armed, hostile autocracies. He is right to insist that strengthening America’s alliances is a key to renewing its strength. But that is only the start.

Since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, democracies have failed to respond effectively to a long series of attacks by revisionists against the international status quo. From seizing Crimea to building illegal military bases on artificial islands, from invading Ukraine to crushing democracy in Hong Kong in a flagrant violation of international commitments, the revisionist autocracies have made one gain after another without eliciting anything like a serious allied response.

Under these grim circumstances, President Biden’s job is not to craft communiqués. His job is to reverse a steady deterioration in the global political balance that threatens American security on a scale not seen since the Cold War.

There is nothing wrong with working to limit climate change. There is nothing wrong with promoting unity. But autocracy is on the march at the fastest rate since the 1930s, and unless Mr. Biden starts scoring some concrete wins, our adversaries’ progress will accelerate, no matter how many pointed communiqués democracies write.

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