Biden (and Putin)’s nostalgia for the Cold War

The promise and perils of the ‘Summit for Democracy’

US President Joe Biden’s virtual 'Summit for Democracy', will take place on December 9 and 10. [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Over the past 10 years, American and European reactions to the Arab Spring have demonstrated why Western democracies cannot be trusted with the cause of democracy around the world.

After brief excitement for the Arab upheavals for justice, freedom and jobs, Western powers resorted back to their usual appeasement of Arab dictators, no less in security affairs.

It is, therefore, no surprise that President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy”, which convenes virtually this week, is met with scepticism in the region and beyond.

To add insult to injury, the Biden administration has applied selective criteria for issuing invitations, reflecting “American politics more than democratic values”.

From the Middle East, only Iraq and Israel are invited, a choice that is sad and cynical. Iraq, which suffered under US occupation for much of the past 20 years, is considered “not-free” by the US-based Freedom House. And Israel has for much of its existence denied the Palestinian people their freedom and human rights, while thriving on their ruin and occupation.

On the other hand, Turkey, a NATO ally, which ranks rather low but higher than Iraq on the Freedom House scale, is not invited. Freedom House, it should be noted, is largely subsidised by the US government.

But then again, Biden’s own record has long reflected US realpolitik in the Middle East, where interests and expediency trump values.

It was Biden, the Democratic senator who supported George W Bush’s destructive 2003 war in Iraq which was launched on false pretexts; and it was he, the liberal presidential candidate, who referred to himself as a Zionist when Israel denied the Palestinians their basic rights.

And it was Biden, Obama’s vice president, who argued in favour of the US maintaining support for the Mubarak government in Egypt in the face of popular upheaval, calling him an ally, not a strongman. Along with then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Biden defused Obama’s early support for the Arab Spring, rejecting the comparison with 1990s Eastern European upheavals that paved the way towards democracy.

And although President Biden has promised to put democracy and human rights at the centre of his foreign policy, he continues to be guided by realpolitik in foreign policy, lending greater support to Middle East despots whenever that suits US interests; which is – well – too often.

But what about the rest of the world?

Biden has arguably been assertive in his defence of democracy at home and abroad, which in fact became his rallying trump card against former US President Donald Trump in the 2020 elections.

His victory may have saved democracy in the most influential democracy, the United States, and could salvage what is left of US democratic standing around the world, where the power of its example has been as effective as the example of its power.

Enter the Summit for Democracy, which is meant to rally world democracies, strong and weak, to push for reform, fight corruption, and defend themselves against authoritarianism.

It is also meant to shore up America’s credibility and influence around the world and improve Washington’s position in its great power competition against China and Russia.

In that way, Biden’s campaign slogan, “America is Back”, takes the shape of an assertive America back in the saddle, championing the cause of freedom and democracy around the world, albeit at the cost of a potential new Cold War with authoritarian Beijing and Moscow.

In response, China and Russia have expressed alarm and indignation. In a joint article, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to Washington have correctly warned the Biden administration against the perils of geopolitical escalation, arguing in favour of cooperation, accommodation and coexistence. They have also, rather disingenuously, defended their presumably socialist and federative democracies.

But President Biden is not letting go or easing up. He is putting China and Russia on the defensive, accusing them of sabre-rattling, especially in Taiwan and Ukraine, respectively, and threatening both with new tougher sanctions.

His recent virtual summits with his Chinese and Russian counterparts have done little to lessen tensions or tone down Washington’s rhetoric.

All of which makes one wonder if Biden is nostalgic for the Cold War era and its immediate aftermath, when a powerful America ruled supreme, and thus insists on framing today’s great power politics in strictly ideological terms – in terms of democracy vs authoritarianism, where the latter replaces communism as the new global evil. If indeed he is, Biden will find an enthusiastic partner in Russian President Vladimir Putin who is no less nostalgic for the old days of the Soviet Union.

It is certainly a clever way to rally close partners and distant allies behind US leadership, especially the sceptical Europeans, who have been trying to find their own independent voice in an increasingly polarised world.

But the dangers of a new Cold War for global stability and prosperity are too serious to ignore. It certainly does not bode well for the much-needed cooperation on urgent global challenges, such as climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and human security, especially in the ill-fated Middle East.