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Biden’s dilemma on global democracy

What better way to herald regime change in America than for it to re-embrace global democracy? That is Joe Biden’s plan. He wants to host a global “summit for democracy” — possibly within a hundred days of his inauguration. It would be hard to think of a step that could better drive home that Donald Trump is no longer running the world’s superpower. If Mr Trump personifies the age of global strongmen, all Mr Biden need do is host a party that pointedly excludes them.

But his strategy entails serious risk at home and abroad. Reincorporating the democracy creed into US foreign policy would distance him not only from Mr Trump but also from Barack Obama, his former boss. The last US president to talk about spreading democracy was George W Bush, whose 2003 Iraq war discredited the idea on both the left and the right. Mr Obama won his party’s nomination partly because he had opposed the Iraq invasion, in contrast to Hillary Clinton who voted for it. Mr Biden also voted to authorise the Iraq war.

One of Mr Trump’s merits to the 2016 Republican base was his contempt for the “forever wars” in Iraq and elsewhere that he blamed on a Bush-riddled establishment. Whatever else can be said about Mr Trump’s foreign policy, he did not start new wars (though there are still 60 days to go). When historians look back on America’s early 21st century politics, my hunch is they will say Mr Bush did more harm to global democracy than Mr Trump.

Either way, Mr Biden is making two bets. The first is that the world will still see US democracy as a credible example to follow. Twenty years ago, few would have raised that question. Twice since then, however, the US has elected a president who won a lower share of the popular vote (in 2000 and 2016). It is striking that none of the countries that have adopted democracy since the end of the cold war has chosen the US constitutional model. School children the world over are now familiar with the weakness of the US electoral college and Senate malapportionment. Mr Biden’s victory shows that America’s system still works. But it will take more than that to restore the world’s faith in it.

Mr Biden’s second bet is that a club of democracies could work together effectively. One suggestion is that Mr Biden convene a “D-10” (10 democracies), which would comprise the G7 economies plus India, South Korea and Australia. Any club to which India belongs usually fails to agree on the rules. Furthermore, Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, is steadily turning his country into the world’s largest illiberal democracy. No Biden adviser would dream of including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the man who embraced the term illiberal democracy.

The real purpose of Mr Biden’s club would be to counter China’s increasingly overt ideological rivalry with the west. As by far China’s largest neighbour, India’s support will be critical to America’s ability to succeed in the so-called new cold war. To keep India on board, Mr Biden would have to refrain from criticising Mr Modi’s efforts to downgrade the country’s Muslim minority to second-class status. From the start, Mr Biden would thus be accused of having double standards.

So what would be the point of his club? The idea works in theory. As the world’s biggest autocracy, China’s closest ties are with other brutal regimes, notably Myanmar, Pakistan, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran and Russia. Authoritarians have had a good 21st century so far, prompting talk of a worldwide “democratic recession”. In practice, however, it would be hard to make it work. Mr Biden could set up a symbolic club that meets once a year. Or he could take a more hawkish route by offering benefits — market access, freedom from sanctions and so on — that he would deny to non-democracies.

The aim, as Ben Judah and Erik Brattberg write in Foreign Policy, would be to update the British quip about the original purpose of Nato “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and Germany down”. The goal of Mr Biden’s club would be “to keep China in check, India close and the United States steady in the turbulent years to come”. The framing is sharp. In practice, however, Mr Biden’s priority should be to revive democracy in America.

edward.luce@FT.com

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