Following US President Joe Biden’s speech in Warsaw last week, the media largely focused on his offhand comments on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin should remain in power. In doing so, they overlooked the deeper strategic significance of Biden’s remarks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden described the brazen assault not only as a threat to European security but as “a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” He added: “We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
Biden’s address could be the most consequential foreign-policy speech of his presidency, serving to frame the United States’ role in the world and its relationship with allies for years to come.
Democracy versus autocracy
The implications of his speech are threefold.
First, the conflict over Ukraine is ideological at its core. This is not just about a stronger state attacking a weaker one, or an inevitable competition for influence between great powers. Rather, it is a contest between those who seek to uphold democratic values and defend a rules-based international order and those who are seeking to undermine this order and make the world safe for autocracy. This is why the conflict will not end even if Russia is eventually forced out of Ukraine. The Kremlin has “strangled democracy,” as Biden put it—both at home and abroad—and the battle will continue as long as Russia remains governed by an autocratic dictator.
Second, the challenge to the rules-based order is not just about Russia, but also about China. While Biden did not explicitly reference China in this speech, his remarks build on previous speeches in which he described the need to prepare for a “strategic competition with China” and to work with allies to “secure the peace and defend our shared values.” Now, with China standing squarely behind Russia in its invasion of Ukraine and reaffirming its “no limits” partnership with Moscow, the United States and its allies will need to develop strategies to defend the rules-based order from both Moscow and Beijing at the same time.
Third, to succeed in this long-term contest, the United States must strengthen cooperation with its democratic allies and partners—or, in Biden’s words, “maintain absolute unity.” Once again, he made clear that the partnership would be crucial for “decades to come.” The signal to US allies is to put aside tactical differences and stay focused on the bigger strategic picture: defending the shared values that underpin the free world. And for India and other democracies that have refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the implicit message is clear: Failing to unite will only serve to empower Russia and China and undermine their own interests in a stable, rules-based order.
The third point is particularly crucial. While the United States and its core allies have responded to Russia’s invasion with remarkable unity—by fast-tracking military equipment to Ukraine and placing an unprecedented slate of sanctions against Russia—not all democracies are on board. And as time passes, maintaining this sense of solidarity may prove challenging. More must be done to build and sustain democratic unity as the rules-based order comes under increasing threat.
The Council’s Democratic Order Initiative, which I lead, has laid out several courses of action the United States and its allies can take to achieve these goals.
First, Washington should lead an effort to develop a charter of principles for leading democracies to endorse—perhaps based on the New Atlantic Charter signed last year by the United States and Britain, or the Atlantic Council’s Declaration of Principles, which articulates the core values of the rules-based order that democracies should seek to uphold. Like the original Atlantic Charter did in the twentieth century, such a statement could serve as a framework for revitalizing the rules-based order for the twenty-first century.
The United States and its democratic allies should also seek to align a wide range of strategies. On the economic front, they should develop a new allied trade partnership that incentivizes the shifting of supply chains in critical industries away from autocracies and toward the free world. Washington also needs to work with allies in the technology sector to establish common norms that are consistent with liberal values; this would position the free world to win the race for advanced technologies. Also important is a joint defense strategy that better integrates the capabilities of allies across Europe and the Indo-Pacific, as well as aligns operational concepts to defend the free world.
Finally, in order to succeed, the United States must, quite simply, organize for success. The existing set of alliances and partnerships—from NATO, to the Group of Seven (G7), to the Quad—has played an effective role in facilitating democratic cooperation. But the world needs new ones. These could include a new D-10, a Democratic Technology Alliance, or a broader Alliance of Democracies, all with the goal of uniting Europe and the Indo-Pacific under a common umbrella. While the benefits of any specific new arrangement must be weighed against potential drawbacks, including the diplomatic effort required to create them, the Biden administration should find ways to reconfigure the current institutional architecture for a new era of strategic competition.
Critics have suggested that Biden’s framing of a new contest between democracy and autocracy could lead to a new Cold War, exacerbating tensions and further polarizing the global order. Yet the global order is already split: Moscow and Beijing are deepening their cooperation across a range of domains. Competition between democratic and autocratic powers is now an established feature of today’s global system, and the only question is: How will democratic nations choose to respond?
As the Guardian rightly noted, Biden’s Warsaw speech was a “generational call to arms for democratic countries to unite against autocracy in a years-long foreign policy project.” Winning this struggle will not be easy—and, as Biden himself stated, there will be costs. But unless the world’s leading democracies are strategically aligned and committed to act in the long term, success may prove elusive.
Ash Jain is the director for democratic order at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
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