This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the twenty-first century and autocracies,” President Biden told reporters at his first news conference, in March 2021. “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
As mission statements for a new presidency go, this was particularly stark— and in many ways unexpected. Biden took office with two main tasks: end a pandemic that was killing thousands of Americans every week and keep the economy afloat. While many Americans greeted his inauguration as a victory for democracy after rioters attempted to prevent the certification of the vote in Congress, voters clearly did not elect him to re-enter the United States into what President Kennedy famously called the “long, twilight struggle” when he took office exactly 60 years earlier.
Indeed, Biden’s own staff dismissed any suggestion that, despite the President’s characterization of the conflict in stark ideological terms, the United States was entering a new Cold War. This was a different era, they said, with different dynamics. At the time, the Administration was thinking more about China than about Russia. But the Cold War analogy, much as they disliked it, was more notable for the differences rather than the similarities to the competition with the Soviet Union.
“The Cold War was primarily a military competition, and within that a nuclear competition,’’ one of Biden’s most senior advisers told me around the time the President made his “autocracy vs. democracy” remarks, which he repeated often in spring 2021. In Kennedy’s time, there was no deep economic interde- pendence with the Soviets, the nation’s primary rival, nothing that compares to the web of investments and technological dependencies that mark the U.S.- China relationship. By contrast, the United States and China are technological and economic competitors, yet share some common global goals, starting with battling climate change. And at that moment, in early 2021, the original Cold War competitor—Russia—was viewed inside Biden’s team as a declining power: a disruptor that the United States had to contain, while it focused on the broader task of dealing with Beijing.
“Your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy,’’ Biden predicted. “Because that is what is at stake, not just China.” Clearly, Biden was talking about a struggle taking place on two levels. Democracy has to succeed at home in order for the country to thrive. Yet it also needs to be perceived internationally as a successful model for the world, in order for the United States to demonstrate that its approach—a mix of democracy, freedom, and capitalism—is superior to China’s. At the time, in the spring of 2021, Russia barely factored in the equation for Biden; it was an autocracy, but not a powerful one, and officials believed even a disruptive Vladimir V. Putin could be managed.
Most notable was what was missing from Biden’s remarks. There was no talk of American “exceptionalism,” or a declaration that the United States was a shining city on a hill. Biden made clear that Americans would have to work for it. “On my watch,” he said, China would not reach its overall goal “to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Tellingly, there was only passing reference to Russia, and to Putin.
Yet a year into Biden’s presidency, the world, and that competition, has taken a darker, more militaristic turn. China has proven a far more aggressive actor than the Biden team anticipated, and its repression of Hong Kong has been accompanied by direct threats to Taiwan. Russia invaded Ukraine, bombing its cities and rolling tens of thousands of troops into its territory without provocation. Putin’s goal is to extinguish its nascent democracy—albeit one ridden with corruption—and, as Biden said, reconstitute elements of the Soviet Union.
“The entire world sees clearly what Putin and his Kremlin allies are really all about. This was never about a genuine security concern on their part. It was always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire, by any means necessary.” For his part, Putin has demanded that the world set back the clock, that NATO retreat to its pre-1997 lines, eliminate troop movements and nuclear weapons, and cede to him a “sphere of influence” that would put at risk the former Soviet republics and onetime members of the Warsaw Pact that chose to align with the West. He is seeking to reverse the world order created after the fall of the Soviet Union—an order that wasn’t really being questioned five years ago.
Suddenly Biden’s characterization of the struggle between autocratic nations and democracy seems at once prescient and fraught with far more risks than it did when he first uttered it in the East Room in the opening days of his presidency. The continued polarization at home—over vaccines, over the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “rigged,’’ over voting rights—suggested little or no progress had been made to “prove that democracy works” within the United States. From the outside, and often from the inside, the country appeared deep in its continuing political disarray. Meanwhile, the prospect of Cold War 2.0 no longer seems remote. The challenge, in fact, appears to be to keep it from breaking into a series of hot wars, from Ukraine to Taiwan.
What seemed so striking about Biden’s “autocracy vs. democracy” characterization at the beginning of his presidency was that it injected a touch of national ideology—and a bit of a freedom agenda—back into American foreign policy.
There have always been elements of that, of course, throughout the twentieth century, from Wilson’s 14-points to FDR’s “Four Freedoms’’—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roos- evelt’s speech was delivered in 1940 at a time when much of Europe had fallen to an advancing German army, and in less than two years, the United States was in the midst of World War II.
More recently, a similar sentiment was at the core of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, in 2005, which declared that spreading liberty around the world was “the calling of our time” and that the nation’s “vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” But at the time, the United States was bogged down in Iraq, battling a violent insurgency, and it was making little progress in transforming Afghanistan. The American public had lost its appetite for spending blood and treasure for such grand projects.
That national mood—a mix of exhaustion and isolationism—contributed to the movement that Donald J. Trump rode to the White House. In two interviews with The New York Times during his campaign, he evinced no interest in using American power to defend allies, or the democracies they represent. In fact, he had no interest in defending democracies at all, especially if it ran against American economic interests. In one of the Times interviews, he suggested pulling American troops out of Japan and South Korea, saying he saw no reason the United States should be defending its two biggest allies in the Pacific as long as they were running trade surpluses with the United States. He said he had no problem if they obtained nuclear weapons of their own. And he famously threatened to pull the United States out of NATO, declaring that the organization was “obsolete.” He also refused to say whether the United States would still respect its Article V obligations under the NATO charter to defend a member state under attack.
Similarly, Trump showed little interest in challenging Russia’s annexation of Crimea, telling the Times reporters that it was Europe’s problem. Putin got that message. Trump later assured China’s leader, Xi Jinping, that he would not publicly condemn his crackdowns in Hong Kong as long as the two men were negotiating a trade deal. Only when the pandemic broke out, and Trump accused Beijing of being the origin of the “China Virus,’’ did he publicly condemn the country’s human rights abuses.
Biden ran on the theme that repairing America’s reputation abroad meant rebuilding alliances, and a confidence that the United States would fight for something bigger than its own economic fortunes.
When Biden took office on January 20, 2021, he faced interlocking challenges—fixing a toxic atmosphere at home in which polarization was the largest national security threat facing the country, and repairing the damage done in the Trump years to America’s alliances.
He knew the struggle at home would be the hardest. The most vivid image of the decay of American democracy was the video of the rioting on January 6, just two weeks before the Inauguration. It was nearly impossible to trumpet American-style democracy when China and Russia were broadcasting images from the rioting inside the Capitol. An assessment conducted by the American intelligence community found, interestingly, that the Russians were using those images offensively—broadcasting them abroad as part of their government- backed efforts to widen divisions inside the United States, while the Chinese were showing them at home. “The message,’’ one senior intelligence official said, “was that this is what the much-vaunted American democracy looks like.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has noted that for the first few months of the Biden presidency, “I was asked about January 6, about the divisions in the country, all the time.” Over time he honed a ready answer: Yes, these divisions are real, but the wonder of American democracy is that we air our issues in public: we work out our problems without closing newspapers and jailing dissidents.
Over time, with hundreds of meetings and consultations whose subtext was “we’re back, we’re consulting with allies, and we care what they want,” the Biden Administration had some success in stitching the Western democracies together again. But the damage has not been entirely undone. While the right words were being spoken about unity of purpose, there was still an undercurrent of suspicion. As one senior European diplomat put it privately during President Biden’s first foray abroad, “we still don’t know if the Biden presidency is a return to the norm, or a blip between Trump and another Trump-like President.”
And then came the current crisis. After a year of testing the United States, first with the SolarWinds cyberattack, then an April massing of troops on the Ukraine border, then the Colonial Pipeline attack, Putin made his biggest move yet. By sending troops, armor, and missiles to the border of Ukraine, he was tak- ing the challenge directly to the West, and the Cold War comparisons to a new level. He was, as Fiona Hill, the Russia scholar who served uncomfortably in the Trump Administration, put it so well, seeking to “evict the United States from Europe.” Almost simultaneously, China mounted new challenges to Taiwan, sending sortie after sortie of jet fighters near its shores and talking, far more aggressively, about achieving unification.
“These are unrelated challenges to the international order,’’ one of Biden’s senior aides said in January. “But they are watching each other. And they are ready to build on each other’s successes.”
The result is that Biden faces a very different “autocracy vs. democracy” challenge than the one he described a year ago. Back then it was a question of whether he could prove that democracies could be as effective at delivering for their people, that Western values could still be married to greater prosperity, and that vigorous debate did not turn into crippling disunity.
But a year into his presidency, the challenge is far more complex. What Biden was describing in 2021 as a healthy competition—in new technology, in good governance—suddenly looks more like the old Cold War, one in which spheres of influence and military standoffs have become essential parts of the contest. The two biggest autocracies were not simply jailing dissidents, buying allies, or using new technology to track and control their people. Suddenly, they were looking to rewrite both the rules and the maps of the post-post-Cold War order. In such conflicts, suddenly the distinctions with the old Cold War begin to wash away.
It might not exactly replicate that era. When Soviet and Chinese leaders met during the Cold War, the Soviets held all the cards; today that is reversed. China’s rise has engendered resentments in the Russian leadership, and fears of being treated as the junior partner. Yet Putin knows that without Xi, he can- not challenge the West alone. And new technology—in cyberspace and outer space—have changed and expanded the nature of the competition, giving China and Russia both new weapons and new vulnerabilities. They also amplify this moment of renewed confrontation and instability, with echoes of the worst, and most dangerous, elements of the Cold War era.