Democracy’s invisible armor against bullies

Biden has shored up four key allies – and their democratic ideals – against next-door aggressors.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (center, front) poses for a group photo in front of a newly built ship in Kaohsiung, April 13.

During his early months in office, President Joe Biden has taken an unusual approach to the four countries that the United States considers to be the world’s biggest bullies: Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. While he talked or acted tough toward each – like previous U.S. presidents – Mr. Biden also took an important affirmative step. He shored up the four countries that are aggrieved neighbors of those respective bullies: Iraq, Taiwan, Ukraine, and South Korea.

He especially sought to make sure the democratic credentials of those four remain strong, part of their critical defense against the autocratic aggressor next door.

Mr. Biden’s boldest move was to send three senior U.S. statesmen to Taiwan in mid-April. It was a signal of support to the island nation and its vibrant democracy. On May 21, he will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House, also a signal of support for a democracy facing a threat of foreign invasion.

In a long phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mr. Biden not only gave “unwavering support” to Ukraine against the latest Russian military aggression, he also pushed for more domestic reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability to the government in Kiev.

Mr. Biden talked at length with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, commending his “leadership” in the delicate balancing of political factions in a democracy beset with influence from Iran. The phone call was the first to an Arab leader from the president, another signal of support.

All these steps were not just a matter of policy choice by Mr. Biden. Over the past year, the behavior of most of the “bully” nations has worsened. China’s military moves against Taiwan are particularly worrisome. “Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic,” states a recent Freedom House report.

That report also explains one rationale which lies behind the strategy of shoring up endangered allies: “Democracy’s strengths are the very attributes that authoritarians most fear: the inherent demand for self-examination and criticism, and the capacity for self-correction without sacrificing essential ideals.”

Democratic ideals, such as equality before the law, may not seem like an effective defense against bullets and ships. China, for example, has spent the last year demolishing Hong Kong’s democracy, in part by sending in security forces from the mainland. Yet part of Taiwan’s strength against China is its freedom of thought. That has helped create a thriving high-tech industry – one that China needs for its economy. Sometimes the best armor against bullies is invisible. It also sometimes needs shoring up.

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