Sometimes, it’s helpful for American presidents to have a doctrine, as they help guide policy and sharpen both strategy and messaging. Former President George W. Bush sharply defined his presidency on the doctrine of “either you’re with us, or you’re against us,” opening a space for unilateral military action. Barack Obama struggled to overcome foreign policy hurdles in the Middle East and North Africa and failed to implement his foreign policy “pivot” to Asia. Donald Trump’s attempt at an “America First” doctrine was at best a scattered display of optics.
Almost a year into the Biden administration, scant evidence exists that the 79-year-old president can fully develop and operationalize a post-Trump era in American foreign policy. Biden is famous for his gaffes, as well as pronouncing a litany of statements which have to be walked back. There’s a genuine need for a disciplined reset. America is entering a winter of uncertainty with a number of crisis points unresolved – particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
The complexity of the Indo-Pacific necessitates that the United States compete, project power, and set a viable agenda for the region. Options for Indo-Pacific actors without American leadership may present a Hobson’s choice, with China dominating by default. In the equally important spaces of defense, human rights, and trade, the steady presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific is vital. While Biden does not seem to have set American foreign policy around these essential areas, there is an emerging area that is significant.
Democracy promotion as a doctrine might be making a comeback. Biden’s choice to invite Taiwan to his “Summit for Democracy” on December 9 and 10 both angered China and sent a signal to authoritarian regimes that “like-minded” countries should band together to resist autocratic tendencies, promote human rights, and fight systemic corruption. Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan might seem controversial, but in reality, it remains one of Asia’s most successful democratization stories. Taiwan’s transition in the 1990s from authoritarian rule to a representative democracy was one of Asia’s few success stories. President Tsai Ing-wen, in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, wrote that Taiwan’s fall would be “catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system” and signal that “authoritarianism [would have] the upper hand over democracy.”
President George W. Bush was wildly inconsistent in his policies toward Taiwan, and bowed to Beijing over a 2003 referendum on national security issues. He even chastised former President Chen Shui-bian for holding the referendum against Washington’s advice. Earlier, however, he vowed to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. Obama was quick to heed the “One China” status quo, and warned Trump of the consequences of upsetting it. However, Trump resorted to using Taiwan as a weapon in his ideological confrontation with China. Over the past 20 years, both China, Taiwan and the United States have all evolved in vastly incongruent ways. These developments beg for changes and consistency in the American approach. Democracy promotion would be a welcome plank of a potential Biden Doctrine, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden’s push for Taiwan’s inclusion comes after a fresh round of Chinese political and diplomatic pressure on Indo-Pacific states to reevaluate their bilateral relations, preferably orienting them toward Beijing. Biden’s choice also sent a firm signal to coup-happy Thailand, whose Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai brushed off the event as “purely political.” On the other hand, Singapore, which was also not invited, remains a critical partner in the region, and was the centerpiece of Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Southeast Asia earlier in the year.
However, can democracy promotion really be a major plank of a Biden Doctrine, particularly in the Indo-Pacific? America should not restart democracy promotion because of any purported economic benefit, or the Bush-era notion that it would bring stability to the region, but because the empowerment of citizens, framed by political and human rights, is preferable to any other system of government.
In Southeast Asia, the list of countries in crisis with populations at risk is tragically long, as democracy denied, deferred, and repressed is still a fact of life in almost all of Southeast Asia. Thailand’s repressive crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and human rights defenders is now well known. While this might be the time for the United States to champion democracy promotion, the lingering fear is that the push would result in a similar outcome to 2014, where the regime increased its alignment with China.
While this might be inevitable, it begs the question of what remaining leverage the United States has left. The contradiction here is ominous. A dominant China offers a competing ideological message that democracies do not deliver and are in decline, and they don’t have to go far to find evidence. These competing narratives have dangerous consequences for the Indo-Pacific. A failure to engage and defend democracy poses challenges to the post-war rules-based order.
Of course, there are limits. Unlike Britain, the United States was ineffective at promoting democracy in Hong Kong, engaging only in rhetoric and Trump-era legislative action, but did little to upset the status quo after the passage of the national security law in June of 2020. The reality is that America, even with a renewed push by Biden, no longer has the economic or political leverage to affect meaningful change in Hong Kong. The absorption of Hong Kong into mainland China is nearly complete, as it has become China’s main trading partner, far ahead of Europe and the United States. Failure to grasp that fact assumed that Hong Kong was a kind of immortal golden goose and ignored China’s deep-seated desires to correct a century of humiliation by the West.
Returning to Taiwan, abandoning a democratic state would only serve to deepen the narrative that America is in retreat. Should Biden articulate that a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan is not possible without the specter of an open confrontation of American military power? The answer should be a resounding yes, and should be matched by both arming Taiwan as well as ensuring American naval capability. Protecting Taiwan means protecting decades of democratic maturation and human rights advancements. Taiwan was the first country to pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. It is a leader both in terms of the strength of its civil society and direct, people-centered democracy.
Other than South Korea or Japan, Taiwan deserves a special place on the pedestal of democracy in Asia. Not defending those achievements would seriously undermine American credibility and core values and affirm Beijing’s narratives of both, democratic decline and of an alternative, more autocratic path for hybrid states in the region.
In conclusion, what cannot continue is a Biden Administration searching for a foreign policy raison d’etre. The planks of this rationale are traditional and enduring: democracy promotion and the defense of self-determination. While now might not be the time for any overarching grand foreign policy doctrine, there must, however, be an unequivocal articulation of core American interests. Democracy matters.