Democracy’s 21st century challenge

As I read a Washington Post story about President Biden trying to promote democracy abroad while dealing with the erosion of democracy at home, I was reminded of Stefan Halper’s 2010 book “The Beijing Consensus.

Halper argued that more and more people in the developing world were content with a trade off most Americans would find impossible to accept: Improving economic conditions while surrendering many individual liberties.

Halper described it this way: A new kind of “capitalist bargain” — improving living standards for the people who “let the state rule as an authoritarian regime.” Because of that “bargain,” Halper believed China was positioned to become the world’s dominant country in the 21st century. China was sharing its economic successes with governments and peoples from around the world, and that message was resonating, especially because these countries had no history of democracy.

According to the Washington Post, during his recent trip to Europe, Biden continued to state that the U.S. had to remain the leader in pressing for democratic norms around the world. However, he was promoting his message as he faced a grim reality at home:

Biden’s message is complicated by the turmoil in the country he leads — the Jan. 6 attack, Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen, the push to restrict voting, the ongoing “audits” of elections whose results have long been settled.

These domestic problems make Biden’s message harder to accept, and China’s robust economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic amplifies the narrative Beijing can share.

Whether Halper’s fear — and make no mistake, he is not eager to see China dominate the 21st century global order (which, come to think of it, Beijing has repeatedly said it doesn’t want to) — comes to pass will at least in part be determined by the way America’s domestic issues are interpreted in many parts of the developing world.

Suffice to say that in 2021, there is no peace at home.

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