Clementine Bizot and Phar Kim Beng
In light of Joe Biden’s clear intention to hold the Democracy Summit, upon his victory on Nov. 3 2020, which would be modelled on the Nuclear Security Summit of the Obama administration, Biden is not one to allow authoritarianism to emerge and manifest in various shapes and forms all over the watch under his watch of the United States and its allies.
Given the haphazard diplomacy of the previous administration, one can understand why the Biden administration has placed democracy as the forefront of his foreign policy.
First and foremost, for the longest time, indeed since his role as the senator in the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has given his fullest support to programs such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. Not unlike other American presidents, that comes from both sides of the aisles, be they Democrats or Republicans, with the exception of the Trump administration, every American president has tried to create various credible international organizations, based on the scholarship of John Ikenberry, a professor of political science at Princeton University.
To be sure, it was unfortunate that while President Wilson had convinced all the warring powers to form the League of Nations in 1919, based on the “14 Points”, the neo-isolationists in the US Congress at that time had disapproved of Wilson’s foreign policy template, leading to the exclusion of the US itself from the very entity with which the Wilson Administration had assiduously created to ensure all powers, would be seen as an equal.
The core test of Wilson’s idea of self-determination was undoubtedly first tested by Japan’s proposal for a “Racial Equality Clause.” However, while France got behind the proposal; and Italy championed it; with Greece voting in favor; sadly, Australia pushed back. The British dominion had instituted White Australia Policy in 1901 limiting all nonwhite immigration.
There was the fear from Australia, invariably passed on to the US’ delegation, chaired by president Wilson himself, at the Paris Peace Conference in Nov. 19 1919, that such a clause would open the gate to a huge influx of Japanese immigrants which neither the US nor Australia would welcome.
While 2020 is not analogous to all the events leading up to 1919, the fact that the Biden administration has a once in a century chance to exemplify the best of what the US has to offer in the immediate future, either through domestic “unity” at home, or, a patient restoration of the democratic countries in the world, many of which had experienced a “democratic retreat” according to the works of Joshua Kurlantzick, provides the US to lead again.
Thus, in spite of the need to keep the Biden administration’s attention locked on the roll-out of the vaccination programs, precisely to prevent further mutations of the SARS-Cov2 virus to undermine the vast array of the available vaccines. President Biden must take a strong stance against all countries that are tilting back towards authoritarianism, beginning with the latest coup in Myanmar.
As things stand, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, together with the likes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, have collectively opposed the “coup” that resulted in the Myanmar military – also known as Tatmadaw in local parlance – taking over the reins of power on the pretext that the election in November 2020 held across the whole of Myanmar was fraudulent up to 10 million votes.
Vice President Myint Swe, who has always been close to the Tatmadaw, has suddenly been catapulted to the role of acting President to cement the declaration of emergency; with the ostensible promise that a new national election would be held in a year.
This promised was made by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, arguably the person who launched the “coup”, who is now in control of Myanmar, having witnessed the landslide victory of the National League of Democracy, gaining a total of 396 seats from the lower and upper house of the parliament, from a total of 476 seats that were up for grab in November 2020. Since that watershed defeat, the Tatmadaw had felt totally humiliated by the people and the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The strategic significance in taking a strong stance on Myanmar, despite the blighted image of Suu Kyi as am implicit enabler of the “Genocide” against the Rohingya Muslims, is simple yet critical. If the Biden administration wants to engage the member states of ASEAN, potentially to prevent it from slipping into the orbit of China’s one party authoritarian model, which has seemingly proved effective in curtailing the spread of COVID-19, then the Biden administration has to wean the likes of Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, potentially Malaysia, from ceding ground to the rule of law and peaceful democratic transition.
Therefore, barring a strong democratic push-back against authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, the Biden administration would not have sufficient democratic counterparts at all to promote a Democratic Summit, cherished by President Biden himself. Worst, aside from aerial incursions into the air space of Taiwan in the first week of President Biden’s inauguration, laws had been amended by China to make its coast guards quasi-military.
A grand strategy of the US has to take every single event into serious foreign policy calculation, without which the belief that the US and the West are all in their decline will affect their collective abilities to form durable alliances based on multilateralism; which is another institutional element that President Biden himself had promised to rebuild.
Clementine Bizot and Phar Kim Beng are respectively senior research fellow and founding CEO of Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena.