We live in a world divided by democracy and autocracy. Its become a colosseum sprawling with mighty adversaries glaring ominously at one another with super swords in their sheaths capable of annihilating their enemy.
President Biden has made “democracy and autocracy” a signature phrase of his administration as the world seems bent on spiraling towards conflict between these two radically different ideologies, those opposing forms of governing. For now thankfully it’s not a world war, only a word war, freedom vs. dictatorship.
He has expressed this vision often during his term in office, but there may be a thaw in progress, a spark of light may have come into this dark nomenclature tunnel keeping the world and its financial markets ever on edge.
According to Factba.se, the online database that tracks his remarks, Biden has used democracy vs. autocracy less often during his third year in office.
Unlike the year before, it was notably in absentia when recently he spoke again to the United Nations General Assembly.
While Biden still urges world leaders to stand up to Russia and support Ukraine against Russian aggression, the world needs more than ever a more astute, more encompassing, longer-range public relations strategy executed on a global scale.
As a PR professional, I recommend a more open, upbeat version of the phrase “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” only I’d change the word “enemies” to “competitors” and make them as friendly competitors as possible in a world in which nations are more interdependent and coming closer, hopefully not just via their supersonic missiles.
Beyond the distrust embedded in that phrase, it suggests treating your enemies kindly, so they don’t suspect your disapproval of them to the point of arousing hostility. The phrase originates from the Latin proverb “Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur” and was popularized by Niccolò Machiavelli in his book “The Prince.”
Biden, Putin, Xi and other world leaders must change their point of view that underlying tensions are two forms of diamentrically opposed government that are so fundamentally at odds that they can only be diehard enemies and combatants.
While many still embrace the concept that democracy and autocracy cannot peacefully coexist, Biden and other administration officials seem to have come to conclusion that framing the two as inevitably in conflict becomes a self fulfilling prophecy with dire consequences.
Biden’s phrase accurately captures the leading players in the core struggle for global influence today. The U.S., Japan, South Korea, Western Europe democracies are on one side, the Russia and China are autocracies on the other, that I would recommend we shouldn’t cite as the dark side.
Many other countries, from somewhat flawed democracies to autocracies, however, have not chosen sides yet and are willing to work closely with both Washington and Beijing, depending on the issue, of course.
If the U.S. suggests that only democracies are welcome in its alliance, that alliance will surely shrink.
“Defining the current contest as one between democracies and autocracies is a flawed strategy,” Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy expert at the Hudson Institute, wrote this spring in The Wall Street Journal. He said this approach weakens America’s ties with key allies and exposes us to “devastating charges of systemic hypocrisy.” Mead is a conservative who often criticizes Biden, but some members of the administration have had similar concerns, as reported by The New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker.
In June, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, acknowledged the tension. “I do think we are dealing with the gathering and march of autocratic forces in ways that are not in the United States’ national interest, and that we do need to rally the values, norms and forces of democracy to push back against that,” Sullivan said. But, he added, Biden has also been clear that in that broader context, we need constructive relationships with countries of all different traditions and backgrounds.
The Stalin exception
There is, of course, a long history of the U.S. working with autocracies as part of a strategy of fostering democracy. Sometimes, it has led to tragedy as during the Vietnam War. Other times, it has formed necessary alliances such as with Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War II or during the 1990s with Persian Gulf kingdoms to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
The democracy-vs.-autocracy dichotomy has probably helped to energize Western Europe to come to Ukraine’s defense and persuade Japan and South Korea to strengthen ties as a counterweight to China.
Over the past year, though, the administration has also tried to build ties with countries that are democratically weaker such as India, another potential counterweight to China. Wisely Biden has hosted its prime minister, Narendra Modi, for a warm three-day visit this year despite Modi’s crackdown on critics of his Hindu nationalist government that may have erupted into violence in Canada.
The Biden administration is trying to persuade Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize their relations.
All of this may help explain the recent conciliatory approach Biden took at the U.N. recently celebrating the virtues of democracy, saying that it “can deliver in ways that matter to people’s lives” while describing programs to build infrastructure in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Yet prudently he avoided any negative references to autocracy or authoritarian.
In a dangerous world, the U.S. evidently wants to woo as many different allies as possible, but thankfully Biden is showing something all leaders need to practice, some practical PR in a world where sadly it’s in such short supply!
Once known as the SPIN MAN, the title of his first book, author and PR pro Tom Madden dropped that title when SPIN became a pejorative and today just calls himself CEO of his international public relations firm, TransMedia Group. He believes firmly that leaders on all sides of the political spectrum should think more in PR terms when espousing programs and criticizing opponents across aisles that should stay as just open spaces, not walls, which have no place in a united democracy.