America can’t support democracy only when it’s convenient

America can’t support democracy only when it’s convenient

Matthew Duss writes:

[T]he administration’s framing of the Russian war on Ukraine as symbolic of a battle between democracy and autocracy might be rhetorically satisfying but obscures more than clarifies the challenges and opportunities of this moment. First, it overlooks that the contest between democracy and autocracy is being waged within states as much as between them, including within the United States, as authoritarian-leaning ethnonationalist forces continue to gain strength—indeed, draw strength—from an us versus them discourse of civilizational struggle. It is also unconvincing in light of Washington’s own support for many autocratic governments, particularly (but certainly not only) in the Middle East. The Biden administration’s politically expedient coddling of repressive partners such as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates doesn’t just undermine its democracy and human rights agenda among global audiences—it makes a mockery of it.

U.S. support for those governments—in the form of continued arms supplies and diplomatic support in the face of credible and serious allegations of ongoing human rights abuses and violations of international law—handicaps efforts to hold Russia accountable for credibly alleged crimes in Ukraine. Although there are important differences in what the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq and what Russia is doing in Ukraine, one reason Putin and other war criminals around the world believe they can get away with such abuses is that the United States consistently refuses to impose any meaningful accountability, let alone submit to an international tribunal, for its own transgressions. If Washington is serious about an investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, then one of the best things it can do is to join the International Criminal Court, as called for recently by Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Strengthening global rules against atrocities requires the United States to end its insistence that those rules don’t apply to the United States and its friends.

The democracy versus autocracy framing also glosses over how the United States continues to treat many autocratic regimes as key partners for stabilizing global energy markets, especially amid efforts to cut off Russian gas. Such tradeoffs may be necessary to address the more urgent crisis, but it is also worth noting that this is precisely the same logic that led the United States to treat Putin as an ally in the war on terror and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as an ally against Iran, to name only two partners who became problems. [Continue reading…]

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