12 June 2022, Spiked
Developing nations have had enough of the West’s lectures
Talk of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turning into a proxy war between Washington and the Kremlin has ratcheted up in recent weeks. But there is another international conflict that already resembles a proxy war, albeit a non-violent one, and which preceded the war in Ukraine. This is the proxy war that President Biden has launched against the international forces of so-called authoritarian populism. Biden has framed this crusade as a global struggle of democracy against autocracy. And he is keen to intertwine his opposition to the regimes of China and Russia with his posturing against populist movements at home. Biden hopes that this guilt by association will help him to de-legitimate his domestic opponents.
Among Biden’s rogues’ gallery of autocrats sit his domestic opponents, principally Trump supporters and other politically incorrect sections of the American electorate. China and Russia stand out as the main villains, followed by Hungary and Brazil. That Hungary and Brazil are democratic nations seems not to matter. Meanwhile, the likes of Saudi Arabia or Egypt – nations in which democracy is conspicuous by its absence – are not singled out for criticism by the Biden White House. His application of the terms autocracy and democracy is both opportunistic and dishonest.
Although this crusade is framed in the language of human rights and democracy, it can best be understood as a 21st-century version of cultural imperialism. For the Biden White House, what matters are not the classical principles of democracy and freedom, but the woke values associated with the politics of identity. As NS Lyons explains in an excellent essay, ‘Intersectional Imperialism and the Woke Cold War’, when Biden uses terms like ‘democratic progress’ and ‘human rights’ he means something very different to what those words meant in the past. From Biden’s perspective, democracy and human rights mean taking the knee, celebrating transgender ideology and renouncing heteronormativity and masculinity.
As soon as Biden assumed office, he set in motion this crusade against what he characterises as the global forces of autocracy. At the February 2021 virtual Munich Security Conference, he announced that ‘America is back’. He was seeking to lay out a new Cold War narrative and return America to its activist global role. But unlike the first Cold War, which mobilised the West against Communism, Cold War 2.0 would direct its fire at movements and governments that the Biden administration deems to be autocratic.
Biden has constantly reiterated this theme ever since. In March 2021, he referred to America’s relationship with China and Russia as a ‘battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies’. At that point in time, Biden’s main focus was China. He warned that China was aggressively seeking to become the most powerful nation in the world.
This crusade against autocracy reached its culmination at the Summit for Democracy, a virtual jamboree hosted in Washington in December 2021. The explicit objective of the summit was to ‘renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad’. This exercise in propaganda, supported by 100 governments around the world and a veritable army of advocacy organisations and NGOs, provided an opportunity for interweaving the woke values pursued by the Biden administration at home with its foreign-policy objectives.
At the summit, the theme of ‘strengthening democracy and defending it against authoritarianism’ was linked with the promotion of ‘the human rights of activists, women and girls, youth, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, and marginalised populations’. The Biden administration has consciously externalised America’s culture war, projecting it on to the global stage, while at the same time presenting the threat posed by Beijing and Moscow as analogous to the threat posed by the Trumpist hordes at home.
Following Biden’s State of the Union speech in January 2022, one commentator pointed out that the president had laid ‘his cards on the table’ to indicate that ‘in an era of strategic confrontation… the world must simultaneously fight a war for democracy and against the type of repression that led to the events of 6 January in the United States’. From this perspective, defeating Putin is the functional equivalent of striking a blow against Trump. In the months before Ukraine was invaded, this strategy of pursuing the culture war on two fronts – domestic and international – was in full flow. According to the scenario invoked by White House public-relations operatives, the enemy at home is no less a threat to democracy than the enemy abroad.
Biden’s narrative of a global conflict between democracy and autocracy has been thoroughly assimilated by his supporters, and there is a veritable army of NGOs who are now in the business of promoting it. The leading funder of a global network of NGOs, the multibillionaire George Soros, told guests at a dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month that the ‘world has been increasingly engaged in a struggle between two systems of governance that are diametrically opposed to each other’. Soros raised the stakes when he warned that the invasion of Ukraine ‘may have been the beginning of the Third World War and our civilisation may not survive it’.
Biden’s Cold War 2.0 seeks to legitimise America’s geopolitical interests by exporting woke values on race, gender and sexuality to the rest of the world. With the zealotry of an old-school missionary, the US State Department insists that these values are integral to a democratic regime of human rights and therefore their acceptance is non-negotiable. By lecturing the world about the need to embrace the values favoured by America’s cultural elites, the US State Department comes across like a busybody campus zealot. Often the language of diplomacy gives way to a hectoring tone.
The State Department has adopted the classical neocolonial stance of lecturing foreign nations about their cultural values. Last year, US secretary of state Antony Blinken was told by Chinese officials that they would not put up with his patronising lectures about human rights. In the lead-up to the Biden administration’s face-to-face meeting with Chinese officials in March 2021, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, accused Washington of taking a ‘condescending’ approach to the talks and said the American delegation had no right to accuse Beijing of human-rights abuses or give lectures on the merits of democracy. Yang stated that, given America’s own problems with Black Lives Matter, Blinken did not have the authority to lecture other nations about racism. ‘I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognise the universal values advocated by the United States, or that the opinions of the United States could represent international public opinion’, Yang added.
The American foreign-policy establishment now presents itself as a beacon of intersectional ideology. One of Biden’s earliest foreign-policy initiatives as president was to send the State Department a memo ‘to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons’. Biden described this as part of defending some of ‘our most dearly held values’.
At the request of the Biden administration, the United States International Trade Commission was recently asked to launch a fact-finding investigation to assist the promotion of trade-policy initiatives that consider gender, race, ethnicity, wage and salary level – emphasising the effects on the underrepresented and underserved. The unspoken goal of this ‘equity initiative’ is to use trade to promote a form of intersectional colonialism.
For its part, Blinken’s State Department has gone out of its way to demonstrate its intersectional credentials. In early 2021, Blinken announced that US embassies and consulates around the world could fly the Pride flag on the same flagpole as the American flag during ‘Pride season’. In June 2021, a couple of months before America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US embassy in Kabul raised the rainbow flag.
In July 2021, the State Department boasted that 20 countries, at the behest of the US, had co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘first-ever side event on the human rights of transgender women, highlighting the violence and structural, legal and intersectional barriers faced by transgender women of colour’. A few months later, it was reported that the State Department was developing a ‘precept on diversity and inclusion’ to ensure that the US diplomatic corps were sufficiently diverse. In March this year, the State Department announced that new passport applicants would be able to self-select their gender.
Then, in April, came the Equity Action Plan, designed to ‘advance racial equity and support for underserved communities in foreign affairs’. According to a press release issued by Blinken, the promotion of diversity and inclusion for ‘historically marginalised and vulnerable groups would become an integral feature of American policy’. He claims that the exclusion of vulnerable groups fuels ‘economic migration, distrust and authoritarianism’. This action plan reflects a desire to export American identity politics to the rest of the world.
Back in March, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the White House almost appeared to be more interested in consolidating its cultural hegemony than in supporting the heroic resistance of the people of Ukraine. It was at this point that Biden outlined his ambition for establishing a new world order based on woke values. He told a group of American corporate leaders that the world is changing and that ‘there’s going to be a new world order and we have got to lead it and we have got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it’.
In this respect, his foreign policy is not unlike that of one of his predecessors, former president Barack Obama. Back in March 2014, Obama responded to Russia’s invasion of Crimea by issuing a high-profile ‘Address to European youth’. In this speech, he casually linked his condemnation of Russia’s behaviour in Crimea with criticism of those who opposed his political agenda in the United States. Obama celebrated identity politics and denounced the ‘older, more traditional view of power’. He boasted that ‘instead of targeting our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we can use our laws to protect their rights’. He was attacking Russia and populist and conservative parties in Europe in the same breath, lumping them together for their reluctance to celebrate and embrace multiculturalism and immigration.
Russia also served as a proxy here for his traditionalist foes within the United States.
This woke imperialism is an incredibly naive venture. Even within the US, the values that underpin the woke mission have only a limited appeal. The US is deeply divided on the issues beloved by intersectional ideologues. While woke ideology has gripped a considerable section of America’s cultural and media elites, it is unlikely to resonate with the public. During the Cold War, anti-Soviet ideology tended to unify Western publics – it was possible to draw a clear moral contrast between the two sides. Intersectional ideology, by contrast, has the opposite effect on public life. It is deeply divisive and leads to bitter polarisation.
This crusade will not endow Biden and the leaders of other Western governments with legitimacy. The claim of the Biden administration, to be on the side of the angels in a battle between democracy and autocracy, is continually called into question by America’s willingness to forge close alliances with nations like Saudi Arabia. Despite its constant moralising, Washington is forced to engage in a measure of realpolitik. As one commentator in the Financial Times observes, ‘The US will need the help of some illiberal states to prevail over Russia and China’.
As it turns out, the project of woke imperialism sits uneasily alongside the pursuit of American – or for that matter Western – geopolitical interests. Large parts of the world are positively turned off by America’s woke values and people resent being told how to lead their lives. This point was underlined last month by José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is president of the small Pacific island nation of East Timor. He warned that South Pacific island nations are turning towards China because of the patronising way they have been treated by Australia and the West. He pointed to the case of the Solomon Islands, which have recently forged close security ties with China. ‘Why would the Solomon Islands seek out China for support in maritime security and for the police?’, he asked, before answering his own question: ‘Maybe because the Solomon Islands’ closest neighbour, in this case Australia, has not responded to their need. Maybe their neighbour wasted time lecturing them on human rights instead of trying to help.’
It seems that all the US-led West offers the people of the South Pacific are sermons on how they should live their lives. ‘The United States doesn’t have a significant presence in the Pacific at all’, observes Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand. ‘I’m always shocked that in Washington they think they have a significant presence when they just don’t.’
Thanks to the West’s geopolitical illiteracy, China was able to sign that security pact with the Solomon Islands in April, permitting Chinese forces to operate there. It looks like Biden’s Cold War 2.0 is off to a bad start in the South Pacific.
This woke imperialism may appear to be the work of an immature American political establishment. But American soft power should not be underestimated. Biden’s crusade may not yield its desired geopolitical results, but attempts to impose woke values on the rest of the world will continue to confuse and disorientate global affairs. Developing nations won’t be patronised any longer.