Relations between the administrations of Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden have been made even more complicated by the Russia-Ukraine war. Photos: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri, Nicholas Kamm

Joe Biden is wrapping up his first foreign trip to Europe as president of the United States. To reclaim the global leadership role that his predecessor Donald Trump abandoned after taking office in January 2017, Biden tried to renew relations with European NATO members and other allies. To reclaim his country’s vanguard role, Biden used the slogan “The United States is back.”

During the trip, in most of his speeches, Biden claimed that cooperation and partnership among the Group of Seven and other invitees to last weekend’s G7 summit such as Australia, India, Japan and South Africa, as well as other US allies, are based on specific values.

Biden claimed that the United States’ alliances and partnership are based on human rights and democratic values. However, he also emphasized that these values are under severe threat from foreign powers. He reiterated that such threats are coming from Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China.

Biden’s claim is not new. It is a continuation of Trump’s foreign policy. The slight difference is that Trump was perceived as soft on Russia and tough on China. Biden wanted to give an impression that he is taking a tough stance against Russia too.

To keep American public opinion favorable toward him, Biden’s high-level diplomatic acts may be helpful to him domestically, but there was a lot of noise and pomp and very little substance.

Biden is doing precisely what a right-wing populist like Trump would do. To avoid taking responsibility for their citizens’ well-being, to cover up their grave failures, and to distract public attention from their own severe botches, right-wing populists and nationalists use such tactics worldwide. Unfortunately, Biden has continued the same strategy.

Biden and his team are well aware that democracy is now on the defensive all over the world, in developed as well as developing countries. The democratic system of governance is more in crisis than after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Perhaps the Biden team are not unaware that Nazism and fascism sprouted in Germany and Italy as the unintended consequences of Western democracy. Those political systems developed as external threats to the so-called free world across the Atlantic.

Today, the threat to the democracies in the West and elsewhere is from within. The crisis of Western democracies is purely internal, and not a product of Russia or China.

Ultra-nationalist and right-wing populist leaders such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK, Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India have been tampering with democratic norms and values. They are the products of the internal failure of democracy. 

Biden, in his address on June 9 to US Air Force personnel and their families stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, quoting the Declaration of Independence, said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We mean it. No nation can defeat us as long as we stick to our values.” 

However, democracy has failed to ensure the lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness of the people, not just in the US but in other countries.

The post-2008 financial crisis and the current Covid-19 pandemic have both proved that mature democracies in the West and in the developing world have failed miserably.

For instance, democracy in the United States has failed to protect the lives and liberties of women, people of color, and other minorities. American society is deeply divided. The #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement depict a severe lack of human rights and democracy for many people in the US.

Racism, xenophobia, economic inequality, gun violence, and police brutality are long-standing characteristics of the world’s oldest democracy. American democracy primarily contributes to protecting the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the rich and protects the private property of the wealthy.

American Democracy, as defined by Abraham Lincoln, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has now been converted into “of the one percent, by the one percent and for the one percent” as depicted by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. The attack on Capitol Hill on January 6 was the internal outcome of the decline of American democracy.

The world’s oldest democracy (US), the mother of parliamentary democracy (the United Kingdom), the world’s largest functional democracy (India), and South America’s largest democracy (Brazil) all failed to protect their citizens from the pandemic.

None of the leaders of these democracies were held accountable for their failures. Instead, these leaders claim foreign threats to distract voters from their grave failures. And Biden wants to protect democratic values by way of partnerships and alliances with these very same irresponsible and unaccountable leaders.

Every student of political science and government reads in undergraduate textbooks that the most significant merit of a democracy is to be responsible and accountable to its citizens. It is the responsibility of a democratic state to protect its citizens’ life, liberty, and property. However, today’s democracies are neither accountable to the electorate nor accountable for their grave failures.

For example, the world-renowned health-science journal The Lancet published five articles on the coronavirus outbreak in mid-February 2020. It warned of its potential public health risks. However, the US, Brazil, India, France and the UK have some of the highest Covid-19 infection rates per million population. The highest Covid-related death tolls are found in these countries that Biden called “like-minded democracies.”

Do Biden’s democratic alliances and partnerships mean collaboration and partnership with the failed, the irresponsible, and the unaccountable? If, so then it looks like democracy has taken the form of an overly worn hat that has lost its shape.

If Biden’s “like-minded democratic partners” are India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison of Australia, while Biden himself is following in Trump’s footsteps on foreign policy, democracy is an alliance and partnership of irresponsible and unaccountable people. In such a case, democracy is entirely hollow and without foundation.

Looking at Biden’s “like-minded democracies” to counter the threat to democracy, for me, it seems the famous 1962 book In Defence of Politics by British political scientist Bernard Crick was written to foreshadow the present-day democratic alliance.

He wrote, “Democracy is perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs. She is everybody’s mistress and yet somehow retains her magic even when a lover sees that her favors are being, in his light, illicitly shared by many another. Indeed, even amid our pain at being denied her exclusive fidelity, we are proud of her adaptability to all sorts of circumstances, to all sorts of company.”

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at