The Manning/Burrows article on Biden’s “democracy agenda”: what they get wrong

A recent article by Robert Manning and Mathew Burrows, The Problem with Biden’s Democracy Agenda, criticizes Biden for his supposed focus on democracy promotion abroad over pressing issues at home. It seems to me to be quite wrong in many ways. (Not in all ways, but because the authors don’t need my approval there’s no point in me noting the parts that I don’t disagree with.)

The very first paragraph misstates the issue. Biden is quoted as saying that democracies are in a competition with autocracies. Fair enough; he did say that. But the authors counter this with an observation that Americans consider “promoting democracy abroad” a low-priority foreign policy issue. This is not relevant: the Biden quote does not suggest that promoting democracy abroad should be a high-priority issue. In context, it makes more sense to read him as speaking of strengthening existing democracies, not creating new ones.

The article states that “[d]ividing the world on the basis of ideology is ill-advised since democracies are not identical and uniting them is hardly as easy or predictable as many seem to think.” But treating liberal democracies differently is not dividing the world on the basis of ideology. It is dividing the world on the basis of governing institutions and processes. It is easy to come up, as the authors do, with a list of contentious issues among the U.S. and what the authors call “its closest allies.” But they don’t seem to notice themselves that they have slipped, from one sentence to the next, from despair over uniting democracies to speaking about a number of countries as America’s “closest allies”. Sounds pretty united to me. And even though there are democracies that are not properly characterized as close allies, one of the most robust findings in empirical political science remains true: liberal democracies do not go to war with each other. To have as a foundational principle of foreign policy the idea that this distinction matters does not seem terribly misguided.

Lord Palmerston is called forth in support of the proposition that national interests are “eternal and perpetual”; that “countries” calculate their interests “based on geography, economics, history, and culture as much as values.” I’m not sure where values come from if not history and culture, but in any case the idea of perpetual interests held by countries is conceptually and empirically wrong. It’s conceptually wrong because it treats countries as thinking, feeling black boxes. For the purposes of international relations, what “country” really means is “a ruling group of humans”. Those humans have interests, to be sure, but they can be replaced by other humans with other interests. They can even—although it’s unlikely—change their minds about their own interests. But don’t just take my word for it. Look at the real world. Eternal interests cannot explain why Japan and Germany were enemies of the U.S. before World War Two and allies after. It would also be impossible to explain the vastly different foreign policies of North and South Korea in terms of eternal interests based on the laundry list of factors supplied by Manning and Burrows. Let’s just drop the Palmerston nonsense once and for all. It sounds terrific, I’ll give Lord P. that, but it’s just wrong.

Next, the article greatly overstates the economic strength and significance of China and Russia.

We are told that China is “the most important driver of global economic growth”. Presumably (with apologies if not) this statement is based on the size of China’s economy and its growth rate. But China’s growth drives global growth in the same way that a person of above-average height drives the average height of a group of people. If that person were not around, the height of others in the group would be unaffected. By the same token, China’s growth is not causing growth in other countries. China runs a global trade surplus, and therefore does not contribute to net demand for the goods and services of other countries. Quite the contrary—its trade surplus means it reduces net demand for the goods and services of other countries. (To be clear, China could be causally contributing to growth in other countries by supplying low-cost inputs, for example, but it could be doing that with a shrinking economy as well; the contribution is not measured by China’s own growth. If that’s what the authors meant, then this critique does not apply.) Unlike some, I do not blame China for this or suggest that its trade surplus is a terrible thing. But let’s be clear on what it means.

Second, we are told that Russia has foreign currency reserves of $600 billion. So what? Currency reserves are not some kind of rainy-day savings under a national mattress. They are not an indicator of national wealth or economic health. As of January 2020, U.S. foreign currency reserves stood at $129 billion, way less than Russia’s. Yet in the same year, the federal government raised an estimated $3.7 trillion in taxes. Whose economy would you rather have?

Third, we hear once more about Chinese holdings of $1.1 trillion in U.S. bonds. This represents about 5% of total U.S. publicly held debt of about $22.3 trillion. Tell me again why this is a problem.

Fourth, most egregiously, we are told that “American companies invested $116 billion of direct investment in China in 2019 alone.” Here the authors have confused stocks and flows. This should have been clear from the chart they link to, but if not, it’s clear from the USTR web site. Total U.S. direct investment in China as of the end of 2019 was $116.2 billion; the amount of new investment in 2019 was not $116 billion, but rather $6.9 billion. By comparison, total U.S. direct investment (stock) as of the end of 2019 in the E.U. was $3.3 trillion, or 28 times the amount in China; in Canada alone, $402.3 billion, or about three and a half times the amount in China.

The authors’ obsession with Biden’s alleged obsession with democracy promotion leads to some strange logic. They write, “Biden’s decision to embrace the language of democracy promotion is particularly curious at a time when democracy is receding around the world, and has been for most of this century.” Consider the following sentence, identical in logical structure: “Biden’s decision to embrace vaccination is particularly curious at a time when Covid infection rates are rising around the country.” Huh? In any case, as noted earlier, it’s not clear that Biden is in fact embracing “democracy promotion” as opposed to “democracy strengthening,” and the latter is precisely what the authors call on him to do in the last paragraph.

The article tells Biden to cut out the “over the top” rhetoric and concludes by stating that “he should focus on getting America’s own house in order. Until then, less preaching and a little humility are called for.” Yet the article provides not a single example of Biden’s alleged preaching or over-the-top rhetoric, and even less plausible is the implied assertion that Biden is not in fact already focused on getting America’s house in order, and is instead spending too much time on foreign policy symbolism. My guess is his appointment calendar would tell a very different story.