Biden democracy club: Why Europe is hesitant to take on authoritarians

Since taking office, the Biden administration has tried to repair relations with democratic allies in Europe and muster a shared front against authoritarian states like Russia and China. Last month, President Joe Biden held a virtual summit of democracies that emphasized the promotion of democracy and democratic values. 

But polling indicates that many voters across Europe aren’t convinced that such alliances make sense for their countries. Some prefer to press trade and investment with dictatorial powers like China and Russia, while others sit on the fence between democracy promotion and economic interests.

Why We Wrote This

Some Europeans look askance at forming clubs of democracies to confront dictators. Their views show nuance to the U.S.-favored framing of democracies versus authoritarians.

This range of views reflects historical differences and cultural leanings, in addition as general skepticism about the U.S. role as a bastion of democracy amid political dysfunction in Washington and the possible for another Trump presidency.  

“The Europeans don’t like to think in terms of friend or foe, and what [Biden’s] summit of democracies is doing is more or less preparing a new Cold War between the democracies and authoritarianism,” says René Cuperus, a senior fellow at the Clingendael International Institute. “I don’t think that Europe wants to go into that frame. They are part of a multilateral family.”

Berlin

In the fight against the world’s authoritarians, U.S. President Joe Biden wants help from democratic allies. But not all those allies are fully on board with his vision.

A recent poll asked voters in 20 democracies to choose between forming alliances to stand up to countries like China and Russia and taking a softer line that protects mutual economic interests. The YouGov/Global Progress poll of more than 22,000 people then divided countries into three groups: pro-democracy hardliners, pro-engagement “soft-liners”, and a middle group dubbed “handwringers.” These handwringers include Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands, and their populations show clear fissures over how much weight to put on exporting democratic values.   

Respondents in France, Italy, and Spain expressed fewer doubts: Economic cooperation trumps democratic alliances, putting them in the “soft-liner” camp. By contrast, Sweden and the U.K. sided with the pro-democracy camp, along with the U.S. and Canada.

Why We Wrote This

Some Europeans look askance at forming clubs of democracies to confront dictators. Their views show nuance to the U.S.-favored framing of democracies versus authoritarians.

And while these views don’t necessarily preclude NATO allies standing firm against Russia in the current standoff in Ukraine, for example, it does point to ambivalence in Europe over President Biden’s democracies-versus-authoritarians framing.    

Behind this hesitancy is the narrative that the U.S. lost much of its shine as the world’s democratic beacon amid President Donald Trump’s tenure, capped by the Capitol riot debacle as his term came to an end. There are also rare historical ties between individual countries and Russia, and sustain for strong economic ties with China. More than that, Europe with its welter of languages, cultures and styles of governance doesn’t fall so neatly into “black and white thinking,” says René Cuperus, a political columnist and senior fellow at the Clingendael International Institute, a think tank in The Hague.

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