Shortly after becoming president, Joe Biden promised a course-correction in US foreign policy that would “better unite our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership”.
It was part of an effort to draw a line under the Trump era, which downgraded Washington’s global role, its support for human rights and co-ordination with democratic allies. Where Donald Trump’s “America First” policy included unprecedented outreach to autocratic leaders, Biden signalled he would re-establish US moral leadership in defence of democracies worldwide.
Biden’s commitment to put democratic values at the core of US foreign policy has been called into question following Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s norm-busting seizure of a commercial flight carrying an opposition activist.
Late on Friday, the US took action to punish Minsk for the brazen move, saying it was joining the EU in developing a broader list of measures against the Lukashenko regime and planning new sanctions of its own.
But critics say the White House’s response to one of the most startling violations of human rights of Biden’s tenure was tardy and hesitant — coming several days after the quick move from Brussels — and the injury was compounded by agreeing a high-profile summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“In the Soviet and of course the Russian tradition, a summit with the US president pretty much trumps everything else,” said Leon Aron, Russia director at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, arguing that the meeting would give Putin international validation just as his struggles have mounted at home.
A senior administration official acknowledged the White House had been forced to balance its push to reassert democratic principles worldwide with more pragmatic considerations, meaning Biden’s human rights record was thus far “not perfect”.
“Of course there are sometimes trade-offs in terms of national imperative that we work through for this administration,” the official told the Financial Times.
But the official took issue with assertions that Belarus was part of a larger trend to back away from promoting democratic principles abroad. In China, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and elsewhere, the administration has taken principled stands on human rights, the official insisted.
Especially after Lukashenko’s power play, the Biden-Putin summit will be watched even more closely for signs that the US president will maintain his commitment to pressing democratic values.
Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said it would be a “huge disappointment” if Biden did not use the meeting to send a strong human rights message, particularly given Russia’s renewed sabre-rattling over Ukraine and its treatment of pro-democracy opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who remains in prison following allegations Russian intelligence attempted to kill him.
Despite those actions, and as well as allowing Europeans to take the lead in the punishment of Belarus for the intercepted aircraft, the Biden administration also waived key sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a Russian gas pipeline project favoured by Putin, to avoid angering Germany.
Aron said agreeing to a summit with Putin following his flouting of human rights at home and abroad was a significant policy error, particularly at a time when the Russian president is battling sagging popularity, low economic growth and domestic protests over Navalny’s treatment. “For them, a meeting is proof they are respected and feared,” he said.
The senior administration official said Biden would hold “tough” conversations on human rights and democracy with Putin and did not view the meeting as a concession. But the official acknowledged the event could fall hostage to Russian “spin”.
“Of course he’s going to use it for what he can get out of it in terms of domestic validation,” the official said of Putin.
Efforts to push a more principled approach towards Russia have run into the practical reality that Washington needs the Kremlin for a number of security priorities, including US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, strategic arms control, resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal and climate policy.
Andrew Weiss, a former Russia director on the National Security Council, said previous administrations have run into similar constraints. In 2014, the Obama administration tried cutting off high-level contacts with Moscow after Russia invaded Ukraine, but the policy “started to fall apart” once the crisis in Syria — in which Russia has gone on to play an outsize role in support of President Bashar al-Assad — required bilateral engagement the following year.
“The Biden administration has decided that it needs a direct line into the Kremlin,” Weiss said, adding that sanctions actions against Belarus risked being ineffectual and pushing the regime closer to Moscow.
Rhetorically, Biden has also taken a tougher line than either Barack Obama or Trump did early in their presidencies, telling an interviewer that he viewed Putin as a “killer”, which prompted the return of both US and Russian ambassadors. Biden met Putin in 2011 as vice-president; he later recalled telling him he had no soul.
Still, critics argue the Belarus response is part of a pattern, which includes Biden’s failure to impose sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the publication of a US intelligence assessment that he approved an operation that led to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Perhaps the most disappointing part of these incidents is the notion that promoting human rights isn’t always in the US interest,” said Prasow, adding that Biden’s failure to restrain Israel in its attacks on Gaza this month showed human rights seemed to have “fallen by the wayside in favour of other so-called perceived US interests”.
Biden came into office with a strong record on human rights and democracy promotion, sometimes quarrelling with more “realist” officials in the Obama White House when he was vice-president.
But Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser who also worked in the Obama administration, told the FT recently that Biden always viewed US foreign policy as being driven by “enlightened self-interest”, with “naked” self-interest in service of America’s middle class working alongside the pursuit of larger common interests.
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