Russia, China, and more: Biden promised to defeat authoritarianism.

Still rockin’ in the free world?

Blinken and another musician playing guitar on stage in a small club.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken performs “Rockin’ in the Free World” with members of The 1999 band at the Barman Dictat bar in Kyiv on May 14, 2024. Brendan Smialowski/Pool/AFP via Getty Images Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken strapped on a guitar and took the stage at a Kyiv rock club last week to sing Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” he didn’t amuse many of the Biden administration’s critics, who questioned whether the jam session was in good taste at a time when children are starving in Gaza and when Russian forces are making rapid gains in eastern Ukraine, partly due to the long delay in delivering US weapons to the front.

But the song’s eponymous chorus (Blinken skipped the far more caustic verses, which make it clear that Young was being ironic) is a good representation of how the Biden administration would like its foreign policy to be viewed, particularly when it comes to support for Ukraine. As Blinken told the crowd, Ukraine’s forces “are fighting not just for a free Ukraine but for the free world — and the free world is with you too.”

Almost from the beginning, President Joe Biden has defined his administration as locked in a struggle to push back against the global erosion of democracy and “win the 21st century” against authoritarian powers like China and Russia. He has often described this struggle as guiding not just America’s foreign policy but its domestic priorities, saying America must prove that democracy “still works” to deliver economic growth and prosperity. This type of rhetoric only intensified after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Biden has framed as a test of the democratic world’s resolve.

The democracy versus autocracy framing drew a stark contrast with Donald Trump, who as president took a narrowly transactional view of foreign policy, had chummy relationships with leaders like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and the Saudi royal family, and undermined democratic norms at home.

It also drew a more subtle contrast with Barack Obama, whose signature foreign policy achievements — the Iran nuclear deal, the diplomatic opening to Cuba, breakthrough climate change diplomacy with China — often involved doing business with some of the world’s most repressive governments.

“I believe that — every ounce of my being — that democracy will and must prevail,” Biden told the Munich Security Conference a few weeks after taking office.

Putting that belief into practice has been more difficult.

What’s the US actually doing in the world?

In practice, the Biden administration’s foreign policy has been more conventional than the rhetoric suggests: “Realpolitik from top to bottom,” as international relations scholar Paul Poast put it earlier this year. The goal has not so much been to defeat authoritarianism writ large as to compete with and contain particular authoritarian powers: China, Russia, and Iran.

Sometimes, as in US support for Ukraine’s war effort and military aid to Taiwan, this can fairly be described as standing up for a beleaguered democracy. Sometimes, as in the upgrading of relations between the US and Vietnam that came during Biden’s visit to the country last year, it’s hard to see it that way. Conveniently for the US, Vietnam — a major American trade partner — is increasingly wary about China’s territorial aims in the South China Sea, but the two countries have very similar political systems: single-party Communist regimes without national elections.


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When the US convened a virtual “summit of democracies” in 2021, a good portion of the coverage and commentary focused not on the meetings themselves, but on the guest list. For instance, Hungary, a country whose government was backsliding on democracy and the rule of law and becoming increasingly friendly to Russia, was excluded. Poland, a country whose government was (at the time) backsliding on democracy and the rule of law, but was staunchly anti-Russian, was not.

In 2022, the US hosted the Summit of the Americas — a periodic gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders — but excluded Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, all authoritarian governments subject to US sanctions. The administration’s principled pro-democracy stance was undercut somewhat by the fact that the White House was simultaneously planning a presidential trip to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, as they have from numerous previous administrations, evidently get a pass when it comes to Biden’s freedom agenda. The president famously promised on the campaign trail to make Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, a “pariah” over his role in the killing of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. In 2022, with the war in Ukraine putting pressure on global oil markets, Biden and “MBS” shared an awkward fist bump in Riyadh. More recently, the administration has been pushing an ambitious deal under which Saudi Arabia would formally recognize Israel in exchange for concessions from Israel on Palestinian statehood and formal security guarantees from the US. The US hasn’t agreed to a pact like this with any country since Japan in 1960.

Then there’s India, where nearly a billion voters are going to the polls this month, but where moves by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government to sideline its opponents and crack down on the media have raised questions about how much longer the “world’s largest democracy” will live up to that title. The administration has been conspicuously quiet about the democratic backsliding in a country it considers a vital bulwark against Chinese power. This soft touch has continued even in the face of compelling evidence of plans by India’s intelligence services to kill the government’s critics on US soil.

And finally, there’s Israel’s war on Gaza. The administration’s arguments that countries in the Global South should be doing more to back Ukraine and punish Russia in the name of the rules-based international order fall a little flat when the US continues to provide weapons to a country that even the State Department concludes is likely violating the laws of war.

This administration is hardly the first to fall short of its own rhetoric when it comes to democracy and human rights. And it’s not as if Trump would do more to advance democracy or human rights if elected instead — not when it comes to Israel, or Saudi Arabia, or any other country.

But the sweep and ambition of this president and his team’s rhetoric make it hard not to note the inconsistencies as they rock on in an increasingly unfree world.

This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.


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