Despite noble intentions, the Biden administration’s Democracy Summit will face tough questions, including why the United States actively supports many authoritarian regimes while imposing sanctions on others, writes Ryan Costello.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan in Bari, Italy [Getty Images]
The Biden administration’s upcoming Democracy Summit sets out a lofty goal: to bring democratic governments together to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights.
After President Trump has spent four years openly wooing authoritarians and undermining America’s democratic institutions – culminating in a riot aimed at the peaceful transfer of power – President Biden clearly hopes the summit can restore American leadership and begin to overthrow the trend towards illiberal and oligarchic authoritarianism that has spread around the world and has its roots in the Republican Party.
However, to be a meaningful exercise rather than a self-congratulatory exercise, the Biden administration – and the broader foreign policy establishment – will need to ask tough questions. Topping the list should be why the United States actively supports so many authoritarian governments while imposing crushing sanctions on most others.
Like Matthew Hoh of the Center for International Policy underline, the United States militarily supports 74 percent of the undemocratic nations of the world. Most other non-democratic countries are subject to punitive sanctions. This combination is indeed a double blow for civil society, human rights and democratic movements.
“To be a meaningful exercise rather than self-congratulation, the Biden administration – and the broader foreign policy establishment – will ask tough questions.”
For the most part, it stands to reason that supporting dictators like the Saudi monarchy or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt with guns and money is the antithesis of supporting democracy. But far fewer recognize that sanctions also help entrench authoritarian governance and fuel corruption, increasing state power at the expense of civil society.
The academic literature on the impact of comprehensive sanctions is quite clear. Authoritarian governments generally do not fold in the face of economic coercion, and in many cases their grip on power is consolidated.
As academics Dursen Peksen and Cooper Drury have written, authoritarian governments targeted by sanctions “can intervene in the marketplace to control the flow of goods and services made scarce by foreign economic pressure,” allowing leaders to “redirect wealth towards its ruling coalition and away from its opponents to minimize the cost of sanctions on its ability to govern.
Likewise, while democratization is a complex phenomenon, a strong middle class and economic prosperity have generally been the main drivers of successful democratic movements. However, the middle class in sanctioned societies is often the most affected by large-scale sanctions. As the economic pain increases, organizers are forced to do more work to meet people’s basic needs like food and health care.
Iran has been a clear example of the negative impacts of sanctions on civil society. Despite widespread disaffection with the government, the return of crushing sanctions has spread misery while strengthening Iran’s most illiberal and anti-democratic forces.
According to Djavad Salehi-Esfahani, between 2011, when financial sanctions were significantly stepped up by the Obama administration and the end of 2020, more than 8 million Iranians went from the middle class to the lower middle class while 4 million more fell into poverty.
Likewise, the hyperinflation brought on by the sanctions drastically increased the cost of living, with 40% of Iranians struggling to eat enough. As Azadeh Moaveni and Sussan Tahmasebi warned earlier this year, “middle-class women have seen their lives and hopes dashed by the Trump administration’s sanctions,” with the net result that the “wife of the middle class ”in Iran is an endangered category. . ”
As the crushing sanctions have dealt a painful blow to civil society, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has taken on a greater role in smuggling and circumventing sanctions. Thus, a repressive and hard-line dominated institution won at the expense of ordinary citizens.
While the Iranian people are furious with their plight, conservatives and extremists have tightened their control over all national government institutions with little checks and balances.
Rather than perpetuating a status quo that spreads misery and reinforces authoritarianism, Washington could instead support civil society by relaxing sweeping sanctions regimes like those imposed against Iran.
In Iran’s case, this would mitigate inflationary impacts on the Iranian economy, allowing more Iranians to put food on the table and join the middle class. This, in turn, would allow many more Iranians to focus on organizing around political demands rather than basic survival.
America’s approach to the world should not oscillate between blind support for some authoritarian governments and relentless sanctions on others. The United States should be able to engage both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the theocracy in Iran – as well as other governments – to hold them accountable and seek to affect their behavior without undermining civil society or them. liberal values.
“Even honest conversation risks failing to understand how US foreign policy has supported, rather than undermined, authoritarian governance around the world.”
As the Democracy Summit approaches, serious personal reflection is needed. Not only is the United States at serious risk of democratic retreat from internal threats, it must also carefully balance competition with coordination to deal with some of the greatest threats of our time, such as climate change.
However, even an honest conversation risks failing to understand how US foreign policy has supported, rather than undermined, authoritarian governance around the world. Accordingly, the deleterious impact of US sanctions and military assistance must be on the table.
Ryan Costello joined NIAC in April 2013 as a Research Fellow and currently serves as Director of Policy.
Follow him on Twitter: @RyeCostello
This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.
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