President Biden Walks a Diplomatic Tightrope in Balancing Ties with India and Saudi Arabia

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joe Biden
joe Biden

President Biden’s commitment to “defend democracy” faced a challenging test as he praised India and Saudi Arabia during United Nations meetings, highlighting the complex trade-offs in his foreign policy. While seeking closer relations with both nations to counter Russia and China, he navigates the realities of India’s democratic backslide and Saudi Arabia’s autocratic history.

Recent developments underscore the dilemma faced by the Biden administration. India faced allegations of orchestrating a political opponent’s assassination on Canadian soil, straining relations with the U.S., a close ally. Meanwhile, negotiations for a new defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, despite its history of extraterritorial killings, have raised eyebrows.

Though President Biden didn’t directly address these issues, his administration’s response to Canada’s accusations against India displayed careful diplomacy. John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, expressed deep concern and urged justice while emphasizing the importance of U.S.-India relations. The administration stated that targeting dissidents abroad was unacceptable.

However, these events have sparked debates about the U.S.’s approach to democracy and diplomacy. While President Biden has pledged to prioritize democracy, his recent actions suggest a shift towards building strategic alliances, often overlooking human rights concerns. This shift includes visits to countries like India, Vietnam, and Bahrain, as well as approving military aid to Egypt, previously frozen over human rights issues.

Sarah Margon, an advocate for democracy and human rights, noted that while democracy is discussed, it often takes a backseat to geopolitical concerns when crucial decisions are made.

President Biden initially framed the global struggle as “democracy vs. autocracy,” but recent statements have moved away from this rhetoric. During his recent UN address, he avoided the phrase and focused on issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom from foreign domination. He only referenced democracy when condemning coups in Africa.

Even within his administration, advisers have deemed the democracy-versus-autocracy dichotomy too simplistic. They argue that building alliances against larger autocratic powers like Russia and China necessitates cooperation with potential autocratic allies like India and Saudi Arabia.

President Biden Walks a Diplomatic Tightrope in Balancing Ties with India and Saudi Arabia
(Photo by Kenny HOLSTON / POOL / AFP) (Photo by KENNY HOLSTON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent controversy surrounding India, where a government accused of orchestrating an assassination was called out by Canada, echoes the Jamal Khashoggi case. In both instances, governments considered American allies were implicated in the murder of critics on foreign soil.

India, unlike Saudi Arabia and Russia, is a long-standing democracy with a diverse political landscape. However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, freedom has eroded, with increased pressure on the media, legal threats to opposition figures, and attacks on religious minorities.

The negotiation of a potential mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia mirrors efforts to reshape the U.S.-Saudi relationship. President Biden aims to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the need for a stronger security commitment from Washington.

While this contradicts his 2020 campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the Khashoggi murder, President Biden’s strategic focus on countering Russia and China is driving these decisions. It appears that the president believes he must engage with some autocratic nations to combat more significant autocratic threats.

The absence of key voices supporting democratic reform in the administration is evident. President Biden still lacks a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state for democracy promotion, while the position of White House coordinator for democracy and human rights remains vacant. This leaves diplomacy with countries like Saudi Arabia and India largely devoid of democratic advocacy.

Critics argue that committing to a legally binding defense agreement with Saudi Arabia, a nation led by an unaccountable royal family, undermines the U.S.’s moral authority and aligns it with authoritarian powers. They cite Saudi Arabia’s economic cooperation with Russia, suppression of democracy in the Arab world, and attempts to influence American politics as concerns.

Despite these challenges, President Biden and his advisers maintain their commitment to democracy and human rights in their interactions with partner countries. They assert that these issues are consistently raised, even in diplomatic engagements with nations where strategic alliances are sought.

In navigating the complexities of foreign policy, President Biden faces ongoing scrutiny over the balance between democratic values and geopolitical interests. The evolving nature of his approach reflects the challenges of maintaining strong partnerships while upholding democratic principles on the global stage.

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