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Society & Culture

The Biden Paradox

Dec 17, 2020
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announced that he wants to restore the country’s moral leadership on the world stage by setting an example of Western values at home. This brings up a problem both in the United States and the wider Western world: the paradox of Western values. This paradox manifests both internally and externally.

Internally, the paradox is the inevitable product of the crisis of capitalism. The achievements that capitalism has made are the material basis for the intrinsic appeal of Western values and to a certain extent provides “legitimacy” and “rationality” for their expansion abroad. However, the frequent cyclical crises of capitalism, especially those rooted deep in the system, have led to an acute crisis of faith in those values. 

Admittedly, capitalism has undergone internal adjustments and improvements in the course of its development, and some of its policies and practices have achieved impressive success. However, the challenges it faces have undeniably become more complex. In the 21st century, the Western world led by the United States has experienced financial, social, political and even institutional crises. It is fair to say that a systemic crisis of capitalism has taken place.

The coronavirus pandemic has further worsened the systemic crisis, leading to a widening wealth gap, social injustice, solidification of class lines and other problems. When it comes to their pandemic response, many Western governments have failed to deliver, leading to widespread lies, rumors and anti-intellectualism. The end result is the loss of countless lives and a fundamental questioning over and reflection on mainstream Western values such as liberalism, democratic politics and good governance.

The top priority of the public during the period of isolation is to think about what kind of world we want to live in, renowned linguistic psychologist Noam Chomsky said in an interview, adding that the neoliberal plague is in fact the root cause of all social problems.

The multiparty system is the hallmark of Western democracies and the yardstick by which they measure democratic institutions. However, the system does not guarantee the efficiency of governance or strengthen the capacity for governance. Ironically, it can be used as a tool and excuse for factional fighting, finger-pointing, and blame shifting.

For example, in the United States, the system has been transformed into a battleground of identity politics, power politics and “veto politics.” The two major political parties engage in political name-calling and mud-slinging, rather than putting aside their differences and coalescing around a common purpose. At the same time, they compete for power rather than focus on improving their governance capacity.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there are no notable signs that political rivalry has been reduced. In fact, it has grown more intense in the presidential election year. That is a major reason for the ineffective pandemic control in the country. It is with great regret that we see partisan interests being placed before the public interest in the United States.

In the face of this harsh reality, U.S. citizens are considering whether their country is on the right track. According to domestic opinion polls conducted between Aug. 23 and Sept.1, 65.8 percent of respondents said the country is generally headed in the wrong direction, compared with 28.2 percent who think otherwise. Obviously, the public in the United States and the entire Western world have raised doubts about the various contradictions and conflicts that arise in their value system.

Externally, the paradox is equally glaring. It stems primarily from the alarming consequences of the expansion of Western values. Take U.S. democracy as an example. It is accused of living by a double standard, failing to practice what it preaches. The U.S. depicts its democratic institutions as glamorous and attractive and portrays itself as a defender of democracy. But at the policy level, it focuses on nothing but practical results and takes actions that serve its interests alone.

For example, the countries in which the U.S. promotes democratic values are carefully selected. It has little interest in relatively insignificant regions while doing everything possible to spread its values in strategically crucial countries — even resorting to force to achieve regime change. Democracy needs to be promoted, but in a way that serves the interests of American capital, said Samuel Huntington, an American political scientist.

Western countries take the promotion of democratic values as a necessity to achieve world peace and prosperity. However, many facts prove the opposite. The regions to which Western democracy is exported often suffer from political instability, economic depression and frequent humanitarian disasters, such as Iraq and Libya. As a result, the promotion of democracy by Western countries has been met with considerable doubt and stubborn resistance.

Colin Kahl, Biden’s former national security adviser and now a professor at Stanford University, admits that one of the three important changes taking place in the world today is that “democracy is on its back foot around the world.” In addition, the chosen theme of the Munich Security Conference 2020 was “Westlessness.”  According to the Munich Security Report 2020, the world is moving away from the Western values of liberalism, democracy, freedom, the rule of law and universal human rights. So are Western countries. Therefore, the West itself may become less Western.

Biden’s administration may try to address this central issue faced by the United States and the entire Western world, but it is not easy to find the right solution and ensure its implementation in a sustainable and effective manner.

Then, the administration may place domestic affairs high on its agenda, and take the reshaping of Western values and rediscovery of the Western world as a priority in foreign affairs. Yet it remains to be seen whether the new administration will act this way. 

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