The Democrats’ Dictator Problem – The Atlantic

If there’s one narrative that has united the disparate Democratic candidates when it comes to foreign policy, it’s this: In contrast to the current American president, who makes common cause with autocrats, they will champion democratic forces around the world.

But during the party’s debate in South Carolina last night, that narrative fell apart. At a moment when a post-impeachment Donald Trump is acting in more authoritarian ways and celebrating his friendship with foreign leaders who share those tendencies, the Democrats’ attempts at moral clarity got muddled when the conversation turned to the trade-offs inherent in actually conducting American statecraft.

Things started on-message: “We need to know the difference between our friends and between dictators who would do us harm, and we need to be nicer to our friends than to dictators,” Elizabeth Warren declared, in remarks aimed squarely at Trump.

Soon enough, however, this clean dichotomy got messy. Asked about his comment last year that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is “not a dictator,” Michael Bloomberg signaled that he might be just as amorally transactional a president as his fellow businessman Trump. Bloomberg, who has not embraced the democracy-versus-authoritarian worldview that most of the other Democratic candidates have, offered the bizarre justification that while Xi “has an enormous amount of power,” he serves “at the behest of the Politburo.” That Politburo, in fact, has become an enabler of Xi’s bid to amass more power and engage in more repression than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Bloomberg conceded that China had an “abominable” human-rights record and no freedom of the press, but then suggested that he isn’t particularly concerned about all of that. “We should make a fuss [about these issues], which we have been doing, I suppose,” he said. Yet Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! this was not. Then Bloomberg got to the bottom line: “We have to deal with China” to “solve the climate crisis,” and “because our economies are inextricably linked.”

Yet the Biden campaign’s biggest idea so far to counter gathering illiberal forces is to convene a summit of the world’s democracies during his first year as president, a rather modest proposal to solve a mammoth problem. His comments during the debate also contained contradictions. Asked if he would engage in direct nuclear negotiations with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, the way Trump has, Biden asserted that “you don’t negotiate with a dictator, give him legitimacy without any notion whether he is going to do anything at all.” Kim, he declared, is a “thug.”

His solution? To negotiate with another man he’d just called a thug. “I would be speaking with Xi Jinping,” he explained, and urging him to pressure North Korea into curbing its nuclear-weapons program.

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