The Free World was once the term most frequently used to refer to the Western camp in discussions of international relations and the world order. It was contrasted with other parts of the world variously described as “unfree”, “totalitarian”, “despotic” and “autocratic”.
The latter fell under the general heading of the Eastern camp, run by communist parties under the iron grip of dictators such as Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Tse Tung in China. The difference between the two camps was vast. Freedom characterised the political, economic, social and cultural structures on one side while, in the comparable structures on the other side, that quality was lacking.
When George Orwell wrote Animal Farm and 1984, he faithfully described life in the other camp. But the world has come a long way since the 1940s and 1950s. By the turn of this century, the Soviet Union had not only collapsed, it had brought down with it the Warsaw Pact. More remarkably, China is now at the forefront of a pure and virtually unrestricted form of capitalism. Dictatorship is no longer as absolute as was once thought.
It has been infiltrated and reduced to the minimum as a result of the information revolution that is impossible to contain, the transport and communications revolutions that make it possible to transmit and present diverse cultural expressions and sports around the world 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, freedom and democracy have revealed severe flaws, such as how differences of opinion can precipitate acute sociopolitical polarisation undermining the unity of the state, and how populism can engender religious and ideological fascism. We now know that prosperity is not exclusive to the Free World, too. The planet has grown so complex and interrelated that “technocracy” has spread to all countries, east and west.
Yet, when US President Joe Biden set off to Europe to revive the “alliance of democracies”, he behaved as though nothing in the world had changed. His first stop was the UK, the US’s ally in two world wars and then its exceptionally close security partner in a Free World that sprang, essentially, from an Anglo Saxon core also including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
These countries share special relations characterised by extremely close meetings, especially between their intelligence agencies. Biden’s meetings with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II were intended to restore transatlantic relations to their condition prior to the Trump hurricane pitting Britain’s ancient aristocracy against America’s vulgar demagogic populism. Biden hopes to set things right again, so that the US can lead the democratic world to the alliance he envisions, thereby bolstering the recovery drive in the Covid-19 pandemic, after which they can all go back to the good old days of building a solid wall against China’s economic power, Russia’s political and military power and both these countries’ cyber power.
Biden is lucky in that his predecessors developed institutions for the Western alliance. At their base stands the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and on top sits NATO, the military shield of the democratic group. After that comes the EU and, on top of that and very near the pinnacle, comes the G7. Members of this group - the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada - represent 57 per cent of the estimated $317 trillion worth of wealth in the world and 46 per cent of the global GDP.
As he moved among these institutions, Biden’s central message was “America’s back” to resume its leadership role and recommit to its alliances. The US would no longer turn its back on Germany and it would certainly not withdraw from NATO, as Trump had repeatedly threatened to do. All these institutions and their member countries would once again raise the democratic flag they shared. But if that flag was still popular and strong at the turn of this century, in the past two decades the tides have turned to the opposite shore.
Still, Biden’s purpose is not just to reaffirm an ideology or a system of government. He is also trying to reorder the balance of power in the world. He understands that, in a tri-polar world, he will eventually have to sit down with Putin and Xi and work out some kind of accommodation. Whatever the deal they reach, it will be founded on considerable common ground and ultimately reflect the balance of power as it stands. Biden’s problem is that the world is no longer what it used to be. Above all, his “democratic” camp is riddled with major big cracks that cannot be ignored.
Germany is not just about to lose Angela Merkel. The problem there, and in France, goes much deeper than that. The political pendulum has stopped hovering between left and right and has veered dangerously towards a new kind of right, one that has a very tenuous relationship with democracy. Biden is aware that the US he left behind as he set off for Europe is unable to unite around an infrastructural project everyone wants but for different reasons, depending on whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.
The gulf between the two sides is so deep it extends to electoral laws. To the Republicans, if the Democrats win the results are fake; to the Democrats, if the Republicans prevail then it is because of racist restrictions to the right to vote. Democrats are exploring some radical solutions that are also divisive, such as outlawing the filibuster and increasing the number of Supreme Court seats. Such ideas have the US political elite worried, especially with Trump over there on the fringe, working to set it all aflame again, if not in the Congressional midterms then in the presidential elections in 2024. Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Britain’s exit from the EU deprives London of the chance to lead Europe. But the EU is simultaneously deprived of Britain’s wisdom and prudence in managing world affairs.
Biden has the experience and expertise to grasp those problems. However, as a politician, he knows he needs the image of historic alliances for his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom he has called a criminal and a killer. The turn will eventually come for Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping, an occasion that will underline not just the rivalry and differences between the two sides but also their considerable dependence on each other. In the case of both Russia and China, the US has issues of mutual concern that need to be worked out, from climate change and arms reduction to establishing rules to regulate cyber behaviour and prevent interference in each other’s domestic affairs. In such matters, the balance of power will have to say.
When it is still in favour of the Democrats it works to entice and deter. At a time of partial withdrawal from the world - from Afghanistan and the Middle East in general - the US needs to mobilise every alliance it can get. Raising the “democratic” banner has the ability to generate a certain appeal in the international community and it might give enough of a boost to centrist and centre-left forces to help them flourish. There is still time for this, both in the US and abroad. Biden has only just begun his first term and he is already looking forward to his second, which would take us to 2029.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly