Much Ado (and to Do) About Illiberalism

America  has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” This Henry Kissinger quote is a perennial favorite of American realists, informing decades of American grand strategy. In recent years, from threatening to withdraw from NATO to praising Kim Jung-Un in search of a blockbuster nuclear deal, the Trump Administration ruthlessly implemented this adage, with the effect of alienating America’s traditional allies throughout the world. As the Biden Administration gets underway, many commentators see repairing the American alliance network as the 46th President’s biggest foreign policy challenge.

In response to the steady recession of democracy worldwide and the decay of American alliances, President Biden promised a “Summit for Democracy” to “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” This agenda will have a long list of objectives: preventing a conflict with China over territorial disputes in the “Three Seas” (East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait), solidifying slow progress and preventing more state failure in the Middle East, and rolling back Russian meddling in former Soviet satellites and European affairs in general. [1]Some, including AHS’s Elbridge Colby and Robert Kaplan, have criticized the idea of building democracy-based alliances as a distraction that will prevent forging a broad coalition against China based upon common interests instead of common values. [2]

At first glance, this dilemma presents a classic trade-off between quality and quantity. However, the decisions to be made are not a simple country-by-country “yes vs no” choice on whether to pursue an alliance or not, but rather, the task before the Biden Administration is choosing which partnerships get prioritized before others. As liberal institutions are questioned at home and democracy steadily decays abroad, the long-term health of liberalism must take priority over short-term, fleeting efforts to gain a tactical advantage over an adversary. [3], [4] Increasing America’s wealth and power is not an end in itself; wealth and power are necessary inputs to securing the greater end of sustaining American self-government and economic prosperity while inching toward the triumph of liberty around the world. The United States is not the only state in the world that desires this outcome, so the United States must recommit to its liberal allies while also confronting the scourge of illiberalism that is festering within American partnerships.

The Strategic Logic of Democratic Allies

Pursuing a more democracy-friendly world does more than placate activists with warm and fuzzy feelings. Democratic alliances are strategically safer and more beneficial than partnerships of convenience with regimes that do not share our values. Democratic allies are the most well positioned to avoid wars, win them if necessary, and promote a just and prosperous peace.

Perhaps no relationship better exemplifies a successful democratic alliance than the British-American special relationship. As Kori Schake details in Safe Passage, the steady democratization of Britain allowed the United States to move on from George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements. “Democratic Britain suggested states similarly constituted could have enduring similarity of interests.” [5] The Anglo-American alliance became the center of a broad coalition of like-minded states as “other states were becoming like America and Britain.” [6] Furthermore, “the expansion of representative government throughout the world has facilitated American power.” [7] This coalition has served as an influence multiplier for the United States for decades. What began as a unique and enduring partnership with the United States and Britain has become a raison d’être for the coalition of the “free world” to tackle issues that range from climate change to terrorism to freedom of the seas.

Democracies are more likely to share the same interests over a long period of time. The American alliance with Great Britain persisted beyond World War II, while the Soviet Union quickly became an adversary. In addition, Japan and Germany, despite fighting the allies to the bitter end, quickly became robust economic partners along with vital hosts to our forward-deployed forces. The democratization of both countries led directly to a close alignment between their interests and ours. Even if realists would rather dismiss it, Democratic Peace Theory – the idea that democracies are unlikely to go to war against each other – has been an influence on American Grand Strategy since the end of WWII which, despite its flaws, has been an era of unmatched peace and prosperity throughout the world, but especially among the United States and its network of allies. Democratic Peace Theory is also useful for American grand strategy because democratic countries not only will not fight the United States, but more importantly, they make more reliable and enduring allies. No two countries – democratic or not – will share common interests 100 percent of the time, but common values in a relationship are a type of glue that allows an alliance to bend without breaking. Because they lack the common values to withstand disputes and crises, authoritarian partners are more likely to abandon the United States in a time of need than well-established democratic allies.

A values-based strategy is equally critical for its domestic purposes as it is for these international purposes. Colby recently criticized the Biden Administration’s focus on democracy and human rights and concludes that the United States is better off “focusing on what matters” and “working with whoever would help achieve U.S. goals.” [8] Colby argues that Americans should refocus on geopolitical interests in the Asia-Pacific and avoid “vainly expending [resources] in a global ideological struggle.” 

However, Colby acknowledges that American values serve a practical and not merely ideological purpose. With Kaplan he wrote, “Standing for these values will draw others around the world to the U.S. banner, help demonstrate the dangers of bowing to Beijing, and provide a motivating force to collective efforts.” [9] One of these most critical resources will be public support for a long-term strategy, especially if strategic competition with China will persist for decades. Like states in the international system, Americans have disparate interests; shocks to the economy created by a conflict in the Pacific may harm workers who depend on trans-Pacific trade, but it also might benefit American companies that compete with Asian corporations. A commitment to basic values will generate more enduring support than any lectures about supply chains and stock markets. 

Hal Brands and Zack Cooper write that our greatest competitive advantage is “the moral asymmetry between an unelected one-party regime and its democratic rivals.” [10] In the wake of COVID-19 and brutal crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, recent Pew polling shows that views of China have become more negative in every major democracy in both the West and the Pacific. [11] It would be strategic negligence to fail to leverage this public sentiment to recruit citizens into public service and pressure Congress to support the Executive Branch in working with allies and countering authoritarian powers.

Partnering with illiberal states was not an invention of the Trump Administration, although this administration explicitly de-emphasized the importance of human rights in American foreign policy. [12] Commentators frequently point to the Cold War practice of backing repressive regimes as long as they opposed communism and the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick defended this approach in her 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” [13] Kirkpatrick creates a dichotomy between “traditional autocracies” backed by the United States and the “revolutionary autocracies” backed by the Soviet Union and argues that the former is the lesser of two evils. She contends that these traditional authoritarians:

…do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations…[whereas] revolutionary Communist regimes…create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands.

Kirkpatrick also contends that these traditional autocracies are also more susceptible to liberalization than the more hardline revolutionary ones. These ideas informed and justified a broad set of policies that bolstered brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, and Ferdinand Marcos.

However, today’s geopolitical environment has turned the Kirkpatrick Doctrine on its head. While China has retained its repressive political system, it has rapidly enriched itself through market-based reforms. The social contract of the People’s Republic of China trades a rising standard of living for the acceptance of the absolute authority of the Chinese Communist Party. The wealth and size of China translated into wide-reaching influence and power that can set new norms in multilateral organizations and reorient the regional order of Asia to benefit Chinese interests.

Illiberalism and the Ties That Bind

American alliances stretch toward almost every corner of the world and vary in their nature and purpose. In Europe, America’s alliances come in the form of multilateral institutions, while in the Asia-Pacific, the hub-and-spoke model translates into more bilateral partnerships. However, as illiberal leaders continue to rise throughout the American alliance network, emerging ideological faults can be exploited by our adversaries to encourage illiberal allies to abandon or undermine the United States.

While preserving democracy was not the initial mission of NATO, it became a more central consideration after the Soviet threat dissipated. At the beginning, the justification for NATO was partly for fear of democratic instability. NATO historian Timothy Andrews Sayle argues in his book Enduring Alliance that, “the Allies did not maintain NATO because it was an alliance of democracies, but because it offered the best insurance against the dangers of democracy – a fickle electorate that, in seeking peace, might pave the way for war.” [14] When he became the first supreme Allied commander of NATO, General Dwight Eisenhower remarked that, “in all of history, this is the first time that an allied headquarters has been set up in peace, to preserve the peace and not to wage war.” [15] In 1996, President Bill Clinton heavily invoked democracy in a speech he gave justifying NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe: “I came to office convinced that NATO can do for Europe’s East what it did for Europe’s West: prevent a return to local rivalries, strengthen democracy against future threats, and create the conditions for prosperity to flourish.” [16] Today, the shared liberal values serve as the glue that affirms that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” [17]

Today, this democratic nature of NATO is being challenged by backsliding in two member-states: Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary – which joined NATO in 1999 – the strongman rule of Viktor Orban has led to the closure of multiple independent media outlets, the relocation of the Central European University to Austria due to its ties to the philanthropist George Soros, and the development of deeper ties with China, including the enlistment of Huawei to build out its 5G network. [18], [19] Even more problematic has been the consolidation of power underway in Turkey, which joined NATO early in 1952 and has been instrumental to projecting power into Russia and the Middle East due to its geostrategic location. After a failed 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Erdogan, the government has dismissed from their jobs via decree or imprisoned over 150,000 individuals including lawyers, activists, journalists, and academics and demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric. [20], [21] Turkey has also purchased S-400 missiles from Russia which led to the American government cancelling Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.

These trends in Hungary and Turkey present a threat of both abandonment and entrapment. Closer relations with China and Russia could lead these two deviant members to undermine collective efforts to push back against Russian and Chinese subversion campaigns. Although some advocate that NATO is a strictly military organization and domestic politics should be irrelevant, the ideological degradation of these partnerships will eventually spill-over into the military relationship. For example, Hungary’s adoption of Chinese surveillance technology would hinder intelligence sharing, fundamental to the routine operations of NATO. In Turkey’s case, a long-running conflict with the Kurds has led to concerns among Western leaders that Ankara will invoke Article 5, and in the future, this ethnic conflict could distract NATO from more pressing problems like the revisionism of Russia and China. [22] NATO is an eclectic mix of various languages, cultures, and histories; without a common set of values to bind members together, the alliance’s integrity of purpose could be greatly diminished.

With the exception of Turkey, America’s partnerships in the Middle East lack the backing of a Senate-ratified treaty. Instead, U.S. commitments to its Middle Eastern partners are underwritten by large sums of security aid. Israel – heralded as America’s only democratic partner in the region – receives $3.3 billion annually in security assistance and Israel’s former adversary, Egypt, receives $1.3 billion every year. [23] Overall, the federal government devotes over half of all its military aid to the Middle East and North Africa. [24]

As America’s most important and sole democratic ally in the Middle East, Israel and its future as both a strong and democratic nation is a critical interest for the United States. The political chaos of four elections in the last two years – even if the new “change” government led by new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett might have turned the corner – has caused many to evaluate potential reforms to Israel’s democratic institutions. Others, including many Israelis, believe the possible Israeli political annexation of large areas of the West Bank that include major Palestinian population centers could leave Israel with an unpalatable choice between its Jewish and democratic identities. It is a welcome thing that the possible annexation promised by the previous government and put on ice by the Abraham Accords will also not be the policy of the new government. It is in the American interest that the Israeli polity does not face such a choice. It is critical to hold partners to the same standards as adversaries, even if it introduces some tumult into a bilateral relationship.

While it receives relatively little security aid, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is perhaps one of the region’s most important American partners and a linchpin in American efforts to curtail Iranian influence. The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi had the potential to be a turning point in the Saudi-U.S. relationship but was largely glossed over by the Trump Administration. In order to attract foreign investment and diversify the economy, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has sought out the “Singaporean Model” and attempted to soften the Kingdom’s global reputation by pursuing cosmetic reforms such as allowing women to drive. [26] As U.S. oil dependence decreases, Saudi Arabia will be more poised to seek out relations with more like-minded powers like China and Russia and accommodate their interests in the region. Despite decades of cooperation, the United States could face the risk of abandonment by the Saudi regime as strategic and ideological competition heats up.

Defenders of American partnerships with the Saudi and Egyptian regimes contend that combatting terrorism and checking Iranian influence must outweigh any quixotic effort to democratize these Middle Eastern regimes, but leaving these regimes as they are undermines these objectives. Even if we keep our values to ourselves, the Saudis likely will not. Saudi Arabia spreads its wealth and Wahhabi doctrine to Muslim communities across the world. Qurans and Islamic theology textbooks with hardline interpretations have been donated by Saudi Arabia to other Muslim communities overseas, including in the United States. [27] The doctrine of the Islamic State can be traced back to Wahhabi ideas that propagate from the Kingdom. [28] The recent history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East should caution policymakers against the cultivation of extremist groups as a means of countering Iran; today’s freedom fighters can easily become tomorrow’s terrorists.

Democracy promotion through American alliances has perhaps had the most success in Asia. The American-led reconstruction of Japan turned the former empire into one of the wealthiest democracies in the world. Likewise, under American security commitments, Taiwan and South Korea transformed from poor military dictatorships into republics with highly industrialized economies. However, other American partners in the region have been more hesitant to fully sign onto a U.S.-led coalition against China.

The Reagan Administration saw the end of the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, and the emergence of a democracy. However, more recently, the Philippines has been a particularly difficult ally for the United States to placate. Despite maintaining a Senate-ratified treaty with the United States, in the past year, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has announced the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), subsequently reversed that decision, and then threatened to cancel it again if the United States did not supply the Philippines with COVID-19 vaccines. [29], [30], [31], [32] Duterte has also drawn the scrutiny of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible crimes against humanity connected to his ruthless “war on drugs” that has killed almost 6,000 people. [33] Chinese state media has cheered on this campaign as Duterte attempts to balance between these two powers. [34] The Filipino president’s strongman tendencies are pushing the former American colony closer into an authoritarian-friendly and China-led regional order.

Finally, the world’s most populous democracy has the potential to be a major bulwark against China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. India’s relations with the United States have warmed as their relations with China have deteriorated; throughout 2020, India and China had an off-and-on border skirmish in the Himalayas. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for aggressive measures at home. The Indian government revoked the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and subsequently restricted freedom of movement and internet access; rendered approximately two million members of the Bengali ethnic minority stateless, including both Muslims and Hindus; and implemented the “Citizenship Amendment Law” which fast-tracked the citizenship process for non-Muslims refugees. [35]

India’s Hindu nationalism could obstruct consensus within “The Quad”- the bloc of Australia, Japan, United States, and India – if India were to demand that the three other members aid its “counter-terrorism efforts” in exchange for balancing against China or attempt to draw the Quad into a border conflict with Pakistan or China. Furthermore, India’s mistreatment of its own Muslim minority might undermine the credibility of allied efforts to pressure China on its internment of the Uyghur Muslim minority. And despite India’s willingness to partner with the United States, it has also recently participated in groups that could potentially act as a counterweight to American influence such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) as well as the Russia-India-China trilateral. It remains to be seen whether India will fully discard its history of non-alignment to join a coalition of liberal powers to counter Chinese ambitions.

In the Asia-Pacific and beyond, the urgency of the China challenge motivates some to look for as many partners as possible to counter-balance against China. Yet, backing illiberal actors would restrict the American ability to compete ideologically with China. Some authoritarian regimes might cooperate with the United States on short-term interests, but a misalignment of values might eventually lead to the defection of authoritarian partners as geopolitical winds change. If the Philippines were to drop its maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea and embrace China’s authoritarian values, it would undercut the ability of other American partners like Japan and Taiwan to successfully adjudicate their territorial claims. If the Philippines abandons its maritime claims, it would support the Chinese notion that American support for freedom of navigation is just a cover for Western meddling and give legitimacy to Chinese incursions on the sovereignty of its maritime neighbors. Strategists who believe that the United States cannot afford to be selective in building its anti-China coalition should be reminded that with the long-term, ideological dimension of strategic competition with China, we must be ideologically aware when selecting which states we do and do not provide security guarantees to.

Keeping Our Friends Close

Each of these backsliding or illiberal partners presents a strategic challenge for the United States: will they push back against revisionists who seek to overthrow the liberal world order or will they welcome the degradation of the values that underpin this order and thus undermine the legitimacy of American leadership? While interests shift over time, a long-lasting symmetry of values allows like-minded states to maintain their alliance across situations. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has remarked, liberal allies have fought together “from the beaches of Normandy to the mountains of Afghanistan.” [36]

However, fashioning a democracy-based coalition comes with a number of hazards. First, integrating democracy and human rights concerns into grand strategy self-imposes a constraint on the size of a coalition. In the context of China and the Indo-Pacific, requiring partners to be democratic or moving toward democracy would exclude key states like Cambodia and Vietnam. Second, such an effort exposes the United States to allegations of hypocrisy. As recent unrest in Washington D.C. demonstrates, American democracy is far from perfect. Moreover, many illiberal partners may continue to hold elections and profess commitment to democracy while restricting freedoms and marginalizing minorities. Identifying which states are sufficiently liberal to partner with would be nearly impossible to do in an objective, standardized manner.

Despite these hurdles, “minding our own business” and ignoring our partners’ values in relation to our own carries even graver risks. Interests are ultimately downstream from values, and authoritarian states are unlikely to share interests with democratic states across generations. Democratic governments seek to protect the safety and security of their citizens, while authoritarian regimes seek to extend their hold on power. When interests do align between these different missions, it is often only over the short term. While the Soviet Union was an important wartime partner during the Second World War, its ideological animosity toward the United States made it a bitter adversary for the decades that followed. Today’s emerging rivalry with China is further proof of the limits of authoritarian partnerships. While China was a partner of convenience after the Sino-Soviet split, it is now increasingly regarded as the primary national security threat to the United States. Russia, China, and other authoritarian powers seek to corrode the appeal of liberalism from within and without. Proving that the liberal order is morally and intellectually bankrupt is fundamental to upholding the legitimacy of the tyrannical governments in Beijing and Moscow. Ignoring ideology will come at our own cost and expedite the transformation into the world our adversaries are seeking. 

Doubling down on democracy is a multi-generational task. One administration cannot be tasked with all the work of repairing liberalism’s reputation. This work, however, must first start at home; the United States must make democracy attractive again by shoring up its institutions and proving that our system of government can provide benefits to the entire population, regardless of status or background. Second, although we should not ignore the transgressions our partners commit, we should also take the long view. As democracy scholar Larry Diamond writes, “no serious strategy for expanding democracy argues that we should engage only with democratic rulers.” [37] Promoting democracy requires patience and persistence. Rather than “exporting our model,” we should empower organic democratic movements in partner states and exert diplomatic pressure on both allies and adversaries to allow these movements to take root. Diamond also points to the work of former U.S. Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, who directly incorporated the democratic principles of community consultation, choice, transparency, and accountability into foreign policy initiatives. [38]

American strategists and diplomats must strike the right balance between courage and consideration by calling for democracy when possible but allowing partners the time and space to undergo hard reforms when necessary. None of this is easy, but it is critical to maintaining America’s leadership role in the world. As the American example teaches us, we must remember that democracy will always be a journey rather than a destination.

Nicholas Romanow was Programming Director for the AHS Chapter at the University of Texas at Austin, from which he graduated in 2021, and studied international relations in addition to being Undergraduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security.

*Disclaimer: Nicholas Romanow is an active-duty officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed by the article do not reflect official views of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the federal government.*


[1] Joseph Biden, “Why American Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, 23 January 2020,

[2] Elbridge Colby and Robert D. Kaplan, “The Ideology Delusion,” Foreign Affairs, 4 September 2020,

[3] Foa et al., “The Global Dissatisfaction with Democracy Report 2020,” (Cambridge: Centre for the Future of Democracy, January 2020), 19-20,

[4] Sarah Repucci, “Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” (Washington, DC: Freedom House, March 2020),

[5] Kori Schake, Safe Passage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 16.

[6] Schake, 16.

[7] Schake, 17.

[8] Elbridge Colby, “Biden’s global, muscular liberalism is an indefensible foreign policy in 2021,” Washington Post, 21 March 2021,

[9] Colby and Kaplan.

[10] Hal Brands and Zack Cooper, “U.S.-Chinese Rivalry Is a Battle Over Values,” Foreign Affairs, 16 March 2021,

[11] Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries,” Pew Research Center, 6 October 2020,

[12] Conor Finnegan, “Tillerson: Pushing human rights abroad ‘creates obstacles’ to US interests,” ABC News, 3 May 2017,

[13] Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary (November 1979),

[14] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 2.

[15] Susan Eisenhower, How Ike Led (New York: Macmillan, 2020), 111.

[16] William Clinton, “Transcript of the Remarks to the People of Detroit,” 22 October 1996, 

[17] The North Atlantic Treaty, “Article V,”

[18] Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2020 Hungary Country Report,” (Washington, DC: Freedom House, March 2020),

[19] Pablo Gorondi, “Hungary says Huawei to help build its 5G wireless network,” The Associated Press, 5 November 2019,

[20] TurkeyPurge, “Infographic Chart #1,” 27 November 2018,

[21] Aaron Mehta, “Turkey officially kicked out of F-35 program, costing US half a billion dollars,” DefenseNews, 17 July 2019,

[22] Michael Moran, “Turkey’s Article 5 Argument Finds No Takers,” (New York:  February 2016),

[23] U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), “Foreign Aid Explorer,” January 2021,

[24] U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), “Foreign Aid Explorer,” January 2021,

[25] Peter Beinart, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” Jewish Currents, 7 July 2020,

[26] Margaret Coker, “Saudi Women Can Now Drive. Overcoming Beliefs on Gender Will Be Harder,” The New York Times, 24 June 2018,

[27] Farah Pandith, How We Win (Custom House, 2019), 126.

[28] Pandith, 115-116.

[29] “Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines,”

[30] Jim Gomez, “Philippines notifies US of intent to end major security pact,” The Associated Press, 11 February 2020,

[31] Jason Gutierrez, “Philippines Backs Off Threat to Terminate Military Pact With U.S.,” The New York Times, 2 June 2020,

[32] Cliff Venzon, “Duterte threatens to end US military pact if no vaccines,” Nikkei Asia, 27 December 2020,

[33] Reuters Staff, “ICC prosecutor sees ‘reasonable basis’ for crimes against humanity in Philippine drug war,” Reuters, 15 December 2020,

[34] Qin Jize and Wang Qingyun, “Beijing backs Philippines’ war on drug crimes,” China Daily, 30 September 2016,

[35] Sarah Repucci, “India’s Turn Toward Hindu Nationalism” in “Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” (Washington, DC: Freedom House, March 2020),

[36] Justin Trudeau, “Remarks by the Prime Minister of Canada,” 31May 2018,

[37] Larry Diamond, Ill Winds (New York: Penguin Books, 2019), 204.

[38] Diamond, 218-220.

Image: “A crowd of curb brokers in Wall Street, New York City.”, retrieved from, image is in the public domain.

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