A day after pledging to “defend democracy,” President Biden brought up India and Saudi Arabia during a round of meetings at the United Nations on Wednesday — not to raise concerns about repression by either, but to to salute them for their help in creating a new economic corridor. “I think it’s a big deal,” he said.
Perhaps no two countries reflect the difficult and delicate tradeoffs in Mr. Biden’s foreign policy at this moment more than India and Saudi Arabia. He has made it a priority to bring both countries to justice as part of his effort to counter Russia and China, even though India has reverted to its democracy and Saudi Arabia has never had one.
The week’s news illustrated how acute that tension really is. The Indian government was accused of orchestrating the assassination of a political opponent on Canadian soil, leaving Mr. Biden caught between one of America’s oldest friends and the newer friend he has cultivated. And it was reported that Mr Biden’s envoys are negotiating a new defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, putting aside their own history of extraterritorial killings.
While Biden did not address either topic, the White House responded with studied judgment to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusations against India on Wednesday. John F. Kirby, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s National Security Council, described the administration as “deeply concerned” about the allegations, saying that “the facts must take investigators where they can and bring the perpetrators of this attack to the court must be brought. justice.”
But he emphasized US ties with India. “I can only tell you that our relationship with India remains critically important, not only for the South Asian region, but of course for the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Kirby told reporters. Then, shortly after the briefing, the council emailed a statement from another spokesperson, Adrienne Watson, saying: “Attacking dissidents in other countries is absolutely unacceptable and we will continue to take steps to reduce this practice.”
The killing in Canada raised questions about Mr. Biden’s outreach to India at a time when he has increasingly prioritized strengthening partnerships over a full-throated advocacy for democracy. He visited India this month and stopped in Hanoi on the way back to strengthen a strategic relationship with Vietnam, a communist-led one-party state where there is little repression. His government just signed a new security and economic deal with Bahrain, a tightly controlled monarchy. And last week it approved $235 million in military aid to Egypt, which had been frozen for two years over human rights concerns.
“They talk a lot about the importance of democracy,” Sarah Margon, Biden’s original nominee for assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said in an interview Wednesday. “Important initiatives have been developed to support democracy. But when push comes to shove, we see that supporting and sustaining democracy does not reach the same level as other geopolitical problems.”
Mr. Biden, who has called the “battle between democracy and autocracy” the defining battle of our era, has turned away from that framework of late. Although he used some version of that wording 11 times last year, he has done so only four times this year and none in the past two months, according to a search on Factba.se, a service that records presidential statements.
During his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Biden did not use the phrase democracy versus autocracy, as he had done a year ago in his speech at the world forum. And instead of portraying the war in Ukraine as a struggle for democracy, he spoke of it in terms of sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom from foreign domination.
His main reference to democracy in Tuesday’s speech was the condemnation of a series of recent coups in Africa. “We will defend democracy – our best tool to meet the challenges we face around the world,” he said. “And we try to show how democracy can deliver results in ways that matter to people’s lives.”
Even some of his own advisers have long seen the black-white dichotomy as too simplistic and diplomatically limiting, especially at a time when Biden has focused on building alliances to counter aggression from Moscow and Beijing. In fact, he has come to the conclusion that he needs the help of some real or aspiring autocrats to take on bigger, more dangerous autocrats. If that means being nice to the likes of India and Saudi Arabia, then so be it.
The furor in Canada over the shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a leader of the Sikh community, in British Columbia in June feels like an eerie echo of the Saudi-orchestrated murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist living in lives in the United States. the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. In both cases, a government considered an American friend was accused of killing a critic on the territory of a NATO ally.
Mr. Trudeau blamed “agents of the Indian government” for the shooting and expelled an Indian diplomat described as New Delhi’s intelligence chief in Canada. India has denied Mr. Trudeau’s accusation and expelled a Canadian diplomat in response.
In the past, the United States has joined its allies in retaliating against adversaries who plotted to kill opponents hiding in their country. President Donald J. Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the country in 2018 after Moscow agents used a nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate Sergei V. Skripal, a dissident former Russian intelligence officer, on British soil (although Mr. Trump later expressed anger toward assistants because he was asked to do so).
Unlike Saudi Arabia or Russia, India has long been a thriving democracy, with diverse and robust positions debated in parliament and the media. But the space for freedom has shrunk in recent years under Mr. Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was once barred from entering the United States over the massacre of Muslims in the province where he was prime minister.
Even as Mr. Biden treated Mr. Modi to a coveted state dinner at the White House in June, India’s news media has come under pressure, opposition figures face legal threats and Hindu supremacists can attack mosques and harass religious minorities with impunity. At the Group of 20 meeting that Mr. Modi hosted this month, he defaced New Delhi with so many hundreds of billboards and posters of his own face that it would challenge the cult of personality in any authoritarian state.
Negotiations for a possible mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, similar to U.S. military pacts with Japan and South Korea, come as part of a broader effort to transform America’s relationship with the kingdom. Mr Biden hopes to strike a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants a stronger security commitment from Washington as part of any settlement.
Prince Mohammed suggested on Wednesday that progress is being made towards normalisation. “Every day we get closer,” he told Fox News. The topic was also a big part of a meeting Mr Biden had with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who also made an optimistic prediction for “a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” as he called it. “This is something that is within our reach,” the Israeli leader told reporters.
The idea of getting closer to Riyadh contradicted Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, who the CIA says was often killed and dismembered on orders of Prince Mohammed. Mr Biden, who goes by MBS, shared a friendly handshake in a brief conversation with Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the recent Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi, abandoning the more distant fist bump the president opted for during his visit to Jeddah a year earlier.
As with India, Vietnam and other countries with which Biden has sought to strengthen relations, the subtext of the move to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia is China and Russia. The Biden administration not only wants to end generations of conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but also entrench the oil-producing kingdom more firmly in the American sphere of influence.
Missing from the government’s deliberations are some important voices representing democratic reforms. Thirty-two months after taking office, Mr. Biden still does not have a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state to oversee democracy promotion since Ms. Margon’s nomination was blocked by Republicans.
And the president never named a permanent replacement for Shanthi Kalathil, his White House coordinator for democracy and human rights, who resigned in early 2022, leaving a vacant position of equal rank to influential advisers on the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific countries have orchestrated aid to countries such as Saudi Arabia and India.
Tom Malinowski, a former Democratic representative from New Jersey, said there was “admirable realism and clarity” in the vision of democracy versus autocracy that Mr. Biden has previously articulated, a vision that seemed undermined by striking a permanent security deal with a country where all power rests with a royal family that is not accountable.
“The problem with giving Saudi Arabia a legally binding defense commitment – something we are not even prepared to do for Ukraine – is not just that it would erode the moral authority of our position,” he said. “It is that MBS is so aggressively siding with the other authoritarian powers – helping Russia economically while hurting American consumers, crushing any democratic openings in the Arab world and even trying to corrupt American politics.”
Mr. Biden and his advisers emphasize that he remains committed to democracy and human rights, even in the countries he chooses to work with. “I’ve raised it with everyone I’ve met,” he told reporters while in Hanoi.