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Will Biden’s Democracy-First Agenda Extend to Haiti?

In his February 4th remarks at the State Department, Joe Biden made the first foreign policy speech of his presidency. His remarks touched on everything from great power competition to climate security, but the central message that emerged was that “America is back” and is prepared to leverage “[its] global power” to “meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism.” Biden’s well-received speech drilled down on themes he echoed throughout his campaign: reasserting American leadership in the international system; reinvigorating U.S. alliances; and confronting authoritarian backsliding. But even as the president seems poised to make good on those commitments with plans for his landmark Copenhagen summit on global democracy, a brewing crisis in Haiti challenges Biden to act on his democracy-first agenda much closer to home.  

The current constitutional crisis in Haiti is the culmination of a year of political turmoil driven by three major issues.

First, President Jovenel Moise has been ruling by decree for the past twelve months after effectively dissolving Parliament in January 2020. Secondly, Haitian politicians remain divided over when Moise’s term limit officially ends. Opponents argue that Moise’s mandate has expired, with January 2021 marking the end of the five-year term he was elected to in 2016. Moise counters that because electoral disputes delayed him from taking his seat until 2017, his term should be extended until 2022. This debate escalated earlier this month when Moise foiled opposition plans to install a supreme court justice as interim president, arresting more than 20 people for a so-called coup attempt. Third, anti-Moise sentiment has sparked demonstrations throughout Haiti with thousands of people turning out  to call, “down with the dictatorship.” The military’s professed support for Moise has loomed over the protests, generating reports of violent clashes between marchers and police and fear of “renewed human rights violations by security forces during the policing of protests.”

Thus far, the Biden Administration has followed the United Nations and Organization of American States in supporting Moise’s legitimacy, saying in a State Department briefing that “a new president should succeed President Moise when his term ends of February 2nd, 2022.” Biden is challenged, however, by an open letter from members of the House of Representatives calling for American support “for a Haitian-led democratic transition” and a condemnation of “President Moise’s undemocratic actions.”

As Moise has systematically concentrated power in his own hands, there can be no doubt that Haiti’s democracy is suffering. With the legislature decapitated, the supreme court illegitimated by recent coup allegations, and peaceful protesters bearing violent police crackdown, some observers have predicted Moise’s emergence as the Western Hemisphere’s newest strongman.

The lackluster response from the White House in the face of such blatant flouting of liberal democratic norms draws into question the vigor of the Biden Administration’s commitment to a democracy-first foreign policy. For all of the president’s rhetoric on “uniting the world in fighting to defend democracy,” Biden seems poised to continue a long legacy of U.S. presidents pursuing democracy promotion when politically expedient or strategically vital. As his most recent speech suggests, this includes propping up European allies facing authoritarian backsliding and confronting the highly publicized coup in Myanmar. Haiti, termed by one expert as the emerging “Somalia of the Americas”, is not on the agenda.

This is not the first piece to challenge Biden’s democracy-first foreign policy. After the events of January 6th in Washington, D.C., Drs. James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson argued in a Foreign Affairs piece that the president’s marquis plan for a global summit on democracy should be subordinated to a domestic recommitment to democratic institutions, addressing the growth of radical ideologies and systemic inequality. Dr. Stephen Holmes took a similar tact, noting the irony of U.S.-led democracy promotion abroad after historic threats to the domestic peaceful transition of power.

These criticisms of the Biden Administration’s handling of democratic promotion – whether they stem from hypocritical disregard for domestic political shortcomings or from the selective application of professed values – highlight the challenges of setting up ideological objectives as a foreign policy cornerstone. Not only are they emotive, intrinsically bound up in perceptions of our history and values, but they are messy to implement. In issuing such broad promises as “support[ing] restoration of democracy and the rule of law,” Biden opens himself up to criticism from various diaspora groups, lawmakers, and pundits when he fails to take meaningful actions in situations like the Haitian crisis. He can expect more of the same from the next would-be strongman.

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Kathryn Urban

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