Chinese schoolchildren play next to a portrait of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Democracy Elementary and Middle School in Sitong, Henan province, December 2013 Carlos Barria / Reuters
In Europe this week, on his first overseas trip since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has framed the current moment in world politics as an existential choice between democracy and autocracy, a fundamental decision that, as he put it in a speech in Pittsburgh on March 31, is “what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about.” China’s economic success and political durability have indeed demonstrated that development does not require democratization. And as China grows more influential, it may “ultimately present a stronger ideological challenge than the Soviet Union did,” as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan noted in these pages in 2019.
The Biden administration is correct to emphasize the challenges facing democracy around the world, but the more immediate threat to the United States and other democracies lies within, not without. At present, the dangers of conceiving of U.S.-Chinese competition as a global contest between democratic and autocratic systems outweigh the benefits. Domestically, invoking competition with China may seem like an attractive way to build bipartisan support for long-overdue investments at home. But such appeals are unlikely to sway Republican members of Congress and may validate their efforts
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