The U.S. Is for Democracy Again. But for How Long?

For perhaps no other country is the answer more immediately existential than Belarus.

An American flag hanging from a Greek column
Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

America is back. At least, that’s what Joe Biden has been telling world leaders. As congratulatory calls have poured in for the president-elect following his victory last week, the conversation has begun moving away from what Donald Trump’s legacy has been toward what Biden’s could be. In particular, after four years of the United States taking a step back from its role as a defender of democracy and human rights in favor of cultivating relationships with leaders who have little regard for either, could a Biden administration see the country begin promoting those liberal values again?

For perhaps no other country is the answer more immediately existential than Belarus. Since its longtime President Alexander Lukashenko clinched his sixth term in what was widely regarded as a rigged election in August, the country has been embroiled with mass protests, violent crackdowns, and political uncertainty. The Trump administration declared Lukashenko’s rule illegitimate early on and worked with Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to impose targeted sanctions against senior Belarusian officials. But since then, the U.S. response to the prodemocracy movement has been largely muted—something Biden has pledged on multiple occasions to change.

This promise would ultimately affect more than just Belarus. At its core, it signals that the U.S. will seek to return to its traditional role of promoting democracy abroad, which will no doubt include a return to multilateral institutions (such as the United Nations Human Rights Council), investment in prodemocracy groups (funding for which the Trump administration recently cut), and reasserting the country’s alliances with like-minded partners (rather than with the world’s autocrats and dictators). But although this grand promise was viewed with some skepticism before Trump took office, it now carries with it valid questions about American reliability: How much can the world expect out of the U.S. when it’s clear that another Trump-like figure could undo it all in as little as four years’ time? Then there’s the unavoidable irony of the U.S.’s own democratic crisis: On the same day the U.S. announced that it would no longer recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus, Trump himself refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. What credibility will the U.S. have as an authority on free and fair elections when it’s facing its own contested vote at home?

There are reasons to take Biden at his word. Unlike Trump, he has expressed a commitment to upholding human rights—something that he regards as intrinsically linked with his support for the Belarusian people’s protests against Lukashenko and the human-rights abuses of his regime. Also unlike Trump, Biden has a demonstrated interest in Eastern European politics, having spent much of his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president spearheading policies on Russia and Ukraine. Under his own administration, Biden has pledged that he would not only maintain the current sanctions against Belarusian officials, but “significantly expand” them. He has also signaled that he would lend his support to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has spent much of her time in exile advocating on behalf of her people with world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

For more than three months, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have protested in the streets to demand free and fair elections, the release of political prisoners, and that Lukashenko step down. These peaceful demonstrations have largely been met with state-sponsored violence, including heavy-handed crackdowns by riot police and plainclothes law-enforcement officers, the mass detention of protesters, and torture. Still, the movement continues. Its latest tactic has been a nationwide strike, which formally began last month. So far, this effort has had limited success: Many of the workers who have sought to apply pressure on government-owned factories by joining the strike have been dismissed or arrested for doing so. Some factories have been threatened with closure en masse.

“It won’t be the revolutionary force, unfortunately,” Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, told me. “If we want to win [against] Lukashenko, we need something bigger and something broader than just the workers’ movement.”

Could the U.S. be that something? When I posed the question to Viačorka, he said that Belarus was among the many countries missing a more proactive U.S. in global affairs. “We felt … abandoned,” he said, noting that although words of support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers were appreciated, they were a far cry from the type of involvement that much of the world might come to expect from the U.S. when faced with a dictator clinging to power.

Help could materialize in a number of ways, such as expanding sanctions to include Lukashenko (who has so far faced them only from the U.K. and the EU) and his closest allies; pledging financial support for free and independent media in Belarus (which, like the protesters, have faced violent repression), as well as allocating resources to striking workers and victims of Lukashenko’s crackdown; and joining the ranks of Paris and Berlin by extending an offer of mediation among Belarusian authorities, the opposition, and civil society. Although Tsikhanouskaya has been in touch with Biden’s team, Viačorka said she has yet to communicate with Biden or Vice President–elect Kamala Harris personally.

Apart from making some boilerplate comments about supporting democracy, Trump has largely remained silent on Belarus, leaving the work of speaking out in defense of democratic values to his subordinates. His tepid response could be attributed at least in part to the president’s desire not to appear at loggerheads with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed Lukashenko with a $1.5 billion loan and a pledge to intervene using Russian police forces if necessary. Trump’s behavior is nothing if not consistent, though: Although an American president might ordinarily be expected to uphold the democratic mantle, Trump’s unwillingness to accept the outcome of his own election defeat, paired with his evidence-deficient claims of voter fraud and his affinity for autocrats, makes him uniquely unqualified to do so.

Any meaningful engagement from a Biden administration will likely have to wait until after the inauguration early next year. Still, the Belarusian opposition is hopeful. “With a more proactive president,” Viačorka said, “I think this support, this solidarity, will be enormous.”