'Democracy' for Biden Is Whatever Benefits the Global Elite | Opinion

There is an exchange between Alice and a scornful Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass that discloses the relationship between power and language. "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty says, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," Alice replies, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," Humpty Dumpty concludes, "which is to be master—that's all."

Power, in other words, is the final word about semantics. Meaning is the dictate of the strong to the weak.

This Carrollean framework is key to understanding President Biden's address to the leaders of our "global village" at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday—specifically, to understanding what the President meant when he spoke about democracy.

"It's no secret that in the contest between democracy and autocracy, the United States—and I, as President—champion a vision for our world that is grounded in the values of democracy," President Biden said. "The United States is determined to defend and strengthen democracy at home and around the world. Because I believe democracy remains humanity's greatest instrument to address the challenges of our time."

The President contrasted democracies like the U.S. with Russia, the main villain of his speech, which announced an expansion of its war effort in Ukraine shortly before the President rambled through his hodgepodge of talking points. Russia, according to President Biden, is a violator of international law.

"I reject the use of violence and war to conquer nations or expand borders through bloodshed," Biden thundered.

Biden at the UN
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at U.N. headquarters on September 21, 2022 in New York City. During his remark Biden condemned Russia for its invasion in Ukraine and discussed the United States investment in combatting climate change. After two years of holding the session virtually or in a hybrid format, 157 heads of state and representatives of government are expected to attend the General Assembly in person. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

That may be true; the U.S., squeamish about using force to enact regime change, prefers color revolutions, proxy wars, and "humanitarian interventions" with bombs and bullets, which, because they are "humanitarian," are also democratic.

And therein lies the rub: "Democracy" is whatever the elites of the U.S.-led West do and desire, and everything they don't is "undemocratic." Why? Because Humpty Dumpty says so.

Indeed, there was little invective in Biden's speech about Russia that cannot be applied with equal or more accuracy to the U.S. and other countries that call themselves democracies. You won't hear much about this in the mainstream, but the truth is that the U.S. foreign policy establishment forced the war in Ukraine because it has wanted "to see Russia weakened" for years, as defense secretary Lloyd Austin admitted.

And though Russia alone invaded Ukraine, it is not Russia alone that is immiserating the lives of millions across Europe and the U.S., despite what the President said; that is the consequence of a combination of factors, including the West's sanction regime and irresponsible energy policies.

Russia did not block the expansion of U.S. oil refining, reduce American liquified natural gas production, and sell millions of barrels of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve—now at the lowest level since 1984—to China. Biden is doing that, and the leaders of Western democracies are engaged in similarly psychotic policymaking.

Russia is not forcing American steel and aluminum mills to lay off hundreds of workers and go idle. U.S. policymakers who mismanaged the American industrial complex did that.

Far from a worthy foe, Russia is a militarily unimpressive regional power that only recently recovered from its Cold War collapse and is now pitted against the global hegemon and its proxies—which demand the citizens of the "world community" suffer to make Russia pay for invading Ukraine.

The very phrase "the world community," Huntington wrote in Foreign Affairs, "has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing 'the Free World') to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western power." Or rather, the interests of the elites in those countries, which are conflated with the public good.

Huntington understood that behind displays of international kumbaya and semantics was the iron hand of power. He used the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as an example of the velvet glove: "Through the IMF and other international economic institutions, the West promotes its economic interests and imposes on other nations the economic policies it thinks appropriate."

This is what's called "democracy" by the people in charge of what words mean.

Part of the reason this peculiar form of democracy is so popular with elites is that they materially benefit from what is essentially an international wealth and power transfer program. But if democracy and the fantastical "rules-based international order" are merely the mask the incumbent ruling class wears, then there is reason to have hope. Writing in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa warned that in some countries, including the United States, faith in their stewardship is reaching an important threshold: "The number of people who are dissatisfied with democracy is greater than the number of people who are satisfied with it."

While Biden might not be able to see it, I suspect the people who wrote his address to the United Nations sense just how close the Humpty Dumpty of the liberal world order is to falling off the wall, and if that happens all the king's men won't be able to put it back together.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is the associate editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.