In an earlier opinion article for the Daily, I argued that the Biden administration has an empty foreign policy when it comes to uniting prominent democracies around common interests, as exemplified by the fallout over AUKUS’ betrayal of France in a submarine missile deal. Recent events in Sudan, and the lack of a coherent response thus far, highlight how the emptiness of Biden’s ideological commitments extends not only to unifying established democratic nations but to protecting fledgling democracies as well.
On Oct. 25, the Sudanese military seized power in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, ending nearly two years of a transitional government that took power after pro-democracy protests ended the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Before the coup, the transitional government had been set to fully move to a civilian government, with elections planned for 2023.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the general who has assumed power in Sudan, operates under the assumption that the response from the United States and other international actors who claim to stand for democracy and human rights will be limited. So far, in a potential rebuke of this notion, the Biden administration has gone much further than Trump’s ever would have — after all, the previous president largely regarded Africa as made up of “s---hole countries.”
And yet, the State Department’s suspension of $700 million in humanitarian aid to Sudan is not an adequate response to address the situation. Sure, this will make the new dictatorship feel some pain, but the brunt of the impact will be directed at the people who need that humanitarian aid just to be able to survive in a war-torn country.
At this moment, political pressure and a lack of international legitimacy is the only thing that could halt the coup in its tracks, given its nascent nature. On that front, the United States’ response has been pathetic. Jeffrey Feltman, the United States’ special envoy to the Horn of Africa, only expressed “deep alarm” at the supposedly unexpected turn of events last week. This was despite him having been in the country the weekend before the coup and knowing that tensions had been growing exponentially between pro-democracy civilians and pro-dictatorship military forces, especially given an attempted coup in September.
The bulk of a response to the coup thus far has come from international and regional organizations, like the African Union, which suspended Sudan’s participation in all AU activities until the country’s civilian-led government is restored.
The very fact that the United States is not taking the lead in confronting this emerging anti-democratic regime calls into serious question the commitment of the Biden administration to protecting and nurturing democracy across the globe. This is especially surprising given the vested interest that the United States has in maintaining Sudan as a stable democratic state, and preventing it from falling into the kind of authoritarianism that competing world powers have welcomed in the region. Sudan’s 400 miles of coast provide valuable access to the Red Sea, which has a high level of trade that passes through it, positioning Sudanese allies to potentially dominate international economics. Beyond the geopolitical implications of setting a precedent for a backsliding into authoritarianism in the Horn of Africa region, the United States’ lack of action is also a betrayal of the pro-democracy movement that brought down Bashir and is now heroically banding back together to fight the new dictatorship.
Unfortunately, the lukewarm response thus far exemplifies a tendency among the Biden administration to refuse to go all the way in defense of democracies abroad. This is also shown when it comes to Biden’s flip-flopped remarks on Taiwan, where he on one occasion said that the United States is committed to coming to Taiwan’s defense in the case of an attack by China, and then had his press secretary say that there is no change in policy. This wishy-washy behavior only emboldens authoritarian wannabes around the world, who may think that the United States won’t punish them for oppressing civilian populations.
There are a few things that the Biden administration can do to prove that it’s serious about defending democracy around the world, especially given that the coup in Sudan lacks wide regional and internal support. The United States must create concrete demands and a timeline tied to sanctions, including vetoing IMF and World Bank aid and threatening to bring Burhan and his lackeys before an international court of justice, to force military leaders to reverse their coup. Meanwhile, the United States must also pressure Gulf states to stop enabling the coup and to exert their own diplomatic influence in pushing for the restoration of the transitional government. The United Nations Security Council cannot be allowed to settle on pleas for restraint and dialogue, a course of action that will result in endless negotiations while the military dictatorship continues to oppress its people. Instead, closed-door meetings, helmed by the United States, must result in democratic states going to bat by countering this coup through any means necessary, with the exception of military intervention.
The United States, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it, must be the “arsenal of democracy.” To retain any remaining shreds of moral leadership, it’s time for the United States to put its words into action.