Analysis: Declaring democracy won’t be subverted, Biden demands Russia and Myanmar reverse course

Two weeks after taking office, President Biden has demanded that Myanmar reverse a coup d’état and that Russia release its most famous dissident politician, Aleksei A. Navalny, whose arrest and sentencing incited protests of a size and intensity that surprised officials here, and most likely inside the Kremlin.

In both cases, Mr. Biden has declared that the United States will not tolerate the subversion of democracy — or, in the case of Myanmar, an effort to overturn a democratic election. It does not take a close reading of his comments to see a subtext, that the United States is still struggling with the aftermath of a perilously similar attempt.

And, in both cases, Mr. Biden has hinted that sanctions, a favorite, if now wildly overused, tool of American power, will soon follow.

To many critics of the Trump administration, it is a refreshing sign of the return of human rights to the top of the United States’ foreign policy agenda, a theme Mr. Biden is expected to drive home on Thursday in his first foreign policy speech as president. Tellingly, he is planning to deliver it from the building that former President Donald J. Trump often referred to as the “Deep State Department.”

But campaigning on a theme of restoring morality to American action in the world is easier than making wayward authoritarian politicians and generals change their behavior.

In the very different cases of Myanmar and Russia, Mr. Biden is about to discover how years of sanctions fatigue — exacerbated in the Trump administration — and a decline in American influence will make delivering on the promise much harder than when he served as vice president. But, especially in the case of Russia, he may also see some new opportunities.

“We have fallen into this trap that sanctions are the easy answer to every problem,” Ivo H. Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under President Barack Obama, noted on Wednesday. “They demonstrate that you care, and they impose some price, though usually not sufficient to change behavior.’’

But he noted that “you have to beware that presidents often reach for them because doing everything else seems too costly.”

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