Biden’s Democracy Summit Could Backfire

There are dangers to hosting diplomatic meetings without a clear purpose.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Joe Biden attends the Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention.
Joe Biden attends the Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention.
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden attends the Rainbow PUSH Coalition annual international convention in Chicago on June 28, 2019. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Looking for a silver lining from COVID-19? Here’s one: Due to the pandemic, the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy will be online only. Why is that a good thing? Because it will minimize the amount of scarce presidential and staff time devoted to what is at best a secondary activity.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with convening the world’s existing democracies to discuss how to strengthen and advance liberal ideals. Indeed, one might even regard it as an urgent task in an era when democracy is under siege in many places and facing important challenges, such as social media, surveillance capitalism, and autocratic meddling. And you can’t blame U.S. President Joe Biden for wanting to deliver on a campaign pledge that doesn’t require him to engage in endless efforts to accommodate Sen. Joe Manchin.

Even so, one must still question the merits of pushing ahead with this idea right now. For starters, it’s still not clear what the ultimate objective of the gathering is. Is it supposed to yield tangible results—new commitments or programs with a measurable impact on the robustness of democracy worldwide—or is it going to be a talk-fest that eventually issues some pious proclamations but generates little substance? This is an important question because the real way to sell democracy—as Biden, himself, has stated—is to show that democratic societies can out-perform autocratic alternatives. That means delivering citizens more prosperous, secure, and satisfying lives while preserving the freedoms and civic virtues that true democracy depends on.

Looking for a silver lining from COVID-19? Here’s one: Due to the pandemic, the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy will be online only. Why is that a good thing? Because it will minimize the amount of scarce presidential and staff time devoted to what is at best a secondary activity.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with convening the world’s existing democracies to discuss how to strengthen and advance liberal ideals. Indeed, one might even regard it as an urgent task in an era when democracy is under siege in many places and facing important challenges, such as social media, surveillance capitalism, and autocratic meddling. And you can’t blame U.S. President Joe Biden for wanting to deliver on a campaign pledge that doesn’t require him to engage in endless efforts to accommodate Sen. Joe Manchin.

Even so, one must still question the merits of pushing ahead with this idea right now. For starters, it’s still not clear what the ultimate objective of the gathering is. Is it supposed to yield tangible results—new commitments or programs with a measurable impact on the robustness of democracy worldwide—or is it going to be a talk-fest that eventually issues some pious proclamations but generates little substance? This is an important question because the real way to sell democracy—as Biden, himself, has stated—is to show that democratic societies can out-perform autocratic alternatives. That means delivering citizens more prosperous, secure, and satisfying lives while preserving the freedoms and civic virtues that true democracy depends on.

Unfortunately, the United States is not in the best position to lead this effort right now. The Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to the category of “flawed democracy” before former U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, and nothing has happened to reverse that status. On the contrary: One of the United States’ two major political parties still refuses to accept that the 2020 presidential election was legitimate and is working overtime to erode democratic norms and rig future elections in its favor. Some Republicans are even whitewashing the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, treating it as little more than a prank by some overzealous patriots. That’s hardly the right look if you’re trying to lead a democratic revival.

Moreover, the list of participants is arbitrary and inconsistent. I can see why Hungary wasn’t invited, given Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s steady assault on liberal principles, but why include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose Freedom House democracy scores are lower than Hungary’s? Indeed, they are so low that Freedom House labels it “not free.” The inclusion of leaders, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, should raise eyebrows as well: Both were democratically elected but have been openly dismissive of key democratic norms.

Viewed as a whole, the enterprise illustrates two recurring problems in U.S. foreign policy: the inability to set clear priorities and stick to them and a tendency to proclaim lofty goals and then to fail to deliver on them. A great power can pursue more than one objective at a time, of course, but it needs to recognize the trade-offs between them and know which goal comes first. It also needs to be careful not to take on too much because there will always be unexpected developments that eat up time, attention, and resources.

So what is the Biden administration’s main foreign-policy concern? If it thinks the chief danger today is “autocracy” in general and the threat it poses to the world’s democracies, then gathering the world’s democracies together for a pep talk and some forward-looking initiatives might make sense. But if defending democracy and human rights is the guiding star of U.S. foreign policy, then it should stop supporting authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and instead distance itself from states veering in autocratic directions (like Turkey and Hungary) or systematically denying political rights to millions of people (like Israel and China). The summit’s guest list would be a lot smaller, but at least it would be ideologically consistent.

If the central problem today is a rising and increasingly assertive China, by contrast, then Washington can’t be so choosy about who its friends are. From a geostrategic perspective, welcoming Angola and snubbing Singapore seems rather shortsighted. If great-power politics is the main concern, expressing a strong preference for democracy could reduce U.S. influence in certain areas and provide China with the opportunity to cultivate countries that aren’t going to reorganize their political arrangements to make Uncle Sam happy. Although it may have been somewhat easier for the United States to work with its fellow democracies during the Cold War, being on good terms with anti-Soviet autocrats was often smart geopolitics as well. For that matter, the most valuable ally the United States ever had may have been Stalinist Russia, given the central role it played in defeating Nazi Germany. And Joseph Stalin was a mass murderer. My point is if China is the central challenge the United States faces today, emphasizing democracy may not be the best way to address it.

But what if problem No. 1 is actually a big global problem like climate change or the pandemic? If so, then U.S. foreign policy’s main task is to foster cooperation with countries of every sort instead of dividing the world into “good” and “bad” states, such as those whose political systems are like the United States’ versus those that aren’t. If that is Biden’s top priority, then a summit that quite consciously excludes a lot of big and important countries is likely to be counterproductive.

I may be too pessimistic. Maybe this online gathering is a necessary first step that will help the administration develop and implement a more effective democracy-support program in the years ahead. (The model here might be former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security summits, which did produce tangible and positive results.) Maybe an online pep talk is what everyone needs. If so, then future historians might look back on this meeting as the moment when the past 15 years’ anti-democratic tide finally turned. As someone who is grateful to live in a liberal society and continues to worry about its possible demise, I hope that is the case.

But there is a final danger: If the summit and its successors do not create real results, it will reinforce the perception that democracy itself is no longer fit for its purpose. I don’t think that is the case, but you can understand why some people think so given the recurring failures of the past 20 years and the pervasive corruption and lack of accountability within many democratic orders. A recurring criticism of U.S. politics is it is long on talk and short on action—and that elites are better at feathering their own nests and protecting their pals than they are at providing for the population as a whole.

And I can’t quite escape the lingering fear that this week’s summit is an unnecessary distraction. The best way to heal the United States’ ills—and they are serious—is to deliver voters real results. That’s also the best way to make democracy look appealing to citizens elsewhere and encourage them to want something similar for themselves. Deep down, I suspect most of the Americans who will cast ballots in the next election care more about jobs, COVID-19, economic security, education, and hot button issues like abortion or immigration than they do about whether corruption is going down in Malawi or Pakistan or if human rights are more or less respected in Malaysia. If the Biden administration can’t deliver in the United States—and the Republican Party has already shown it will do everything in its power to prevent him from making Americans better off—then he’ll be a one-term president, and either Trump or one of his clones will replace him. If that happens, the effort to revitalize democracy will come to a crashing halt, and we will look back on this summit as a well-intentioned but misguided waste of time.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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