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Biden’s Democracy Summit Success Now Depends on Allies

In Asia, the door is wide open to new partnerships bolstering democratic norms.

By , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.
Pro-democracy protest in Seoul
Pro-democracy protest in Seoul
South Korean pro-democracy activists march toward Myanmar’s embassy during a rally in Seoul on Feb. 5. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s best moment at last week’s Summit for Democracy was when he declared “democracy needs champions” before the most impressive gathering of potential champions of democracy ever assembled. Only the United States could have done this, even with its own recent setbacks on the march toward a better democracy. But if Biden wants to shift from symbolism to what he promised would be a “year in action,” he will need to pass more of the initiative to U.S. allies.

In an earlier, more unipolar, trans-Atlantic world, Washington may have been able to impose definitions of who can and cannot participate in a dialogue on democracy. But a more multipolar world makes it imperative to align with other partners’ approaches to supporting democratic governance. This is particularly true for an administration that emphasizes alliances and partnerships as the cornerstone of its response to China’s expanding geopolitical ambitions.

The reality around last week’s summit was some of these key allies—including stalwarts like Japan and Australia—were deeply uncomfortable with a process that excluded countries like Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam, which the former view as pivotal to blunting Chinese hegemonic ambitions. Ambivalence toward the participant list was shared by key parts of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and easily read by other governments in Asia. Asked to make concrete commitments for the year in action, most U.S. allies and partners in the region were quiet about next steps.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s best moment at last week’s Summit for Democracy was when he declared “democracy needs champions” before the most impressive gathering of potential champions of democracy ever assembled. Only the United States could have done this, even with its own recent setbacks on the march toward a better democracy. But if Biden wants to shift from symbolism to what he promised would be a “year in action,” he will need to pass more of the initiative to U.S. allies.

In an earlier, more unipolar, trans-Atlantic world, Washington may have been able to impose definitions of who can and cannot participate in a dialogue on democracy. But a more multipolar world makes it imperative to align with other partners’ approaches to supporting democratic governance. This is particularly true for an administration that emphasizes alliances and partnerships as the cornerstone of its response to China’s expanding geopolitical ambitions.

The reality around last week’s summit was some of these key allies—including stalwarts like Japan and Australia—were deeply uncomfortable with a process that excluded countries like Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam, which the former view as pivotal to blunting Chinese hegemonic ambitions. Ambivalence toward the participant list was shared by key parts of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and easily read by other governments in Asia. Asked to make concrete commitments for the year in action, most U.S. allies and partners in the region were quiet about next steps.

Fortunately, evidence suggests the door is wide open to new partnerships around the defense of democratic norms—particularly in Asia. In surveys of Asian thought leaders conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies over the last decade, for example, norms such as “human rights” and “free and fair elections” consistently rank near the top of issues people outside of China think should define the region’s future. The so-called Beijing consensus has few takers outside of Beijing, and China’s own pique at the summit’s success was evident in the Chinese ambassador to the United States’ Orwellian statement that summit participants had to respect the “democratic rights” of citizens to choose authoritarianism. Japan and South Korea now spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to support democratic governance in Asia. Polls in these two countries show growing support for pressuring China over human rights abuses; in one survey, Japanese thought leaders were more supportive of sanctioning China on human rights than Europeans. Meanwhile, the summit has sparked a debate among Singaporeans about whether their country should qualify as a democracy. In perhaps the most astonishing reaction to the summit, the Vietnamese prime minister said his country would improve its human rights record to attract investors repulsed by China’s human rights violations.

A multipolar world makes it imperative to align with other partners’ approaches to supporting democratic governance.

The administration will need to rethink future summit participation if it wants to leverage such trends. While countries like India or Indonesia strongly support democratic norms, they are also drawn to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs, which Beijing champions in the name of sovereignty and resistance to Western values. Most of Asia trusts the democratic world far more than Beijing, but Western imperialism’s legacy is no small thing. If Japan, South Korea, or Australia approach democracy issues somewhat differently than we do, it is in part because they recognize these regional sensitivities.

The best move the administration could make after the Summit for Democracy would be to encourage countries in Asia and beyond to lead their own regions on terms that best resonate there. Indonesia could host a summit on Islam and democracy, for example. Japan and South Korea could jointly host a summit on economic development as a foundation for democratic governance in East Asia. Of course, these partners would invite countries not included last week—such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Vietnam. But that would be a win for the Biden administration if the goal is to challenge all countries to improve democratic governance and demonstrate that global momentum has turned against authoritarianism. The alternative to spreading pro-democracy work this way would be to leave democracy promotion to the same offices within the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development that were doing the work before the summit—limited efforts going up against a well-funded Chinese campaign to spread autocratic governance, including the Belt and Road Initiative. Better to expand the partnerships and, therefore, impact.

This is not a proposal for the United States to diminish its own historic commitment to defending human rights and democracy. Dissidents and dictators alike have not seen a U.S. president as committed to freedom around the world since former U.S. President George W. Bush—and that is a very good thing if you are on the side of the dissidents. Biden is right that the state of democracy is an urgent matter. In fact, it is urgent enough that the United States should look for ways its allies and partners can help on their own terms.

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

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