President Joe Biden will convene more than 100 world leaders, along with civil society and private-sector representatives, for his much-touted “Summit for Democracy” on Thursday and Friday. The virtual event, focused on “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world,” fulfills a pledge Biden made repeatedly in his presidential campaign — and one that we urged him to ditch shortly after he was elected.
In an article laying out our case last December, we stressed that determining who is sufficiently democratic to make the invite list would inevitably create tensions, and that the entire concept of a democracy summit relies on an overly ideological approach to managing the global agenda. Better, we thought, to skip the summit and get to the work of promoting democracy by working with already existing international institutions and partnerships, while revitalizing our own programs like USAID. Finally, we feared the U.S. had questionable credibility to position itself as a leading democracy, worries that were heightened after January 6 and amid ongoing efforts by many Republicans to undercut our own democratic system.
The Biden team, obviously, chose differently. We still think the summit risks becoming a self-inflicted wound, but given that it is happening anyway, here are four ways in which the administration can mitigate the most likely pitfalls.
First, don’t be afraid to call out your guests. Taking geopolitics into account, even when it means compromising your ideals somewhat, is a fact of life in foreign policy. With a summit billed as being literally “for democracy,” though, this risks going from complication to contradiction. The administration did draw a line by declining to invite NATO allies Hungary and Turkey, whose democratic credentials are in serious doubt. A number of other backsliding democracies that we raised concerns about — Poland, the Philippines, Brazil and India — did get invited. Each has its geopolitical rationale. But their undemocratic practices have grown worse over the past year.
The Biden administration argues that these countries aren’t just being invited for reasons of realpolitik, but that including them provides opportunities for their civil societies to challenge authoritarian trends. (The White House might be looking for inspiration to the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, which ultimately helped foster the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes.) Still, the risk is that leaders may walk away able to say the United States recognized them as democratic. Each needs to get the message that their invitation does not mean the Biden team is letting them off the hook regarding their undemocratic trends. While it may be tough for the administration to be too blatantly public during the summit, well-placed leaks to the press can help ensure that behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure is not so quiet as to lack teeth.
The message to Polish President Andrzej Duda should be that while the U.S. stands with him against Belarus’ weaponization of migrants at the border, it also supports the efforts of the EU Court of Justice, which has been fining Poland more than 1 million Euros per day for violating EU law regarding judicial independence. And though Tucker Carlson may heap praise on Duda, the Biden administration should make clear it will use its leverage to help those working to reverse Poland’s assaults on the courts and a free media.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte needs to be reminded of the crucial role the U.S. played in bringing down Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and re-establishing Philippine democracy in the 1980s. The U.S. should convey that it is committed to helping ensure next year’s Philippine elections are free and fair, with a particular eye on the autocratic family unity ticket of Marcos’ son and Duterte’s daughter.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, long self-styled as the “tropical Trump,” is already making foreboding statements like “only God can take me from the presidency.” Given the United States’ disturbing record of supporting anti-democratic forces in Brazil during the Cold War, it is especially crucial that the Biden administration be clear that its commitment to a “long-term” strategic partnership” with Brazil doesn’t mean the U.S. will ignore the state of Brazilian democracy.
On India, the administration got off to a good start with the March 2021 human rights report from the State Department, which extensively delineated human rights violations and criticized the “lack of accountability for official misconduct … at all levels of government.” But the U.S.-India security partnership has grown closer as part of the enhanced Indo-Pacific Quad, even as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently ranked India as worst among all “backsliding” democracies. This makes it all the more important that the next human rights report be no less frank and the U.S. not be afraid to call out Narendra Modi’s government.
Second, don’t let democracy alone dictate whom you work with. Another challenge for Biden at the summit will be affirming the shared affinities among democracies without further dividing the world into two camps. Ideology and interests do not always align. Democracies often have divergent interests. Democracies and autocracies can have convergent ones.
Fellow democracies are frequently economic and geopolitical competitors, and often have different ideas about how to manage the threats posed by authoritarian states. In that regard, the summit is a good time to reaffirm Secretary Antony Blinken’s assurance to NATO in March that “The United States won’t force allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China.”
Meanwhile, democracies cannot afford to be opposed to autocracies on every issue. In the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union shared interests on issues like arms control and smallpox eradication. Today, the United States and China (as well as Russia) have a shared interest in combating climate change, reducing the risks of nuclear proliferation and fighting pandemics. Moreover, China is intertwined in the global economy in a way the Soviet Union never was.
The administration’s decision to invite Taiwan highlights this delicate balance between values and geopolitical reality. In one sense, Taiwan absolutely belongs on the invitation list; its democracy gets one of Freedom House’s highest rankings. But the invitation is obviously a delicate matter given Chinese concerns. Whatever sense of greater comity the Biden-Xi virtual summit fostered was punctured days later by Beijing’s protests over Taiwan’s summit invitation. The administration is keeping Taiwanese participation at a relatively lower level, but this diplomatic distinction doesn’t fully finesse the challenges.
While showing support for Taiwan and its democracy is an important foreign policy objective, the Biden team also needs to be firm with the Taiwanese government that it cannot use the summit invitation to insinuate support for independence or other goals inconsistent with the One China policy. Otherwise, the invite risks not only further complicating U.S.-China relations but also having Taiwan’s presence — and subsequent China tensions — becoming a main storyline crowding out the summit’s intended narrative. More generally, Biden should emphasize that, framing of the summit notwithstanding, democracies retain practical interests in working with non-democracies.
Third, use civil society groups to hold countries accountable. A common critique of the summit — which we agree with — has been that it will be nearly impossible to force countries to deliver on the democratic commitments they are being asked to make. The Biden administration has compiled an “illustrative menu of options” for initiatives they hope invited countries will choose to sign onto, and they plan to hold another summit a year from now to assess progress. These pledges need to be concrete enough to make the summit more than “just a photo op” — a risk that became clear with how few Paris climate commitments from 2015 were fulfilled, a failure that now hangs over the Glasgow COP-26 summit.
To ensure participants are held accountable, Biden should fully endorse the June 2022 Fifth Copenhagen Democracy Summit, whose more than 500 participants will undertake a “civil society stocktaking of the commitments made” at Biden’s summit. The Copenhagen meeting is a great opportunity to empower a consortium of groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Transparency International and various NGOs in the Global South to provide the kind of accountability scorecards governments on their own will not.
Fourth, use the summit to make real progress on fixing America’s broken democracy. Finally, we expressed concerns last year that this was the wrong moment for the U.S. to host an international gathering focused on democratic values. Since then, those concerns have only been exacerbated by the January 6 insurrection; the refusal of many Americans — fed lies by their political leaders — to accept the results of the 2020 election; rampant political violence against election officials, health care workers and school board officials; and a systematic effort by Republicans in a number of states to curtail voting rights.
We give the administration credit for being humble about the United States’ challenges. In announcing the summit, Biden acknowledged that for ourselves and for how the world sees us, “we must openly and honestly grapple with our history of systemic inequity and injustice and the way it still holds back so many in our society.”
Indeed, in the past, foreign policy considerations have spurred crucial domestic political change. Historian Mary Dudziak writes that during the Cold War, “as presidents and secretaries of state. . . worried about the impact of race discrimination on U.S. prestige abroad, civil rights reform came to be seen as crucial to U.S. foreign relations.” Even Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual godfather of power politics, stressed the need to “concentrate efforts upon creating a society at home which can . . . serve as a model for other nations to emulate.” Were Biden to use the summit to launch a major initiative for repairing American democracy so that it is once again emulatable, the summit may prove worthwhile after all.
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