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The U.S. Shouldn’t Bother with a ‘Summit for Democracy’

The arguments in favor of Biden’s summit are predictable and borrow heavily from the rhetoric and framing of the Cold War.

President-elect Joe Biden’s proposal to host a “summit for democracy” in his first year in office reflects some of the important flaws in the former vice president’s foreign policy worldview. This proposal takes for granted that the U.S. and other democracies are in some sense all on the same side in opposition to a vaguely-defined authoritarianism. It presupposes that the U.S. is the undisputed leader of the democratic side. It assumes that other nations of the world are craving the American “leadership” that has been lacking for the last four years. It substitutes a focus on regime type for a serious reappraisal of U.S. interests in the world. Finally, it focuses on authoritarian bogeymen in other states when we can see that the greatest threats to a healthy democracy are to be found at home.

Earlier this year, Biden described the summit as an effort “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” This might not have seemed out of place 25 years ago when the U.S. was still held in high regard and talk of the “free world” didn’t sound like an outdated propaganda slogan. That’s no longer the case today. This is one area where Biden’s preference for throwback foreign policy ideas is particularly ill-suited to the world we live in.

The arguments in favor of Biden’s summit are predictable and borrow heavily from the rhetoric and framing of the Cold War. Alexander Vindman’s essay for Foreign Affairs at the start of the month is a good example of this. Vindman talks about U.S. leadership of the “free world” in earnest, as if this description has much relevance for international politics in 2021, and he insists on dividing the world in two antagonistic ideological camps where the opposing ideology isn’t even unified or coherent. Authoritarianism serves as a catch-all umbrella term for many different kinds of governments, but it doesn’t do a very good job of describing what their leaders believe or why they do the things they do. That choice of splitting the world into two camps leads him to conclude that Biden’s democracy summit is just what needs to be done: “Under a new administration, the United States must organize a concerted effort, by democracies and for democracies, to counter the rise of illiberalism and authoritarianism. The United States must host a democracy summit.”

There have already been several trenchant responses to Biden’s proposal and Vindman’s essay, and they highlight some of the main weaknesses in both. As James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson point out, hosting a democracy summit requires deciding which governments qualify to attend, and that is bound to lead to snubbing quasi-authoritarian and illiberal allies or including governments whose commitment to liberal democracy is questionable. David Adler and Stephen Wertheim have made similar criticisms, and they note that some of the most pressing global problems can’t be addressed if the world is once again carved up into competing blocs. It’s worth adding that the solidarity among democracies that Biden and Vindman are counting on doesn’t exist.

Vindman asserts, “Uniting the democratic world against the clear and present danger of rising authoritarianism is not an act of idealism but of realism.” The trouble here is that there is no one “democratic world,” nor is there ever likely to be one because the interests of major democracies around the world are bound to be different. While many Americans may see Russia and China as adversaries, other large democracies do not necessarily share these views. For example, Russia is more of a partner to India than a foe, and Indonesia doesn’t want to antagonize China by joining an anti-Chinese bloc. We should expect democratic states in different parts of the world to have divergent interests, and if our government tries to shoehorn them into an ideological coalition it is more likely to damage relations with these other democracies. Even many of our most important European allies are reluctant to divide up the world along ideological lines, because they know that their economic interests will be among the first to be sacrificed as part of this “concerted effort.”

Vindman continues: “To convene a summit of democracies will not therefore drive authoritarian states together so much as it will acknowledge the stark reality of a world bifurcated into authoritarian and democratic camps.” Advocates of democracy promotion have been saying something like this for the better part of the last twenty years, and during that time they have succeeded in driving authoritarian powers closer together. To the extent that this “stark reality” exists, it is partly because the U.S. pursued a misguided “freedom agenda” in the 2000s and then kept pressing the issue by supporting uprisings in the 2010s. As the U.S. has linked democracy promotion with its other policy goals, this has tended to encourage the tightening of authoritarian controls in other states, and the repeated pursuits of regime change have caused authoritarian regimes to make common cause.

There are other reasons why such a summit is unlikely to achieve anything. Some democratically-elected governments may not want to align themselves with anything resembling a “League of Democracies” for fear of antagonizing other great powers. Others may object to letting the U.S. act as the arbiter of which countries are sufficiently democratic in light of our own institutional weaknesses and political dysfunction. Some governments will see the “concerted effort” Vindman calls for as the reinforcement of a two-tiered international system where states aligned with the U.S. are held to a different and lower standard than everyone else. Others will see it as a potential threat and a prelude to pursuing regime change in those countries under authoritarian rule. No doubt more than a few will be wary of yet another U.S.-led coalition preaching the virtues of democracy after decades of destructive meddling in the affairs of other states.

Perhaps the most important objection to a democracy summit is that a new Biden administration does not have time to waste on organizing such a gathering. In addition to the pandemic and economic crises at home, the new administration will be faced with an entrenched domestic political opposition and multiple urgent international issues that will need to take priority. Extending New START, rejoining the JCPOA, ending U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen, and managing the fallout from the failed “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea and Venezuela make for an extremely challenging and time-consuming agenda for a new president even at the best of times. These are the practical and immediate foreign policy problems that Biden will have to address in his first year, and the more time that is spent on pageantry and photo ops the less there will be for everything else.

There are a few things that Biden can do to combat corruption and strengthen democratic government that don’t require this summit and the grandiose ideological statements associated with it. First, he can support a renewed role for Congress in matters of war in order to restore greater democratic control over these decisions. Second, he can rule out appointing wealthy donors and corporate leaders as ambassadors, and choose qualified diplomats and regional experts for these positions instead. He can also endorse and sign legislation cracking down on tax havens and shell companies that have allowed the U.S. to become the playground of the world’s kleptocrats. As for opposing authoritarianism in the rest of the world, the first and best thing that the U.S. could do is to reduce or end its support for its many authoritarian clients.

The other key objection to the summit is that the U.S. must first get its own house in order before it presumes to lead or lecture anyone else about democratic government. Our political institutions are more feeble and vulnerable than most people believed possible just a few years ago. In just the last few months, we have seen how easy it would be for our system to break down after decades of neglect, corruption, and cynical abuse. Instead of being an example to the world, the U.S. has come alarmingly close to being a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government is obsessed with exporting democracy to the far corners of the globe while letting it deteriorate and wither at home. Rather than chasing after authoritarian monsters abroad, the U.S. would do well to attend to its own failings and repair itself.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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