Why Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy won’t save democracy

American stewardship of a summit on renewing global democracy feels like an old solution to a new problem

By: /
25 January, 2021
Then-president-elect Joe Biden arrives in Georgia to campaign with Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in January 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On January 6, 2021, as U.S. elected officials met to certify the 2020 presidential election’s results in Washington D.C., a few hundred pro-Trump rioters breached the outer walls of the Capitol building, home to the House and Senate, before being met with a delayed police response. The clashes led to the shooting and eventual death of one female rioter.

The event was yet another illustration of the precarity of modern democracy, in America and around the world.

Then-president-Elect Joe Biden described the riot as “an insurrection,” adding: “Today is a reminder — a painful one — that democracy is fragile.”

Biden had previously warned of threatening democratic decline and, last spring, called for renewed commitment to democratic restoration. In an essay on American leadership, he proposed a “Summit for Democracy” to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding and force a common agenda.” The summit would invite heads of state and key private sector actors, from civil society organizations on the “frontlines of the defence of democracy” to technology giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google — which remain vital for preserving the integrity of modern democratic practices. Yet, while the events of early 2021 make the protection of democracy ever-more essential, American stewardship of a new global summit feels like an old answer to a new problem.

The Summit for Democracy is likely to fail for a two main reasons. First, in selecting participants, Biden will probably alienate both friends and foes as his administration tries to balance their stated values against America’s hard interests. Secondly, the summit seems to confuse the symptoms of democratic decay with their cause: authoritarianism or autocracy has grown increasingly potent where people perceive the liberal democratic promise has not, and cannot, deliver at home. Biden’s true democratic restoration must begin and meaningfully progress in America before a global summit is either useful or feasible.

To start, the proposed Summit for Democracy will likely deepen divisions between democratic and non-democratic states, hindering cooperation when it is needed most. Nowhere is this more critical than for national (and international) security. In February 2021, the New Start Treaty, which restricts the number of operational nuclear weapons maintained and deployed by the U.S. and Russia will expire. Last autumn, efforts by Trump officials and the Kremlin to negotiate a temporary extension failed. Engagement with Russia may remain unpalatable to many Americans, particularly after last year’s revelation that Russian military intelligence units had paid Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and recurring evidence of Russian tampering with U.S. elections. But negotiating with Russia is about American interests, not values, and the grand strategy of international affairs demands that Washington engage (and re-engage) countries like China and Russia on a range of interests, from trade agreements and natural resources to policies addressing carbon emissions and other drivers of climate change — a key pillar for the Biden administration. For these reasons, a Summit for Democracy is a foreign policy tool likely to create an inhospitable environment for meaningful negotiation. As David Adler and Stephen Wertheim, have argued, Biden’s proposed summit may only recreate 20th century divisions between the West and the rest, at a time when solutions to our 21st century challenges demand radically new forms of collective action and cooperation between all states, democracies or not.

A summit to bolster democratic values may also get awkward at the invitation stage, when U.S. officials are forced to generate a guest list that alienates friends and allies. Does India, the largest democracy in the world, receive an invitation despite the government’s repression and harassment of critical activists, journalists and others, or its failure to take meaningful action to stop violent attacks on minorities, especially Muslims? Does the Biden administration use their invitations strategically, drawing vulnerable autocrats, like Lukashenko of Belarus, back into the American orbit? These decisions — and the tug of war between democratic ideals and national interest — will continue to generate costs as well as opportunities.

But, for the political machine of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the selection of participants could also fracture the nascent domestic alliance before the hard work of governing has begun. After all, the summit, framed around the importance of democratic values, will presumably have to mirror the diverse range of issues, including LGBTQ rights and gender equality, that the Biden/Harris political tent now encompasses. Biden officials and appointees, serving their constituents and supporters in America, will likely bristle if the Summit for Democracy only caters to the lowest common denominator of democratic values. And if pro-democracy groups have reason to doubt the credentials or commitment of summit attendees, the event will become a spectacle of public relations with little political consequence.

Debates about the potential value of a democratic summit, or league of democracies, are old. Twenty years ago, 106 states — many of them non-democracies — signed the Warsaw Declaration, forming the “Community of Democracies” which aimed, much like Biden’s summit, to “strengthen the institutions and processes” central to the liberal democratic project. By 2006, prominent international relations scholars Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry, co-chairs of the Princeton Project on National Security, called for something more robust, specifically the formation of a Concert of Democracies. This compact of liberal states would enshrine the principles of representative government, and commonly outlined key social, economic and political rights, and would help U.S. “friends and allies to develop … a new institution designed to strengthen security cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies.” Members would pledge to abstain from using force against fellow members, commit to regular free and fair elections, guarantee civil and political rights for their citizens and accept the responsibility to protect both their own citizens and vulnerable populations worldwide. Taken together, the institution would mirror the best intentions of the UN but be free of its laggard bureaucracy and able to decisively to intervene against violations of international law or abuses of human rights.

Conservative counterparts from this period, empowered by the George W. Bush’s advocacy of democracy promotion, had seized upon a similar ethos and suggested international peace was the inevitable outcome of democratic revolutions worldwide. This argument was notably used as belated rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq by American forces that then-senators Biden and Hillary Clinton voted to authorize. As journalist Jonathan Rauch wrote in 2004, “Rarely have liberal idealism and neoconservative realism converged so completely.” In this light, Financial Times writer Edward Luce has argued, Biden’s reaffirmation of democratic ideology as the raison d’être for American policy makes his approach to international affairs a reflection, not of his former boss, Barack Obama, but of their predecessor, George W. Bush.

If the old is new again, however, Biden’s Summit for Democracy comes at a time of diminished optimism regarding democracy’s potential growth. 2019 marked the 14th consecutive year of democratic decline, according to the democracy-tracking NGO Freedom House. More than half the countries listed as “Free” or “Not Free” in 2009 have suffered a net decline of political freedom since, an erosion reflected in the emergence of populist parties and a general weakening of political pluralism.

Biden isn’t alone wanting to wrestle with this trend. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a “D-10” — a working group of the world’s 10 largest democracies. Johnson’s plan, however, is intended to address regulation and coordinate policy on information technology, notably competition with China over 5G cellular networks. Biden, by contrast, strains to be inclusive, but displays a post-9/11-style righteousness that risks alienating those outside the invite-only circle Biden wants to lead.

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“The biggest danger in Biden’s proposed summit may be that it distracts from more meaningful first steps to protect and bolster the health of democracy.”

The biggest danger in Biden’s proposed summit may be that it distracts from more meaningful first steps to protect and bolster the health of global democracy. Today’s complex political challenges are not strictly caused by, nor do they fall exclusively within the purview of, democratic states. For example, the summit’s inclusion of the technological behemoths — whether Amazon, Google or Facebook — suggests one priority for democratic restoration will be through domestic regulation between the private and public sector, particularly in the realm of information technology. The Summit for Democracy may help allies calibrate common principles for this regulation, but the true test of reform will play out within America first — home to these digital hegemons — and may prove beyond the current capability and willingness of Democratic and Republican lawmakers. To promise change internationally and fail to deliver at home only threatens to repeat the embarrassment of President Woodrow Wilson a century ago. Wilson, who pledged support and helped construct what would become the League of Nations after the end of World War I, failed to secure enough domestic political support for America to join the body.

Given the resurgence of political violence by right-wing extremist groups within America, and the stain of the January 6th “insurrection, Biden’s summit pledge is also weakened by the gap between principle and practice in contemporary America. From the mishandling of COVID-19 to Trump’s refusal to concede electoral defeat, from outrage over systemic racism in American law enforcement to the Trump administration’s caustic tone towards historic allies and friends, America’s international stock has plummeted. According to former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power — who will lead the U.S. Agency for International Development in the new Biden administration — the percentage of people holding favourable views of America has hit “record lows” in the strongest of America’s allies: Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

A summit may patch these wounds, but foreign observers of the United States are more prone to describe the U.S. as “incompetent,” Power writes, leaving “fewer and fewer people to identify the U.S. as capable of solving big problems” — much less lead these processes. Those same allies, Canada included, will need to balance their support for America’s return to multilateral international affairs against clear-eyed assessments of how a Summit for Democracy either benefits or diminishes the existing frameworks for inter-state cooperation. For Canada, the summit may bring a welcome reset for the beleaguered North American partnership, while offering a new venue to build consensus around key issues, from regulation of technology companies and the protection and promotion of democracies internationally. Further, middle power states like Canada will be increasingly important for the United States as Biden engages a larger network of friends and potential allies to retain global stewardship as America’s relative power continues to diminish in the decades to come. Supporters may see the summit as Canada’s chance to invest early and maximize its potential influence in the new democratic compact. Critics, however, will see the 2021 American transition, and Biden’s eagerness for democratic restoration, as a moment ripe for wider reforms for existing organizations, including NATO, the G-7 and the United Nations.

If Biden’s summit bid is successful, Canada (and others) may have to choose between two mediocre outcomes: become a member of a new and weak international alliance or offer little more than rhetorical support and still risk having the summit distract from the need for wider global institutional reform.

Pull quote: “If America has demonstrated anything by its actions in recent years, it’s that the promise of the liberal project — and the perception of its potential benefits — has been manipulated to fuel political division in America.”

Which leads to a final, and most clawing, concern about the summit’s political blindness. A summit that champions democratic values only works if those values are clearly evidenced. If America has demonstrated anything by its actions in recent years, it’s that the promise of the liberal project — and the perception of its potential benefits — has been manipulated to fuel political division in America. Biden must harness his governing coalition to illustrate how the democratic package of goods — the constitutionally-preserved bundle of protections and liberties — remains fit for purpose and capable of delivering returns to American citizens, who rely on representative politics to safeguard their prosperity. Biden’s administration must prove to all, and certainly the most aggrieved, of the 74 million Americans that voted for Trump, that the country’s modern social contract will, in fact, include them.

For the last century, democratic dividends have paid handsomely globally, but the benefits have been distributed unequally. While America is materially better off today than at any time in recorded history, the caustic politics of loss — sharpened by recurring cycles of economic collapse — has grown potent and poisonous under the Trump administration. The differential effects of globalization on the American citizen, for instance, were never explained by Trump but instead weaponized in a form of entitled politics — a politics that produces a surplus of communal outrage driven by the suggestion that one’s individual benefits have been stolen, not lost. Even after the egregious attack on the Capitol, then-president Trump’s Tweets described the outcome as “events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Trump’s narrative of America’s broken system is not wholly incorrect, but it remains selfishly misleading: a democratic system is never truly fixed — either in terms of being repaired or by remaining static. In the words of the late American congressman John Lewis, democracy is an act, not a state, and it is the democratic system that must be maintained to ensure collective interests, en masse and over time, force the political machine to self-correct. With worldwide satisfaction and trust in democracy wavering, complicated further by the pressure of a global pandemic and associated uncertainty, the new administration must focus on the evident frailty of American democratic institutions and how those institutions and the cultural norms on which they depend might be strengthened. If the Summit for Democracy is to uphold the spirit of politics Biden wants reflected in the world, that spirit must shimmer first in America.

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On February 4, the Canadian International Council’s Toronto branch is co-hosting a conversation between Ryerson University Jarislowsky Democracy Chair Sanjay Ruparelia and Edward Luce, U.S. national editor and columnist at the Financial Times, on “The Persistent Crisis of Western Liberalism.” The event will be online and is open to everyone. Please register here.

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