Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Biden's Democracy Summit Could Backfire

| Dec. 08, 2021

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

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Biden's Democracy Summit Could Backfire.” Foreign Policy, December 8, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt