It was not a great day for the image of American democracy. Leaders from New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern to India’s Narendra Modi issued statements decrying the storming of the Capitol as an attack on democracy itself. French President Emmanuel Macron gave an impassioned speech noting how France and the United States have historically come to each other’s aid to fight threats to democracy. Not surprisingly, governments that are usually on the receiving end of human rights criticism from the U.S., such as Turkey and Russia, took the opportunity for some trolling.
Despite the invasion, Congress did finish certifying the Electoral College count, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are expected to be sworn in later this month. But the events of this week underscore the difficulties facing the incoming Biden administration, which has vowed to make support for global democracy a centerpiece of its foreign policy. Even before this week’s quasi-coup attempt, global observers were generally in agreement that, at the very least, U.S. democratic institutions have eroded in recent years, particularly when it comes to voting rights, mass incarceration, the treatment of immigrants, and economic inequality. It was recently announced that the United States had fallen below the “democracy threshold” on the Polity index, a measure of a country’s level of democracy that’s widely cited by political scientists, and is now considered an “anocracy,” a country with both democratic and autocratic features.
Will any country still take the U.S. seriously when it talks about democracy and the rule of law?
The Biden team is betting it will. Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, has argued that the mere fact of Biden’s election will send a “powerful message around the world” that “the last four years were an aberration and not representative of what America is and aspires to be.” As part of his plan to harness the “power of America’s example,” Biden has pledged that within his first year in office, the U.S. will host a global “summit of democracies” with ideologically like-minded countries to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.”
The not-so-subtle goal of the summit is to strengthen an alliance of countries to counter the growing global influence of China and Russia. Versions of this idea under different names have been kicking around Washington for a while and found adherents in both parties. The late Sen. John McCain even campaigned on the creation of a new “League of Democracies,” which could “act where the U.N. fails to act.”
Biden’s proposal is a lot more modest. It’s not quite clear if he envisions a new permanent grouping like the G-20 or if this is just a one-off meeting. And rather than coordinating military actions between nations, he calls merely for getting countries to sign on to new commitments in the areas of anti-corruption, election security, and defending human rights. It will also urge private firms—namely, technology and social media companies—to make binding commitments to uphold democratic norms.
These are all worthy goals. But the summit had already been met with some skepticism from experts and foreign diplomats, and for good reason. As James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson note in Foreign Affairs, the first big challenge is the guest list. Defining a democracy is not so easy. With the notable exception of China, most countries at least go through the motions of holding national elections, even if those elections are total shams. Would “hybrid” regimes like Turkey or the Philippines get an invite? What about countries like Brazil, Hungary, or Poland? (As Hungary’s democratic institutions have crumbled under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, its membership has been a vexing issue for the European Union, which also requires members to uphold democratic standards.) What about India, which while often called the “world’s largest democracy” increasingly resembles a majoritarian ethno-state under Modi?
The Summit of Democracies idea seems at odds with Biden’s overall promise of returning to the foreign policy of the Obama administration. Barack Obama distinguished himself from McCain in 2008 through his willingness to negotiate with hostile governments. Most of his most notable foreign policy accomplishments—the Iran nuclear deal, diplomatic normalization with Cuba, finding common ground with China on climate change—all of which Biden has pledged to restore, involved dealing with some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Even the goal of confronting China’s authoritarian influence abroad will likely involve cooperation with some countries that are less than perfect liberal democracies, such as India and Vietnam.
Of course, it’s possible to do two things at once—to stand up for democratic values while working with nondemocratic countries on areas of mutual concern. But it’s hard to see what’s accomplished by so publicly drawing a line in the sand at the very beginning of the new administration. It risks further dividing the world into Cold War–style blocs. And for the countries in the murky not-quite-democratic middle ground, it risks either pushing them further into Moscow or Beijing’s orbit, or allowing them to whitewash their own undemocratic behavior by demonstrating their anti-Chinese or anti-Russian bona fides—a tactic that anti-communist governments the world over perfected during the Cold War.
The overarching question is whether the U.S. is really in any position to be leading a group like this right now. Sure, it’s a step in the right direction that the new president won’t express the same contempt for democracy and human rights as his predecessor. But by any measure, U.S. democracy is in fragile shape after a concerted attempt by Trump to overturn the results of a presidential election, which was supported to varying degrees by much of his party and which could very well have succeeded if the outcome of the election had been closer. There’s a good case to be made that before making the world safe for democracy, the U.S. government should focus on making the U.S. safe for it.
This doesn’t mean the U.S. government should stop talking about democracy and human rights in other countries. It wouldn’t help anyone for the world’s richest and most powerful country to go silent on these issues. But the conversation can’t be the same. “Shining city on a hill” rhetoric is clearly no longer working. Even the more nuanced “America isn’t perfect but still has lessons for the world” rhetoric that Obama specialized in feels inadequate now. Holding a summit of democracies to address the problem of spreading authoritarianism feels a bit like a town building a seawall when Main Street is already a foot underwater.
Strengthening democracy at home and abroad at the same time will require rethinking the problem. Rather than focusing on transforming authoritarian governments, a more useful approach could be to focus on eradicating authoritarian practices, which are visible in nearly every country today, to varying extents. The Dutch political scientist Marlies Glasius defines these practices as actions that involve “sabotaging accountability to people over whom a political actor exerts control, or their representatives, by disabling their access to information and/or disabling their voice.” Leaders who were more or less fairly elected, like Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, are not authoritarian leaders in the same way Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin are, but all are capable of authoritarian actions. Using the power of the state to discredit a political rival is an authoritarian practice. So is trying to overturn the results of a democratic election to stay in power. Inciting your supporters to attack the legislature in order to prevent the certification of that election? Textbook authoritarian practice.
None of this implies that the U.S. can only make democracy promotion a priority after it perfects its own democracy. But the approach may need to be a bit more humble. As Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution wrote earlier this year, “the highest-impact component of American rights advocacy abroad is not necessarily our demarches to rights-abusing governments, but our visible engagement with citizens pressing those governments for change.” That sort of engagement can and should continue.
The U.S. may also combat authoritarian practices abroad by no longer enabling them. For one thing, we could wind down or at least significantly curtail the global war on terror and the military operations conducted under its auspices. Glasius argues that the mass digital surveillance conducted by the U.S. since 9/11 is itself an authoritarian practice. Extrajudicial killings of terrorism suspects abroad and the detention of suspects without trial at Guantánamo Bay arguably fit that bill as well. Even if you don’t buy that argument, it’s undeniable that the war on terror has been a godsend for authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that have leveraged their position as allies against al-Qaida and ISIS into lucrative support from Washington. Authoritarian regimes, including China in Xinjiang and Russia in the Caucasus, have borrowed the U.S. counterterrorist rhetoric to justify their own repressive practices. And the war on terror’s political framework can be adapted to justify authoritarian practices on American streets, as lawmakers’ calls to use military force against American protesters, who Trump called “terrorists,” demonstrated last summer.
This week’s events could also lead Americans to wonder what all these practices have actually gotten them. Despite the billions spent and lives lost in the name of protecting U.S. institutions and citizens from terrorism over the past 20 years, there was apparently nothing that could be done to prevent a gang of extremists from literally taking over the U.S. government for several hours.
Rooting out corruption will also be vital to regain U.S. credibility on democracy. Biden has warned of threats posed by foreign dark money to U.S. democracy and pledged in a Foreign Affairs essay last spring “to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies.” The essay drew an explicit connection between corruption and the ability of authoritarian kleptocratic regimes to maintain power—shielding the wealth of leaders and their cronies from democratic accountability—and to interfere on other countries’ political systems.
To really tackle global corruption, the U.S. will have to look inward. We tend to think of offshore finance and tax havens in terms of places like the Cayman Islands or Luxembourg, but the U.S. actually ranks second on the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index. As the British journalist Oliver Bullough writes in his book Moneyland, “The United States had bullied the rest of the world into scrapping financial secrecy, but hadn’t applied the same standards to itself.” Laws in places like Biden’s home state of Delaware make it easy to anonymously register companies. One promising step took place before Biden even took office, with Congress last week passing a measure banning anonymous shell companies.
Finally, the best thing the Biden administration can do to make the world more democratic is to make the U.S. more democratic. This was a theme of both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, and there are signs that Biden’s officials are also interested in finding more links between foreign and domestic priorities.
Initiatives expanding Americans’ access to the ballot with new voting rights laws, granting full voting rights to places like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, making police more accountable, and developing a more humane immigration system are likely to be more effective means of encouraging other countries to democratize than convening more high-level summits.
This isn’t just a matter of setting a good example or avoiding hypocrisy. As I wrote last summer, protests that swept the U.S. in 2020 helped inspire movements against racism, police misconduct, and corruption from London to Lagos to Rio. They were arguably a more effective form of “democracy promotion” than anything the U.S. has done in years. The U.S. government can take steps to support activists in other countries, but it will likely be more effective if activists build links themselves, sharing ideas and tactics. If autocratic practices can take place under both democratic and authoritarian regimes—and often cross borders between them—so can democratic practices. Sometimes the best thing a government can do to promote democracy may be to get out of the way while citizens are practicing it.