President Biden began his Summit for Democracy Thursday morning—carried live on the State Department’s public website—with a 10-minute address extolling the strengths of free speech and open discourse. Then Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the summit was moving into a “closed-door session,” and the public webcast was turned off.
Diplomatic summits often go into closed session, but this was a meeting held via Zoom with the heads of 111 nations. With that many participants, what could be so sensitive that couldn’t also be shared with the rest of us? Besides, given that it was a “Summit for Democracy,” this was not a good look.
When the cameras came back on, two hours later, we saw a roundtable panel about “bolstering democratic resilience.” The featured speakers included the president of Ghana; the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone; and the president of Costa Rica’s legislative assembly. It might have been interesting to hear from such figures, whose voices get so little recognition. Unfortunately, they seem to have mastered all too well the arts of phatic speech and bromides.
Biden has been talking about this summit since even before he was elected. Yet after its first few hours, the point of the summit—never quite clear to begin with—was more opaque than ever. Even as theater, the plotline seemed threadbare.
Many have noted the summit’s more problematic aspects. Not least, the United States is currently in no great shape to host a summit on democratic practices and values. According to a recent Pew Research report, just 17 percent of people surveyed around the world consider the U.S. “a good example to follow.” In such stalwart allied countries of Germany, Australia, Canada, Italy, South Korea, Sweden, and Japan, the figure falls below 17 percent. The most gung-ho country about American democracy is Italy; but even there, just 32 percent see us a good example.
And of course they have reason to feel this way. The bizarre and undemocratic Electoral College (two of the four presidents elected this century lost the popular vote), the stilted Supreme Court (which six of 10 Americans think is motivated by politics, not law), the disinformation about the 2020 election (which a majority of Republicans believe was stolen), the deliberate suppression of voting rights (19 states have enacted 33 laws just this year that make it harder for citizens to vote), to say nothing of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump insurrection and the fact that nearly every Republican in the U.S. Congress voted against forming a commission to investigate its origins—these are just a few of the signs that the U.S. is (as the Economist’s Democracy Index has put it ever since 2017) “a troubled democracy.”
Then there are conceptual problems with this summit. Biden has long said that the crucial contest in the world right now is between democracy and authoritarianism—and that the U.S. must lead the way in showing the world that democracy works, that democratic governments can “do big things.” In his opening remarks, he cited the bipartisan passage of the infrastructure bill as Exhibit A.
However, first, the infrastructure bill—though a significant accomplishment by any measure—hardly proves Biden’s thesis. Not long ago, a bill to spread $1 trillion worth of “shovel-ready” projects all across the country, in red states and blue states, would have been a no-brainer; it would have passed on a voice vote. The fact that Biden’s bill met serious political opposition and won just 19 Republican votes in the Senate suggests that confidence in the government as a positive force in society (one feature of a vibrant democracy) is not at all high.
Second, while the contest between democracy and authoritarianism is one feature of international politics, Biden may be heading into a trap by declaring it the central feature. To win, the U.S. has to show that democratic governments can do big things—yet Congress is so deadlocked, the Supreme Court is so at odds with public opinion, politics and society are so out of alignment on so many issues, we might wind up showing that (the infrastructure bill aside) we can’t do much after all. Nor is it clear that we will have strong tailwinds of support from the rest of the world. According to a recent report by Freedom House, less than 20 percent of the global population lives in a free country—down from 39 percent the year before and the lowest percentage since 1995.
This may be all the more reason for a summit of some sort on democracy—but this summit seems an odd beast. Of the 111 countries that Biden invited to attend, 29 are described by Freedom House as “partly free” (e.g., Colombia, Indonesia, and Kenya) or “not free” (e.g., Iraq, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Pressed on this point, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “Inclusion on an invitation is not a stamp of approval on their approach to democracy—nor is exclusion a stamp … of disapproval.” Well, then, what does inclusion or exclusion indicate?
Mainly it’s about international politics. Russia and China weren’t invited because the summit’s premise—the contest between democracy and authoritarianism—is largely a contest against them. Iraq was invited because the U.S. backed Iraq in a long war and because Israel can’t be the only Middle Eastern country to attend. Pakistan was invited because India was, and it would offend the Pakistanis—still needed for support in counterterrorism operations—to leave them out.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but the primacy of power politics in the summit’s formation suggests there might be something amiss in its very premise for being. Not only is the United States less democratic than it used to be, it’s also less powerful. We can’t impose our will unilaterally to the extent we were once able to do; we need allies and partners, and sometimes allies and partners are unpleasant. We need either Russia or China—and, in some cases, both—to help fight the pandemic, keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb, keep North Korea under some control, combat terrorism, and, not least, keep relations peaceful among the three of us, who after all possess the world’s three largest nuclear arsenals.
By highlighting the competition between democracy and authoritarianism, to the point of excluding Russia and China from a diplomatic forum that includes the likes of Angola and Congo, is Biden alienating Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping from cooperating with us on these vital issues where we have converging interests? Is he, more than that, pushing Putin and Xi closer together? Similarly, by inviting Poland but not Hungary (even though both countries are illiberal members of the European Union), is Biden pushing the latter’s president, Janos Ader, farther to the anti-democratic right? Is he doing the same to Recip Tayyep Erdogan by not inviting Turkey, a member of NATO?
Or is this an overly cynical way of looking at this? Is it possible that their exclusion—and the tacit promise of inclusion in the future if they straighten up—will lure Ader and Erdogan back into the fold? Will Poland’s president Andrzej Duda be so pleased by his inclusion that he recommits himself to the EU’s democratic principles? It’s possible.
It is certainly notable that Putin and Xi seem to be genuinely irritated by their exclusion. Xi was so furious that his state council issued a pamphlet titled “China: Democracy That Works,” redefining “democracy” in a way that portrayed China as the shining paragon and the United States as tarnished. If the summit forces China’s leaders to justify its behavior on democratic grounds, or if it animates domestic dissidents to sharpen their critiques, perhaps this summit will have done some good. When the Helsinki Accords were signed in 1975, its articles on human rights were widely dismissed as flowery verbiage having no real effect. Yet in retrospect, the accords played a distinct role in strengthening and legitimizing the Russian dissidents—a process that led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union.
But there was another element that played a huge role in that earlier upheaval—the thriving image of American and Western democracy as a more appealing way of life. The editors of Politico asked 18 experts and activists in endangered democracies from Iraq to Poland to India what Biden should do to help democracy in each of their countries. The majority of them replied with something like: Don’t lecture me about democracy. Clean up your own internal problems. Become a role model again.
In 1994, on his 90th birthday, George Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, said in a speech looking back on his life and times, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.”
Yet the summit, as it has emerged, is at best a prod and a symbol. At worst, it’s an annoyance, and there’s the additional danger that it could calcify into a bureaucratic entity—Biden said in his opening remarks that he’ll hold another summit a year from now. He should be more concerned with ensuring that American democracy still exists a year from now. He should take and press for actions—on the nature of the Supreme Court, on the voting rights bill, on strengthening links between popular needs and government policies—that will make us a role model again, to the rest of the world and to ourselves.