The truths and fallacies of Biden’s Summit for Democracy
President Biden’s preoccupation with promoting democracy is a noble, if somewhat elusive, intention that US presidents have pursued since Woodrow Wilson after his 1st annual report for 2021. Democracy has declined over the past 15 years ( the USA lost 11 points and now ranks 51st).
Biden’s Summit for Democracy last week aimed to spark energy for democratic renewal domestically and globally. The summit reflected what appears to be a major theme of Biden’s foreign policy: the struggle of the 21st century is between democracies and autocracies. Biden sees an urgent challenge: “We have to prove that democracy works.”
As Biden said at the summit, are we “at a turning point”? Is the clash between democracies and autocracies one that will “fundamentally determine the direction our world will take over the next two decades”? And will summits – even with the $ 424 million US initiatives launched last week to protect journalists, fight corruption, and support civil society – likely make more than a marginal difference?
There is a real core to the concern about autocracies, but I have some doubts. There are so many layers of flawed assumptions that need to be unwrapped. For starters, in a complex, multipolar world, the autocracy demon seems intellectually lazy, a simplified binary substitute for communism.
I agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the others. History suggests that democratic capitalism has far surpassed state autocracies. But is it just a matter of utility, or is it basically a moral issue of citizens’ freedoms and say, with governments deriving their legitimacy from and being accountable to the people?
Democracies are by definition organic – from the people, from the people, for the people. They usually develop mainly due to their internal economic and social circumstances. So too with their erosion.
The US has not infrequently reinvented its democracy based on internal pressures – women’s suffrage, the 1965 Suffrage Act, etc. Our authoritarian tendency is also homemade. Similarly, in India, Brazil, the Philippines and Poland, the democratic relapse has been caused domestically. Autocracies had little control over them.
The premise that emerging autocracies are threatening or a causal factor in the erosion of democracies seems to confuse cause and effect. Growing populist nationalism reflects real trends: a backlash to globalization afflicting the middle class; the “1 percent” and growing inequality; Cultural change and disinformation in social media. Such developments sparked anger among the elites, fueled resentment and distrust of authorities and experts. These forces are behind the polarization and tribal identity that shapes US politics.
No doubt authoritarians have taken advantage of the malaise of democracy. The rest of the world saw the Trump show run for four years, culminating in the January 6 uprising and the attempted political coup.
For dictators like Putin, arming the failures of democracy through disinformation campaigns to deepen divisions is mainly an attempt to legitimize their rule. Moscow hardly promotes its kleptocratic model. China, a more dynamic player, has set itself the task of promoting its economic success as a model worth emulating. But its economic coercion and assertiveness have sparked a backlash, with polls showing that views of China are hitting all-time lows around the world.
Like Russia, China has used the US political unrest to legitimize its own rule and expand its global influence rather than exporting its political system. China’s hysterical reaction to the Biden Summit, which resorted to absurd intellectual gymnastics to argue that Beijing’s technototalitarianism is more democratic than the West, only reveals its own insecurities.
While the democracies’ struggles are largely of their own cause, strategically Biden is right about the urgency of mobilizing like-minded partners. There is a serious threat to the international order from China and other authoritarians who are challenging global rules in the central arena of competition: geoeconomics, rules of trade and technology that will fuel the global economy of the 21st century.
Look at competitive cyberspace. With China’s “Great Firewall” and the concept of “Internet sovereignty” we seem to be heading for a fragmented digital world. More and more countries are adopting data localization guidelines, restricting the flow of information and the use of data by foreign companies, which impede the free flow of digital trade. There are no global rules for digital commerce. If Biden’s summit spurs collaboration between democracies to protect the Internet and combat disinformation, it will be worth it.
This is just a small part of the trade / technology problem. In trade, there is an urgent need to reform a broken World Trade Organization. In terms of technology, China is pushing for international bodies to set standards for a number of new technologies – such as 5G, artificial intelligence, robotics, space, and life sciences – based on their preferences.
If large democratic economies like the US, Europe and Japan can align their policies, they can prevent China from imposing its technology standards on others and urge Beijing to change its predatory industrial policies to shape global trade and technology rules and standards .
But it won’t be easy. Nations have both interests and values and are shaped by geography, economics, history and culture. The US and the European Union (EU) have very different philosophies when it comes to technology regulation and different approaches to trade, which leads to large gaps. While the US-EU summit set up a US-EU trade and technology council to develop rules and standards, the US exhorted the EU for anti-US technology regulations and digital tax proposals.
Mobilizing allies and like-minded partners into coalitions to influence updated rules and norms on specific issues is a prerequisite for any viable US strategy. It is the way to gain influence, to negotiate global rules and norms. But in a multipolar world with diffuse power it is not enough as an organizational principle for the world order.
For some, the logic of the gap between democracy and autocracy leads to a world limited only to democracy. But throughout history there have been few contracts that have excluded great powers, especially those as important as China, the world’s largest trading power, a technology powerhouse and a leading capital exporter; and Russia, a major nuclear weapon state. This would be a recipe for instability and conflict. This reality underscores the need for like-minded democracies to find consensus in order to gain the leverage to counterbalance China.
But the starting point, as Biden often says, is “to lead by the power of our example”. That brings us back to the basic questions of why the summit took place. Surveys show that few people around the world today consider the US a role model for the world.
The US must get its own house in order before it can reclaim its moral authority and embark on a grand democratic renewal.
Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the Department of State’s Policy Planning from 2004 to 2008, and a member of the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Future Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @rmanning4.