The truths and fallacies of Biden’s Summit for Democracy

Biden speaks at democracy summit
Associated Press

President Biden’s preoccupation with promoting democracy is a noble intention, if a somewhat elusive one that U.S. presidents have pursued since Woodrow Wilson sought to “make the world safe for democracy” after World War 1. No doubt democracy is under siege, as Freedom House titled its annual report for 2021. Democracy has been receding (the U.S. fell 11 points and now ranks 51st) for the past 15 years.  

Biden’s Summit for Democracy last week sought to spark energy for democratic renewal at home and worldwide. The Summit reflected what appears to be a major theme of Biden’s foreign policy: The battle of the 21st century is between democracies and autocracies. Biden sees an urgent challenge: “We’ve got to prove that democracy works.”

Are we, as Biden said at the Summit, “at an inflection point”? Is the clash between democracies and autocracies one that will “fundamentally determine the direction our world is going to take in the next two decades?” And are summits – even with the $424 million in U.S. initiatives unveiled at last week’s gathering to protect journalists, fight corruption and support civil society – likely to make more than a difference at the margins?

There are kernels of truth to the concern about autocracies, but I have some doubts. There are so many layers of faulty assumptions that need to be unpacked. For starters, in a complex, multipolar world, the autocracy demon seems intellectually lazy, a simplistic binary substitute for communism.

I’m with Winston Churchill in believing that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. History suggests that democratic Capitalism has broadly out-performed statist autocracies. But is the issue just one of utility, or is it fundamentally a moral question of citizens’ freedoms and having a say, with governments deriving their legitimacy from, and being accountable to, the people?

By definition, democracies are organic — of the people, by the people, for the people. They tend to evolve driven mainly by their internal economic and social circumstances. So too, with their erosion.

The U.S. has reinvented its democracy not infrequently based on internal pressures — women’s suffrage, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, etc. Our authoritarian drift is also homegrown. Similarly, democratic backsliding in India, Brazil, the Philippines and Poland were domestically generated. Autocracies had little impact on them.

The premise that surging 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 battering middle classes; the “1 percent” and widening inequality; cultural change and social media disinformation. Such developments sparked anger at elites, spurring resentment and distrust of authority and experts. These forces loom behind the polarization and tribal identity shaping U.S. politics.

No doubt authoritarians have exploited democracy’s malaise. The rest of the world saw the four-year run of the Trump show culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection and political coup attempt.

For dictators such as Putin, the weaponization of democracy’s failings through disinformation campaigns to deepen the divisions are mainly efforts to try to legitimize their rule. Moscow is hardly promoting its kleptocratic model. China, a more dynamic actor, has taken to advertising its economic success as a model to be emulated. But its economic coercion and assertive actions have triggered a backlash, with polls showing views of China are reaching historic lows around the world.

Like Russia, China has used U.S. political strife more to legitimize its own rule and expand its global influence than to export its political system. China’s hysterical response to the Biden Summit, resorting to absurd intellectual gymnastics to argue that Beijing’s techno-totalitarianism is more democratic than the West, only reveals its own insecurities.

While democracies’ travails are mainly of their own making, at a strategic level Biden is correct about the urgency of mobilizing like-minded partners. There is a serious threat to international order from China and other authoritarians that are challenging global rules in the central arena of competition: geoeconomics, rules governing trade and technology, which will drive the 21st century global economy.

Consider contested cyberspace. With China’s “Great Firewall” and the notion of “internet sovereignty,” we seem headed towards a fragmented digital world. More countries are adopting data localization policies, limiting information flows and foreign businesses’ use of data that will impede the free flows of digital commerce. There are no global digital commerce rules. If Biden’s Summit spurs cooperation among democracies to safeguard the internet and counter disinformation, it will have been worthwhile.    

This is only a small slice of the trade/technology issue. On trade, there is an urgency to reform a broken World Trade Organization. On technology, China is pushing hard to set standards in international bodies on an array of new tech – such as 5G, artificial intelligence, robotics, space and bioscience – to their preferences.

If major democratic economies like the U.S., Europe and Japan can align their policies, they can constrain China from imposing its tech standards on others, and press Beijing to alter its predatory industrial policies to shape global trade and tech rules and standards.

But that won’t be easy. Nations have interests as well as values, and they are shaped by geography, economics, history and culture. The U.S. and European Union (EU) have very different philosophies about tech regulation and differing approaches to trade, resulting in large gaps. Indeed, even as the U.S.-E.U. summit created a U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council to shape rules and standards, the United States admonished the EU for anti-U.S. tech regulations and digital tax proposals.

Mobilizing allies and like-minded partners into coalitions to influence updated rules and norms on specific issues is the prerequisite of any viable U.S. strategy. It is the way to gain leverage to negotiate global rules and norms. But in a multipolar world of diffused power, it is not sufficient as an organizing principle for world order.

To some, the logic of the democracy/autocracy divide leads to a democracy-only world. But throughout history, there have been few orders that excluded major powers, especially ones as important as China, the world’s largest trading power, a tech power and a leading capital exporter; and Russia, a major nuclear weapons state. To do so would be a recipe for instability and conflict. That reality underscores the imperative of like-minded democracies finding consensus to gain the leverage to counter-balance China.

But the starting point, as Biden frequently says, is to “lead by the power of our example.” That brings us back to basic questions about why the Summit took place. Polls show few people around the world see the U.S. today as a model for the world.

The U.S. must get its own house in order before it can reclaim its moral authority and usher in democratic renewal writ large.

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 a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Authoritarianism Biden Democratic backsliding European Union Joe Biden Summit of Democracy Types of democracy

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