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Why is the U.S. holding a Summit for Democracy? Joshua Kurlantzick on an American strategy for “defending against authoritarianism.”
President Joe Biden is preparing to convene his first Summit for Democracy this week. He’s invited the leaders of more than 100 countries to participate in the virtual event, with the goal of “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world.” It seems an increasingly urgent task as, according to the pro-democracy U.S. research institute Freedom House, a “long democratic recession is deepening” and 2020 was the “15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” The Economist Intelligence Unit has meanwhile ranked America as a “flawed democracy” since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, and, CNN polling from September indicates, nearly all Americans believe that their democratic institutions are either “being tested” or “under attack.” Autocrats around the world are trying to take advantage of this. The Chinese Communist Party is already saying Biden’s summit is “set to become a joke” and attacking the U.S. over its political divisions and response to Covid-19. With all these challenges and complications, how important is this meeting?
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He sees the summit as a response to rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding in a lot of countries, and it’s consistent with Biden’s overarching perspective on foreign policy, which says that either democracy or autocracy is going to prevail through this moment in world history. Kurlantzick doesn’t expect that such a large and diverse group of countries, many of which are far from model democracies themselves, will pledge to any serious near-term democratic reforms. But the fact that they’re joining with the American president on the international stage—in the absence of the world’s authoritarian power players—to demonstrate their commitment to the idea of democracy is a tentative statement of its own.
Graham Vyse: What’s the U.S. administration hoping for with this summit?
Joshua Kurlantzick: The first goal is to counteract the idea that democracy is failing globally—including in the United States, to some extent—and prove that democracies can work together and form common strategies to promote democratic reform and revitalization. Ultimately, the goal would be for democracies to prove they can address some of the issues that have led to declining trust in democracy—including the idea that your vote doesn’t matter or result in any change in policy—though that’s not going to happen in a two-day summit. Biden’s goal is to collect all these democracies and get them to agree on at least some ideas about what can be done.
Vyse: Will it work?
Kurlantzick: It’s a decent idea, but there are several problems. First, one of Biden’s goals in office is to revitalize U.S. democracy, but most countries around the world aren’t very enthused about U.S. democracy as a model. Second, I understand why the administration wanted to invite a wide range of countries, but they invited a number that are partly free or not free at all, and that will probably undermine the effect of the summit. Finally, when you’re trying to get more than a hundred countries to agree on anything of substance, I’m skeptical about that.
Vyse: What are the stakes right now in showing that democracy works?
Kurlantzick: Biden has actually said that democracy is in a global battle with autocracy for the future. I’m not sure I’d use those terms, but Biden probably wants to say democracy needs to deliver economic growth and public goods in contrast to autocracies—and specifically to China. Also, I think he’s saying that democracy needs to reflect popular will. If countries that are nominally democratic are actually being governed by minority rule, it’s something those countries need to address—and that potentially includes the United States.
More from Joshua Kurlantzick at The Signal:
China and Russia have their own weaknesses. Russia is a petro-state that doesn’t have great sources of income beyond oil and natural gas. The shift to one-man rule in China is a problem and raises the risk of instability. Xi Jinping is moving China toward a more state-capitalist economy that relies on domestic supply chains. That’s potentially a huge misallocation of resources. It’s important in U.S. policy not to overstate our potential opponents’ strengths, but I don’t think having a summit focused on the potential strengths of democracy really does that. I don’t think it’s overstated to say global satisfaction with democracy is low and dropping and illiberal populists are poised to take advantage of that.”
Biden should probably move away from the idea that promoting democracy is all about a contest against authoritarianism in China. We have a huge range of problems in the U.S.-China relationship, but I don’t think the democracy summit should necessarily be focused on that. China isn’t really the biggest reason for democratic backsliding in the world, although it was never a democracy and it’s become much more repressive under Xi Jinping. Most democratic backsliding is coming from democracies—India, Brazil, the Philippines, the U.S., Hungary, Poland. The summit should probably focus on that instead of framing a battle of the U.S. versus China and Russia—without letting those two countries off the hook.”
There are signs that Biden wants to work with the European Union to expand NATO in ways that include more of a focus on democracy promotion and democratic resilience. His administration has taken a fairly tough approach to some military takeovers, as in Myanmar, and applied pressure on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to keep Myanmar out of its annual summit—which is actually a major step forward for that organization. The Biden administration has thought a fair amount about democracy and human rights; but ultimately, the U.S. is limited in what it can do while it’s so troubled itself.”
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