A Glass Half-Full: How To Make Biden’s Flawed Democracy Summit a Success

Written by Valentin Deleniv, Policy Briefs Coordinator, and Laurent Bélanger-Lowe, Deputy Executive Director

Photo Credit: REX/Shutterstock

A little over a month ago, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted his long-awaited Summit for Democracy. At a time when populist discontent over “normal” politics has grown and authoritarian powers like Russia and China have become increasingly bullish at home and abroad, the Summit aimed to bring together leaders from governments, civil society, and the private sector to revitalise global democracy. It would do this in three ways: defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.

But what did the Summit actually do? Arguably not much: it arrived and passed by without great fanfare, and mostly elicited caution from its participants. Nevertheless, if leveraged in the right ways, the Summit still presents a valuable opportunity for the Biden administration to pave the way toward a more prosperous, equitable, and democratic world.

To achieve this, Biden must first blunt the Summit’s geopolitical edge. Its first pillar, “defence against authoritarianism,” reads like a call to action against China and Russia, and has stymied the Summit’s coalition-building efforts. This is not to say that China and Russia don’t pose a threat to democracy abroad — they do. But their interference does not create divisions out of thin air; instead, it exploits pre-existing political shortcomings and cleavages that are themselves bound to politicise warnings against foreign interference.

Perhaps more importantly, the current standoff with Russia and China is also a product of geopolitics, not just of democratic-authoritarian tensions; if it were, we would expect to see more strained relations with states like Saudi Arabia. If Biden’s aim — as many observers suspect — is to mobilise a global coalition against Russia and China’s revisionism, then focusing on democracy is not the right way forward. If anything, it risks heightening Putin and Xi’s paranoia about regime change, while unnecessarily expanding East-West competition beyond external security issues.

To be clear, the Summit should still tackle authoritarianism, but disinformation countermeasures such as improved media literacy should be part of a broader strategy that seeks to address the domestic political deficits which lie at the root of populist grievances. To do otherwise is to invite accusations of hypocrisy at home and abroad.

Second, the Summit should be repositioned to focus more intently on the domestic challenges to democratisation. This must begin with a frank effort by the Biden administration to address democratic backsliding at home. As the convener and de facto financial muscle of this highly informal Summit, the U.S. will need to bolster its own credibility before it can get other countries on board — a challenge in its own right following its recent defeat on voting rights.

Beyond Biden’s domestic efforts, the Summit should squarely take on issues of economic development and good governance. Dealing with democracy alone abstracts it from its political and economic roots — ignoring the fact that today’s Western liberal democracies are the result of centuries of growth, development, and violence that produced the conditions necessary for democracy to blossom. And while democracy is a foundational principle for Western countries because of the dignity it confers on individuals, it is also cherished for what it does: providing peace, accountability, and ultimately a better life for its citizens.

To be sure, development efforts are nothing new, and the ability of the United States to influence the domestic political order of others is limited. But if the Summit is to have any sort of bite, it is vital that it use carrots rather than sticks. Its organisers must deepen their cooperation with local civil society actors in order to monitor and help implement the pledges made by participants last December. In turn, this accountability must be leveraged to determine which participants can attend the in-person follow-up summit later this year and access further funding for democracy-building initiatives.

In this vein, to the extent that the Summit seeks to build an international coalition, it should begin doing so around its anti-corruption efforts — perhaps its most promising pillar. Participants of the Summit ought to capitalise on the U.S.’ recent adoption of an anti-corruption strategy by putting forward their own in coordination with the U.S. This would help close jurisdictional loopholes that enable tax evasion and money laundering — both of which sap states’ capacity to deliver public goods and enable authoritarian regimes. A successful anti-corruption drive could avoid the pitfalls of geopolitics while striking at the root of many governance problems plaguing emerging democracies worldwide.

Ultimately, the Summit will not usher in a paradigm shift. But this need not be a defeat for Biden. Instead, his administration should seize the opportunity to rally the Summit’s participants around a humble and realistic yet profoundly meaningful objective: breathing new life into existing efforts to bolster democratisation, economic development, and good governance, and in doing so, laying the first stones in the long road towards a prosperous, equitable, and democratic world.

European Horizons welcomes open and innovative analysis on relevant and occasionally controversial transatlantic issues. The viewpoints expressed in Transatlantic Perspectives do not necessarily reflect an institutional position.

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