During the campaign, Joe Biden’s biggest foreign policy idea was a summit for democracy—a meeting of democratic states, intended to revive the spirit of democracy around the world. This proposal shows that Biden understands the most fundamental question of geopolitics today: The rivalry between the free world and the autocratic world has returned, and America needs to emphasize the ideological element of this battle. As Jennifer Welsh has said, history ended in 1991, and now it is back with a vengeance.
During the Cold War, a major summit bringing together the world’s democracies would have included, in addition to the United States, a handful of European countries, Canada, Australia, and Japan. The world is more democratic today than it was at any point during the Cold War. But there are worrying signs that democracy is in retreat: rising populism in Hungary and Poland; Turkey turned fully autocratic; an illiberal-minded leader in India; a strongman in the Philippines; repression and violence in Nicaragua and Venezuela; declining political participation and deteriorating rule of law in much of Africa. And, as Freedom House reports, COVID-19 has accelerated the global retreat of democracy.
Biden’s summit has the potential of clarifying our understanding of global alignments—retiring the West vs. East paradigm, putting in its place a dichotomy of liberal and illiberal, free and unfree.
There are three crucial questions about Biden’s proposed summit that need clarification.
First, who should be invited?
China, Russia, Iran, and Cuba are clearly not democracies. The United Kingdom and Taiwan clearly are democracies. But what about those in the gray zone—such as Hungary and Poland? What about the democratic states whose leaders have anti-democratic tendencies, such as India and Brazil?
The standards set for extending an invitation will have ramifications in those countries. The president of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, would use his photo op at the summit to legitimize himself as a democratic leader. An invitation extended to India’s Narendra Modi could be seen as legitimizing his persecution of minorities—but not inviting him could be seen as questioning the legitimacy of his democratic ascent to power and, by extension, the Indian constitution. Maybe that is a good thing. Maybe not. Will inclusion make autocrats want to be more responsible or less? Will exclusion push them further into authoritarianism or make them hit the brakes? The decisions about whom to include and whom to exclude could have long-lasting consequences.
Second, what will be the substantive work of the summit?
A large part of the importance of a summit like this, of course, is in the personal relationships that it helps to form in the private conversations. It has the potential to produce economic and strategic partnerships. World leaders understand this; hopefully they will see the immense value in this aspect of the gathering. If this summit becomes a recurring event—a question that Biden should think about—it could encourage some excluded states to change their domestic behavior so they could participate in the future.
But will the meeting produce anything more formal—any kind of statement or agreement? According to Biden’s campaign website, the summit “will prioritize results by galvanizing significant new country commitments in three areas: (1) fighting corruption; (2) defending against authoritarianism, including election security; (3) advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.”
All that sounds worthy and admirable—but it’s still vague.
Biden also intends the summit to be not just an affair of governments but also their peoples. It “will include civil society organizations” that “stand on the frontlines in defense of our democracies,” and will result in a “call to action” for the private sector, including tech companies, to “make concrete pledges for how they can ensure their algorithms and platforms are not empowering the surveillance state, facilitating repression in China and elsewhere, spreading hate, spurring people to violence, and remaining susceptible to misuse.”
Can such an agenda really be made “concrete,” rather than the sort of ambiguous blather that might be expected to emerge from Clinton Foundation or World Economic Forum conclaves?
Third, should the summit be held soon but scaled down in acknowledgement of the global pandemic, or should it be delayed until it can be held both safely and grandly?
In making a passionate case for this summit in Defense One, Kevin Baron suggested that it should happen soon, despite the restrictions associated with the pandemic. “We may not get the usual full-scale media horde, motorcades, and the cherry-on-top class photo of big-deal international summits,” Baron wrote. “But whatever is decided should be announced boldly, with great pomp and circumstance, and quickly.”
But we need the motorcades. We need a full-scale media horde and the behind-the-scenes chatter and reports. We need the glamour. Most importantly, we need the photo ops.
A small-scale meeting would not generate the buzz needed to grasp the attention of the people of the world. It might be remembered as just an oddity, a historical footnote to the pandemic.
But a big summit—held after the pandemic restrictions have been lifted, so as not to undermine Biden’s own message COVID caution, and to ensure that as many participants and reporters as possible can be included—could have a lasting effect. Previous grand summits—Westphalia, the Congress of Vienna, Yalta and Potsdam, the 1957 NATO summit in Paris—changed the world. Biden’s summit could rank among them. It will be an opportunity for democracies to stand together as equals—no matter their populations and GDPs.
And for America to once again be the first among equals. A year ago, President Donald Trump was literally laughed out of a NATO summit. The world needs the reverse: scenes of the president of the United States respected among and engaging with world leaders, nodding at what he says. A leader of leaders. After years of American retreat in the world, we need the American president there responding to history that “America, too, is back with a vengeance, and we have the full force of freedom behind us.”