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Biden’s Democracy Summit: Good Intentions, Muddied Ambitions 

Biden’s Democracy Summit: Good Intentions, Muddied Ambitions 
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

The Biden administration clearly wanted to keep the President’s promise to hold in his first year in office a big "Democracy Summit", a central campaign promise and a reflection of the guiding principle and vision underpinning his foreign policy: the global contest between democracies and authoritarian regimes. But for all its good intentions, the Summit has proved difficult to define and organize, and its ambitions have already been reduced: it will take place in two parts - online only this year, in-person in Washington next year - and both its agenda and objectives remain unclear. Here is a look at the genealogy and the difficulties of a project with diminished ambitions.

A difficult promise to keep

The difficulties of holding a "Summit for Democracy" were numerous. Challenges included who to invite and what criteria meets the list. A clear definition of the summit’s objective was also tricky to determine - defending rather than promoting democracy - in a context of tarnished US democratic credentials after a Trump presidency ending in the Capitol Hill assault on January 6, 2021, encouraged by President Trump. To this day, the former President still refuses to recognize his electoral defeat and considers his successor to be illegitimate.

The State Department, in charge of the implementation of the Summit, has multiplied consultations with Washington's international partners as well as with civil society actors: it has taken into account the reservations from European and Asian partners about an event that at first looked mostly like an "alliance of democracies against China". The ambition has been reduced, as have the communication and the objectives. While the White House repeatedly insisted that the Summit is not directed directly against China and Russia, the concept is clearly in line with the "strategic competition" that defines US foreign policy.

The agenda is still being finalized a few days before the Summit: people close to the administration even insist that expectations should not be too high, and that this is only a first step before a second "in person" Summit announced for next year. It is known that the main message will be about "the crisis of democracies" and that a central element of the discussions will be the defense of free information, the resilience of civil societies as well as the fight against corruption - another important axis of Biden's foreign policy that is expected to be further deployed next year.

In his campaign article for Foreign Affairs (March-April 2020), Joe Biden placed the regression of global democracy at the center of his concerns, announcing a "global Summit for Democracy" around three objectives: fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism; promoting human rights in democratic countries and elsewhere. In this same article, the President made the fight against corruption a "vital national interest" in that it represented a vulnerability of democratic societies to foreign interests. He appealed to civil society and the private sector, emphasizing in particular the responsibility of Big Tech companies in preserving democratic societies and protecting freedom of expression. Finally, he mentioned the distribution of tools that promote state surveillance and invasion of privacy, facilitate repression and spread of hatred, disinformation and violence. He did not, however, detail a specific strategy on the defense of human rights, an issue at the heart of the systemic rivalry between the United States and China.

Global democratic regression also concerns the United States

After the assault on the Capitol, a debate arose in Washington about the appropriateness of maintaining this agenda and the Summit itself. For some, like Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution, the assault made American support for democracy a renewed urgency, especially given the transnational and international dimensions of the "global national-populist movement". In contrast, James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson, both scholars and former Clinton and Obama administration officials, recommended in Foreign Affairs last January that the idea be abandoned, preferring an exclusively "domestic" Summit.

75% of the world's population live in a country that has experienced democratic deterioration in the past year.

Three reports and rankings released this year - by Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) - have highlighted the quantifiable decline of democracy in the United States in 2020 and 2021. This U.S. democratic regression reflects a global trend: the Freedom House report attests that nearly 75% of the world's population live in a country that has experienced democratic deterioration in the past year. In 2020, this deterioration particularly affected countries close to and allied with Washington

Although the methodologies, scales and qualifiers differ, these reports all agree on one point: the United States is no longer among the leading countries in the world in terms of democratic standards. It is now in 61st place in Freedom House's ranking of world democracies. There are multiple causes for this decline, sometimes long-standing, but all have accelerated since 2019: partisan gerrymandering (which is compared by Freedom House to practices seen in Hungary, Jordan or Malaysia); the politicization of the judiciary; the adoption of statewide laws making access to vote more difficult (according to a report by NYU’s Brennan Center); the role of money in election campaigns; the high levels of corruption in politics.

An old American idea - but a risky bet for Biden

Grounding foreign policy in democracy promotion is an old American idea that can be traced back to Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt or, more recently, to Madeleine Albright’s "Community of Democracies", established in 2000. While this community remained a loose forum, other projects have since been raised in favor of closer coordination. The idea of a concerted effort by democracies has also found echoes among certain European leaders (such as former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar after the intervention in Iraq), and has become a topical issue in recent times, such as under the Canadian presidency of the G7 (the Charlevoix Declaration on the defense of democracies against external threats). The initiative to rally democracies around common proposals is recurrent, and can also be found in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s proposals.

But the initiative is not without its pitfalls. A reading of the official list of invitees reflects US strategic interests as much as the state of democracy in the countries concerned: the presence of Poland and Taiwan, but also of the Philippines, Pakistan and Ukraine, the absence of Hungary (which can be explained by the ideological proximity between Trump and Orbán), and of course of Russia and China.A Carnegie article by Steven Feldstein observes that of the 111 countries invited to the Summit, 77 are rated "free" by Freedom House, 31 are "partly free" and 3 are "not free".

A reading of the official list of invitees reflects US strategic interests as much as the state of democracy in the countries concerned.

It is revealing that the Chinese and Russian ambassadors in Washington co-authored a joint article (a rare occurrence) in The National Interest magazine to criticize an initiative to which they were not invited, arguing that "no country has the right to judge the vast and varied global political landscape by a single criterion" - without, however, mentioning the January 6 assault, which the Russian and Chinese media had commented on extensively. The invitation of Taiwan, on the other hand - which will not be represented by its president Tsai Ing-wen, unlike many other countries, but by its de facto diplomatic representative in the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim - has unsurprisingly provoked an outcry from the Chinese regime.

The choice of an online-only event, admittedly in part because of the pandemic, the vagueness of the objectives and the lack of details provided only a few days before the Summit clearly reflect the diminished ambitions of what at first had been presented as a major event of President Biden's first year. This is partly a result of the reserves expressed by many US allies and partners, both in Europe and Asia, about what was shaping up to be an "alliance of democracies against China". The Biden administration's focus on China obviously isn’t gone, but its political implementation has taken shape throughout the year in more restricted formats, whether bilaterally, within the Quad on the Indo-Pacific, or via the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) with the EU. 

As a result, one gets the impression that the Summit will be more a series of statements by heads of state, perhaps mostly pre-recorded - at the cost of an event that will probably lead to few concrete discussions or proposals. In advance of the Summit, the Biden administration has just released two new initiatives, one on the export of digital surveillance tools, the second a new US Strategy on Countering Corruption.

The state of democracy in the United States is a matter of deep concern for the current administration, the Democratic Party, and for many Americans. It is clear that President Biden did not want to abandon his campaign promise to hold this Summit in his first year in office; moreover, an insistence on democracy and human rights in foreign policy was felt necessary in Washington after the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. What remains is a Summit with reduced ambitions and an unclear agenda, except for reaffirming the importance of democratic values - even if the concrete implementation will happen in smaller and more effective forums.

Co-authored with Marin Saillofest, Assistant Policy Officer at our US Program.

Copyright: Samuel Corum / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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