Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Why a democracy summit is best avoided

Rather than host a summit of democracy, the Biden administration might do better to build on existing institutions and initiatives © Andrew Harnik/AP

In a recent speech, Joe Biden reiterated an earlier promise to “host a summit of democracy”. The attractions of this idea for the new US president are obvious. At a time when rivalries between the US, China and Russia are growing, a summit of democracy would be an eye-catching reaffirmation of America’s role as “leader of the free world”. That message is all the more important given the decade-long decline in the number of democracies around the world — and the recent effort to subvert America’s own presidential election.

Nonetheless, Biden and his team would do better quietly to shelve their plans for the summit — at least for the time being. The problems with the idea become apparent as soon as you try to draw up the guest list.

It is hard to imagine holding such a summit without inviting India or Poland. They are both key American allies that hold regular elections. At the same time, there are legitimate questions about the erosion of democratic values in both countries, including freedom of the press and the protection of minority rights. Ignoring issues like these would make the US seem hypocritical and might actually damage democracy in the countries concerned. But upbraiding the leaders of India and Poland at a democracy summit would mean that the whole exercise created divisions, rather than unity — the exact opposite of what is intended.

The problem gets more acute the further you go down the list of potential guests. Does Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines get an invitation? He has been elected and is president of an important American ally. On the other hand, he has encouraged death squads and the imprisonment of his critics. Or how about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey? He has also won several elections and heads another Nato ally. But leading opposition politicians and journalists are in jail in Turkey.

If Biden invites leaders like Duterte and Erdogan, he would discredit his summit of democracy. If he does not invite them, he would risk driving them into the arms of China and Russia. And what about Taiwan — which clearly deserves an invitation — but whose attendance might provoke a massive rupture in relations between Washington and Beijing?

One possibility the US administration might consider would be to get all participants to sign up to a declaration of democratic principles. This could be a useful source of moral pressure in the future, a bit like the Helsinki accords of 1975 — which the Soviet Union signed, and which dissidents later used to push for freedom of thought and religion. On the other hand, it might well create problems if, as seems likely, leaders of semi-democratic countries signed the declaration and then blithely ignored their commitments when they returned home.

So should the US simply give up on the idea of a club of democracies? That is too defeatist. A better way forward would be to encourage lower-profile initiatives. There is already an Alliance of Democracies foundation which has staged the Copenhagen Democracy summit for the past three years — which attracted high-level participation from the US, the EU and Asia. On the official level, the UK has announced it will expand this year’s G7 summit by inviting three other major democracies — Australia, India and South Korea — to make a so-called D10.

For the moment, the Biden administration might do better to build on these existing institutions and initiatives — rather than staking everything on a high-profile summit of democracy that could easily go wrong. 

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