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Foreign Policy

The Summit for Democracy Paradox

Dec 09, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The United States has invited 110 countries and territories to its first Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9 and 10. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that democracy is being tested and that the idea that authoritarian states deliver better is simply wrong. He argued that the summit will show the superiority and resilience of democracy, as well as the fact that it’s self-correcting.

Obviously, the summit targets countries such as China and Russia, which are excluded. International relations are described as democracy versus autocracy. This is exactly why the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the U.S. jointly wrote an article criticizing the summit as an artifact of a Cold War mentality that divides the world.

In addition to the above-mentioned international political context, President Joe Biden also wants to get out of a domestic political quagmire. The problem is that the rather abstract Summit for Democracy has limited significance in solving practical problems. It will lead to further polarization in U.S. domestic politics and greater tension in the international arena.

First, the Biden administration want the summit to show that the Democratic Party differs from Donald Trump’s Republicans in its values and governing philosophy.  It aims to win voters for next year’s midterm elections.

1.Holding the summit will, of course, fulfill one of Biden’s promises during his campaign. At the time, he spoke of three areas: Defending against authoritarianism,

2.fighting corruption and

3.promoting respect for human rights.

These have become the key themes of the Summit for Democracy.

In the run-up to the election, the Biden camp focused on criticizing Trump for his lack of values and belittling of allies. So the summit is also designed to fulfill campaign promises to foster bipartisan discussion.

Second, attempts to use the Summit for Democracy to drum up fears within the United States about other countries weakening American democracy could further stimulate an escalation of populist politics within the United States. The rhetoric that U.S. democracy is under attack by rival nations has long been in vogue. Reports that former President Trump was elected in part because of collusion with Russia have been rampant, but there has never been any real evidence. With the economic crisis, fatigue in the war on terror over the past decade or so and the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, populism already has strong appeal in American society.

The xenophobic political climate further intensified after Trump’s election, with increased fears over immigration, free trade and foreign political infiltration. The Biden administration, while ostensibly reversing many of Trump’s policies, has in essence continued its hope of assuaging domestic discontent by reinforcing external fears over American democracy and values.

Domestic democracy, in essence, is a domestic matter within a country. The problem with American democracy is an endogenous crisis of degradation, and its defense requires endogenous innovation.

The U.S. death toll in the pandemic — around 780,000 — is not a result of China and Russia undermining American democracy. China and Russia cannot destroy American democracy, and they certainly cannot save it either. The enemies of American democracy are at home, not outside.

Third, exclusivity in the international arena under the pretext of the Summit for Democracy will further intensify geopolitical tensions and set back international relations. By excluding countries such as China and Russia, the summit essentially seeks to use democracy as a sort of wrapping paper to repackage geopolitical competition. In Asia, the Biden administration, upon entering the White House, emphasized strengthening the network of U.S. allies. Its strategic deployment structure can be summarized as the 12345 strategy:

1. One leader: the United States;

2. Two pivots, with Japan anchoring the north and Australia the south;

3. The three-way military alliance of the U.S., UK and Australia, or AUKUS;

4. The Quad (U.S., India, Japan, Australia);

5. Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In Europe, the U.S. is constantly emphasizing the Russian threat and calling on allies to strengthen NATO’s military “hard deterrence.” The Summit for Democracy can also be seen as a way for the United States to strengthen its “soft deterrence” against China and Russia, but the practice of asking countries to choose sides actually runs counter to the trend of democracy in international relations.

Fourth, the global leadership effectiveness of the Summit for Democracy depends not on propaganda but on how many real followers there are. The source of sustainable leadership is voluntary followers, not abstract lectures on democracy, which do not much interest the majority of developing countries around the globe.

The current vaccine divide is the biggest issue facing the international community, with vaccination rates in Africa at only 7 percent. The United States has pledged to provide a billion vaccines to developing countries, but has delivered only 10 percent of what it has promised.

On the other hand, the United States has secured 2.5 times more vaccines than it needs domestically, and many developed countries are destroying expired vaccines in their stockpiles. How can such a stark contrast between rhetoric about democratic values on the one hand and disregard for global livelihoods on the other have sustainable appeal?

Democracy, both domestically and internationally, is are meant to solve real problems and should not be reduced to pretty wrapping paper for domestic and international political struggles. From this perspective, the Global Vaccine Summit and the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in the U.K. are the real global summits for democracy.

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