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Foreign Policy

What is President Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy?’

Dec 08, 2021

The White House is preparing for a two-day virtual Summit for Democracy set to be held in early December, and the invitation list seems to include “liberal democracies, weaker democracies, and several states with authoritarian characteristics.” 

The Summit for Democracy will reportedly launch the ‘Alliance for the Future of the Internet’ to support free and fair elections while combating authoritarian regimes. China and Russia are the main targets, since Washington believes that Beijing and Moscow are utilizing the Internet to implement their respective state control and propaganda. The ‘non-paper’ would ask signatories to commit to developing and implementing high standards for data privacy, ensure data and cyber security, encourage cooperation on tech platform regulations, and establish a forum for technical cooperation on cybersecurity standards. 

The requests would also ask for open access to software and applications among members, non-discrimination in regulations and shared commitments on data localization with the goal of fighting corruption, combatting authoritarianism, and expanding human rights. 

Although many of these points are harmless, the Summit is an event that, while not necessarily binding, is certainly a symbolic effort to further isolate China and Russia while rallying a coalition of like-minded democracies. 

According to the list of specific countries invited to the Summit,  it seems that certain countries have not been invited because they ‘undermine the democratic systems within their respective countries.’ However, the guest list has changed periodically. For example, Serbia was originally not included on the invite list, but new reports suggest that representatives from Belgrade will attend. Other nations like Thailand and Vietnam are also missing. Few Middle Eastern countries were invited at all, with the exceptions of Iraq and Israel. Ultimately, the Summit aims to send a clear message to both China and Russia, arguing that the U.S. has allies throughout the world are willing to side with Washington on issues related to cyber-activity and the Internet. 

Given the rapid developments of disruptive technologies in social media, e-commerce, blockchain, etc., such a summit could attempt to set a global standard for such technologies. As others suggested years ago, the world might eventually see different rules for the Internet, eventually producing one, two, or three different Internets that have different rules for data, privacy, and communication. Only time will tell, but the Summit for Democracy is certainly a start for Washington to attempt to mold the future of Internet rules and norms. 

However, is the Summit for Democracy just another event to isolate adversarial regimes?  The other concern is that because the documents presented at the Summit are non-binding, governments may not be incentivized to take the Summit and its requirements seriously. Similar statements and promises have been made at G7 and NATO summits, but follow-through seems to be limited. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterized the Summit as an effort to classify and categorize global nations into democratic and non-democratic countries, with China and Russia as the main representatives of the illiberal camp. Chinese officials have similarly stated that  democracy is not a ‘patent’ of the West, instead calling  Western democracy an ‘irony’ and criticizing both failed color revolutions around the world and economic inequalities in Western nations. 

Instead, democracy-focused summits operate as diplomatic tools to isolate certain nations that do not fit the international mold dictated by Washington. The U.S. hopes to use such summits to create the image that there is a mass Washington-led movement or coalition of like-minded democracies that will take on and punish authoritarian or illiberal nations. In truth, Biden’s push for a unified coalition against China and Russia has been the objective of his administration since the beginning. The Biden administration previously called for a unified front against Beijing concerning humanitarian issues, while economic policies hardly differed from those of the Trump administration. 

Biden hopes to battle for the hearts and minds of the world, but in reality, most constituents are not overly concerned with internet regulation when compared to ‘authoritarian regimes.’ Instead, people are mostly concerned about economic inequality, job creation, COVID measures, and supply chain resilience. The U.S. won the Cold War because it offered constituents the chance for a better, freer, and more prosperous future when compared to Soviet models. However, in its competition against China and the West, it is not entirely clear if President Biden’s plan for the future will generate more free or more prosperous societies. The U.S. is in a precarious economic and cultural position, with inflation concerns raging on, supply chain issues proliferating, Internet censorship becoming more common, and with corporate tech giants setting standards irrespective of the thoughts of actual constituents. Most are unsure if these characteristics are properties of the democratic vision. China and the United States are intimately linked in investment, with U.S. investment in China surpassing $1 trillion, while the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese markets and vice versa. 

Knowing the facts, a Summit for Democracy on Internet regulation is simply a presentation of apparent confrontation. All topics and summits related to China appear adversarial, while materially, investment continues to go back and forth across the globe. 

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