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Society & Culture

A Lackluster Summit for Democracy

Dec 31, 2021
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Processor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The curtain fell on the Biden administration’s meticulously prepared Summit for Democracy in early December, and judging from what was accomplished, most of America’s strategic purposes were not accomplished. Western countries weren’t enthusiastic about binding their own development to the democratic values espoused by the United States. The less-than-desirable debut has deprived U.S. President Joe Biden of a window of opportunity to promote its mechanisms. As time goes by and the political winds change direction at home and abroad, the summit will see its prospects dim even further.

Holding the Summit for Democracy was one of the Biden team’s important political commitments. Believing the event would revitalize much of the world’s democratic spirit, the meeting carried themes of fighting corruption, promoting democracy and human rights and opposing authoritarianism. While no specific countries were named as violators, it has been broadly understood that the summit targeted China and Russia, which were left off the extensive invitation list.

Judging from the hilarious preparations and short list of achievements, the meeting failed to meet American expectations. According to the website of Foreign Policy magazine, the summit illustrated that mere diplomacy won’t be able to save democracy. To avoid embarrassment, the Biden government said it would further events and defined 2022 as a “year of action.” It hopes next year’s summit will see more substantial outcomes.

There were four main reasons for the failed debut:

First, the United States overestimated the importance of values as a lubricant in internal cooperation within the Western camp. The Biden administration originally assumed that shared democratic values would effectively reduce resistance within Western countries to cooperation, and that countries would endorse common strategic goals based on common values, shorten the cycle of policy coordination and better persuade various political forces and interest groups at home.

However, Western nations displayed obvious differences at the forum and were reluctant to join U.S.-proposed joint initiatives. America’s Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative was joined only by Norway, Denmark and Australia. All three have similar domestic legislation already in place, while those who don’t have yet to make up their minds about participation. Obviously the majority of Western nations are unwilling to reduce their own room for choice and flexibility, which could result in loss of control over their domestic political agendas.

Second, a number of countries harbor suspicions about the Biden administration’s reasons for organizing the summit. Judging from the schedule and topics, the Summit for Democracy seemed to be intended both to draw an ideological line targeting so-called authoritarian countries, while at the same time taking aim at such phenomena as populism and political corruption, which also exist in Western countries. The Biden administration sees both as “enemies of democracy.”

The summit was certainly driven by domestic political motives in the U.S., and was more reflective of the political pursuits of Biden and the Democratic Party, which sowed seeds of doubt among many Western nations about the purity of America’s intentions, as well as prospects for the summit. They worried about being dragged into the highly polarized domestic partisan politics in the U.S. Even more, they fear that once Trump and the Republicans return to power, their cooperation with Biden may become a source of trouble.

Third, the U.S. was caught in a dilemma over how to use the summit to target China and Russia. Although it didn’t say the meeting was designed to criticize any specific country, everyone seemed aware that the core strategic goal was to counter China and Russia.

And yet the U.S.found itself in an awkward position when it came to how to achieve this fundamental goal. It wanted to take advantage of the conference to push countries to clarify their “democratic” positions, to form closer alliances and to prevent the meeting from becoming a strategic showdown with China and Russia, thus triggering a new cold war.

Such ambivalence was evident. When Taiwan’s delegate used a map in a speech that violated the one-China policy, the U.S. side immediately cut off video signals, fearing the incident would cause a diplomatic dispute. Thanks to U.S. prudence, other countries were unwilling to clarify their positions.

Fourth, the broad range of developing countries are indifferent to the U.S. democratic agenda, which has little to do with their concerns about development and people’s livelihoods. Such countries get no practical benefits from participation.

In recent years, U.S. international development aid has carried heavy utilitarian overtones, with higher thresholds. It has included more political clauses and exclusivity requirements, which weaken the projects’ appeal to developing nations. The U.S.-proposed cross-border initiative for counter-corruption and human rights sound lofty, yet it included attempts to interfere with other countries’ internal affairs.

Owing to the above four defects, the first Summit for Democracy summit” was brought to a generally fruitless close. Against the backdrop of the raging pandemic, it is unrealistic for countries to focus their domestic political agendas on democracy. Most are more concerned about prosperity. The Biden administration’s call for a “year of action” may be quickly forgotten, and the 2022 session may be even more boring and less likely to produce results of substance. It will likely be held after America’s midterm elections, and countries will be closely watching those outcomes. If the Republican Party wins big, international enthusiasm for participating in further summits will be dampened, and the clamorous event will fade away quietly.

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