The Truths and Mistakes of the Biden Democracy Summit
President Biden’s concern with promoting democracy is a noble, if somewhat elusive, intention that U.S. presidents have pursued since Woodrow Wilson sought to “Make the world safe for democracy” after World War I. There is no doubt that democracy is under siege, Liberty house titled its annual report for 2021. Democracy has declined (the United States has lost 11 points and now ranks 51st) in the past 15 years.
Biden’s Democracy Summit last week sought to spark energy for democratic renewal in the country and around the world. The summit reflected what appears to be a major theme of Biden’s foreign policy: the battle of the 21st century is between democracies and autocracies. Biden sees a urgent challenge: “We have to prove that democracy works.
Are we, as Biden said at the top, “At an inflection point”? Is the clash between democracies and autocracies the one that “will fundamentally determine the direction our world takes over the next two decades? And are vertices – even with the $ 424 million in US initiatives unveiled at last week’s meeting to protect journalists, fight corruption and support civil society – likely to make more than a difference on the sidelines?
There are grains of truth in the concern about autocracies, but I have some doubts. There are so many layers of faulty assumptions that need to be broken down. For starters, in a complex, multipolar world, the demon of autocracy seems intellectually lazy, a simplistic binary surrogate for communism.
I am with Winston Churchill by believing that democracy is the worst form of government – except all others. History suggests that democratic capitalism has far surpassed state autocracies. But is the question just a question of utility, or is it fundamentally a moral question of citizens’ freedom and having their say, governments deriving their legitimacy from the people and before be accountable to him?
By definition, democracies are organic – from the people, by the people, to the people. They tend to evolve mainly according to their internal economic and social situation. Likewise, with their erosion.
The United States has often reinvented its democracy on the basis of internal pressures – women’s suffrage, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, etc. Our authoritarian drift is also local. Likewise, the democratic retreat in India, Brazil, the Philippines and Poland was generated at the national level. Autocracies had little impact on them.
The premise that burgeoning autocracies are threatening or a causal factor in the erosion of democracies seems to confuse cause and effect. Growing populist nationalism reflects real trends: a backlash from globalization hitting the middle classes; the “1%” and the worsening of inequalities; cultural change and social media misinformation. Such developments have aroused anger against elites, arousing resentment and mistrust of authority and experts. These forces lie behind the polarization and tribal identity that shape American politics.
There is no doubt that the authoritarians have exploited the malaise of democracy. The rest of the world saw the four years of the Trump show culminate in the Jan.6 insurgency and the attempted political coup.
For dictators like Putin, the militarization of failures of democracy through disinformation campaigns to deepen divisions are primarily efforts to try to legitimize their power. Moscow hardly promotes its kleptocratic model. China, a more dynamic player, has become accustomed to presenting its economic success as a model to emulate. But his economic coercion and authoritarian actions triggered a backlash, with polls showPerceptions of China are reaching historic lows around the world.
Like Russia, China has used American political conflicts more to legitimize its own power and expand its global influence than to export its political system. China’s hysterical response at the Biden Summit, resorting to absurd intellectual gymnastics to assert that Beijing’s techno-totalitarianism is more democratic than the West, only reveals its own insecurities.
While the difficulties of democracies are mostly on their own initiative, at a strategic level, Biden is right about the urgency of mobilizing like-minded partners. The international order is gravely threatened by China and other authoritarians who challenge global rules in the central arena of competition: geoeconomics, the rules governing trade and technology, which will be the engine of the 21st century global economy.
Consider the contested cyberspace. With the Chinese “great firewall” and the notion of “Internet sovereignty”, we seem to be heading towards a fragmented digital world. More and more countries are adopting data localization policies, limiting the flow of information and the use of data by foreign companies which will hamper the free flow of digital commerce. There are no global rules on digital commerce. If the Biden summit spurs cooperation between democracies to protect the internet and fight disinformation, it will have been worth it.
This is only a small part of the trade / tech issue. In terms of trade, there is an urgent need to reform a broken World Trade Organization. When it comes to technology, China is striving to set standards in international bodies on a range of new technologies – such as 5G, artificial intelligence, robotics, space and biosciences – according to their preferences.
If large democratic economies like the United States, Europe and Japan can align their policies, they can prevent China from imposing its technological standards on others and push Beijing to change its predatory industrial policies to shape the rules and standards. global business and technology.
But it won’t be easy. Nations have interests as well as values, and they are shaped by geography, economy, history and culture. The United States and the European Union (EU) have very different philosophies on technology regulation and different approaches to commerce, resulting in big gaps. Indeed, even as the US-EU summit created a Trade and Technology Council to shape rules and standards, the United States admonished the EU for anti-US technology regulations and digital tax proposals.
Mobilizing allies and like-minded partners in coalitions to influence updated rules and standards on specific issues is a prerequisite for any viable US strategy. This is the way to get leverage to negotiate global rules and standards. But in a multipolar world of diffuse power, it is not enough as an organizing principle of world order.
For some, the logic of the democracy / autocracy divide leads to a uniquely democratic world. But throughout history, few orders have excluded the great powers, especially those as important as China, the world’s largest trading power, a technological powerhouse and a major exporter of capital; and Russia, a large state with nuclear weapons. To do so would be a recipe for instability and conflict. This reality underscores the imperative for like-minded democracies to find consensus to gain the influence necessary to counterbalance China.
But the starting point, as Biden often puts it, is to “lead by the power of our example.” This brings us back to the fundamental questions about why the Summit was held. Polls show few in the world see the United States today as a model for the world.
The United States must put its own home in order before it can reclaim its moral authority and usher in broad democratic renewal.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the US Department of State’s Policy Planning Team from 2004 to 2008, and the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Future Group. from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @ Rmanning4.