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Can Biden’s ‘divisive’ democracy summit deliver?

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Oliver Helbig/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Oliver Helbig/Getty Images

Billed as a rallying call for human rights and liberties, the event has been lambasted by critics such as China and even invitees are critical

Much of the advance commentary about Joe Biden’s two-day Summit for Democracy has been a diplomat’s version of a Charity Ball: long discussions about the guest list and how the guests will show up, and very little about its supposedly noble purpose.

Potentially a rallying point for democracy, after the west’s crushing setback in Afghanistan, the summit has not been receiving rave advance notices even from those that have been invited.

Unfocussed, unnecessarily divisive, an NGO merry go round or an extended photo op have been some of the kinder trails.

Related: Biden and Putin make little apparent headway on Ukraine in virtual summit

There have also been noises off. Hungary, the only EU state left off the 110-country guest list, has responded by trying to block the EU attending the virtual event. Middle East potentates also excluded by Biden, such as the UAE, have quietly pointed to the competition between France and the US to sell the country jets.

When Biden promised on the presidential campaign trail to hold the summit, the goal seemed to be to draw a dividing line with Donald Trump’s authoritarian allies and re-establish America’s standing in the world as the champion of human rights and liberty.

“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Biden said in February. “We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it”. The summit was as much about protecting as promoting democracy, as well as being a conscious response to American declinists.

Not surprisingly the biggest ideological and social media barrage against the summit has come from its implicit targets: Russia and China. The countries’ two ambassadors to Washington even penned a joint article denouncing the event as “a product of cold war thinking”. Russia also issued a separate 2,000-word statement detailing the failings of US democracy, covering corporate manipulation of the media, the illegal enforcement of democracy overseas or the false charge that the 2020 election may have been stolen from Donald Trump.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (second row C) stands at the National People&#x002019;s Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese president Xi Jinping stands at the people’s congress in Beijing. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

China, irate that Taiwan has made the guest list, has produced a long white paper on the superiorities of the Chinese model of democracy. This echoes the claim made by the foreign minister, Wang Yi, who argued in a speech in April 2021 that “democracy is not Coca-Cola where the US produces the original syrup and the whole world has one flavour. If there is only one model, once civilisation on the planet, the world will lose its vitality and be devoid of growth.”

The white paper explains “There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms. The principles of One Person, One Vote and party competition underlying the western electoral system are propagated by them as the sole criterion for democracy.

“China has chosen a path to democracy suited to a vast country with a large population. As a populous country long plagued by weak economic foundations, China strives to strike a balance between democracy and development. The priority always rests with development, which is facilitated by democracy and in turn boosts the development of democracy. China has never indulged in empty talk on democracy regardless of a country’s development stage.”

It continues: “In China, there are no opposition parties. But China’s political party system is not a system of one-party rule. Nor is it one in which multiple parties vie for power and govern in turn. It is a multiparty cooperation system in which the Communist party of China exercises state power.”

At one point the paper gets into a spectacular muddle on how democracy and dictatorship coexist in China. Concepts such as media freedom and judicial independence are entirely absent from the white paper, or any explanation of how the Chinese nation ever chose that the party alone decide the national interest.

That Russia and China have both gone to such lengths to defend their “democracies’ suggests the summit has at least hit an exposed nerve – or that the autocracies feel so emboldened by the state of American democracy that they feel they can mount a credible counter offensive.

Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Poland, fears it may be the latter. “The authoritarians are serious. This is not abstract. Tyrants start wars. Putin is threatening a generalised war with Ukraine. He thinks his time has come again and democracy is on the wane. We have seen this movie before and it does not end well. It’s the 1930s all over again.” There is no more urgent task than for democracies to renew themselves.

Russian Servicemen are seen at a command point during an exercise held by units of the Russian Airborne Troops at Opuk range.
Russian servicemen are seen at a command point during an exercise held by units of the Russian Airborne Troops at Opuk range. Photograph: Sergei Malgavko/TASS

But the gravity of the moment has not stopped the summit being attacked from both right and left in the west. Dr Colin Dueck, a Republican oriented professor speaking at the Heritage Foundation, predicts the summit will be a “virtue-signalling gab fest”. He also suggested the event will highlight how human rights simply is not at the centre of Biden’s US foreign policy – despite his rhetoric. He points to countries such as the UAE and Egypt with which Biden has made deals in office. “It is a campaigning position not a governing position”.

Daniel Larison, writing from the Left in Responsible Statecraft, takes a similar position. “To the extent that ‘bad guys’ are ‘winning’ today, at least part of the explanation for it is that some of them have been given carte blanche by Washington to jail and kill their critics, destabilize other countries, and commit war crimes in reckless military interventions”.

So if the Biden democracy summit is to get past a wall of scepticism, and not be passed off as another Zoom call for NGOs, it needs some granular deliverables or at least lines of work that can be pursued over the next year.

The summit organisers have promised it will focus on three core pillars: “countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights”. The issue of technology will run through all three.

On the surface, the inclusion of corruption as a summit theme is an oddity, but according to the Atlantic Council’s Ben Judah, that reflects a position that corruption is not about individual bad actors, but the bad systems that authoritarians exploit.

Other announcements are bubbling up. Biden has confirmed he will be mounting a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games. The US will provide a big dollop of cash to the recently launched International Fund for Public Interest Media. A further round of human rights sanctions are set to be announced. Various civil society alliances around technology, corruption and human rights have started appearing.

The fact that campaigners from Belarus or the Hong Kong activist Nathan Law will speak, amid an array of self-organised fringe events, show that the organisers recognise this cannot be an American-owned, or even a solely government-owned, event.

Judah says he is impressed by the quality of the administration’s just-published anti-corruption strategy – after a period of worrying silence on the issues. “It looks as if they will go into the summit with some really solid ideas – something they did not have ahead of the G7 or Cop26”.

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