Biden’s Democracy Summit Needs to Produce More Than a Bland Statement

U.S. President Joseph Biden is preparing to fulfill a campaign promise by convening a virtual group of over 100 world leaders in early December for the first-ever “Summit for Democracy.” Nearly a year into his administration, however, the president’s team has already learned that keeping promises can be harder than making them. And from Beijing’s testing of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles to the rapid fall of Kabul, the last few months have made clear the challenges facing the world’s democracies.

The administration’s commitment to the summit signals a desire for greater democratic unity, as well as the United States’ unique responsibility to rally likeminded nations. Next month’s event cannot be the high-water mark in that campaign—it should be the start of an ambitious effort to demonstrate that democracy works in the 21st century.

The Biden administration has been circumspect about the details. A tentative list of invited countries came out only recently. The agenda—defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote human rights—is laudable but abstract. A follow-up summit is planned for next year, aimed at reviewing the intervening progress and emphasizing that the December gathering is no one-off. But exactly what the summit aims to achieve remains unclear, as does its longer-run future.

The process used to decide which countries will participate is also unknown. Freedom House labels as free only 83 out of the 210 countries and territories it analyzes, fewer than the number (108) invited to the summit. Of the 63 countries Freedom House labels as partly free, several were included in the summit roster, but many were not. It’s not clear what factors went into that decision, but the dilemmas inherent in it highlight the inevitable tradeoff between inclusion and cohesion.

Yet the 15th consecutive year that Freedom House has reported a decline in democracy worldwide is exactly the time when the democratic world needs to reassert itself and stand up for its fundamental principles. And there is momentum upon which to build. The Quad—the informal Australia-India-Japan-United States grouping revitalized in the last administration and given renewed purpose, mostly in standing against China, in the current one—shows a growing appetite for democratic cooperation on issues ranging from security to COVID-19. The AUKUS deal among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, while irritating to the French, demonstrated ways that democracies on three continents can work together in the Indo-Pacific, including through an innovative technology-sharing agreement. The Biden administration and the European Union recently lowered steel and aluminum tariffs, strengthening their abilities to compete with China in the all-important domain of trade.

While the United States must continue strengthening democratic institutions at home, it can and should support the growth of freedom abroad at the same time. The Summit for Democracy can be a key part of that effort.

The administration should clarify not only what the summit is but also what it is not. It would be a mistake to overstate the potential for large-scale, undifferentiated cooperation and action by all the world’s democracies, a hugely varied group of countries each with their own individual interests and agendas. The administration must also acknowledge that there are many areas—climate change and nuclear nonproliferation among them—where democracies and authoritarian systems need to cooperate. It should also not imagine that a group of democracies working together under the banner of a new summit will generate a strong sense of legitimacy among those on the outside.

A sense of realism is therefore in order. But so is ambition. The administration would do well to focus the summit on more than producing a broad and banal statement endorsed by the attendees. Today both the voices and the actions of the world’s democracies are sorely needed.

The focus should be on realistic outcomes. The summit can serve as a forcing function for actions that will take place over the coming year, spinning off working groups of member countries devoted to particular efforts. The chairs and members of such groups should vary depending on national interests and expertise. And these groups should empower and include as many other countries as possible, giving them a stake in important issues and showing that even small nations can play important roles—particularly when the focus on great-power competition threatens to draw attention from seemingly niche issues or peripheral places.

To accomplish these goals, the summit agenda should fall under three pillars. The first is inside-out diplomacy, harnessing the strengths of one country to improve the domestic practices of others. South Korea, for example, could chair a working group on effectively holding elections amid a pandemic or other national crisis. Following its courts’ 2020 order of new elections after a fraudulent initial ballot, Malawi, a partly-free nation included on the list of summit invitees, could offer lessons on maintaining judicial independence that would be particularly valuable to nations facing similar challenges. And Portugal, a country hit hard by the delta coronavirus variant but now one of the world’s most vaccinated nations, is carefully eliminating many pandemic-era restrictions, making it well positioned to lead a group on moving toward the endemic phases of COVID-19, potentially offering valuable lessons to other nations including the United States.

The second agenda pillar should focus on defending and extending democracy. Working groups should aim to defend democracies against external non-military threats such as hacking, disinformation, and election meddling; and to extend democratic practices in places where they are lacking, including in some of the partly free countries that will attend the summit. For example, Estonia, a frequent Kremlin target and one of the most digitally connected nations in the world, might chair an effort that examines ways to defend small democracies against cyberattacks. Germany could lead on an effort to institutionalize democracy promotion, using its stiftung model. Australia, targeted by Beijing’s 14 demands last year after calling for an independent COVID-19 investigation, could lead on resisting autocratic economic coercion and disinformation.

Democratic cooperation on technology, which is central to the economic, military, ideological, and geopolitical competition between democracies and autocracies, should be the agenda’s third pillar. Beijing is making progress on its goal to become the world’s technological powerhouse in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and quantum computing—what Xi Jinping calls the “commanding heights” of industry. The world’s democracies are coming to grips with this aspect of the competition, including the recent example of the United Kingdom releasing a national strategy to make Britain an “AI Superpower.”

The Biden administration likewise has made technology core to its foreign policy, creating a special envoy for critical and emerging technologies and proposing a State Department Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy in October. A steering group such as the T-12, which we have proposed to bring together the world’s leading techno-democracies, would fill a critical gap in existing international organizations and provide an informal mechanism for cooperation on everything from supply-chain audits to alignment on digital currency and electronic payments to standards-setting and investment.

And again, such a steering group could make space for smaller nations with particular expertise to lead—countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Israel, and eventually other critical states such as Taiwan, which the Biden administration invited to the December convening. This year’s summit could endorse the formation of a T-12 and other groupings of techno-democracies; a step in that direction already appears on the horizon with the Biden administration’s proposal for an “Alliance for the Future of the Internet.”

The long-term success of the summit will require specificity and sustainability. It can be modeled on other successful summit-based multilateral efforts, even those that haven’t typically dominated the headlines. The G-8, for example, launched a worthy Africa Action Plan in 2002, an ambitious Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative at its 2004 summit, and other partnerships over the years. In each case, success came from quick follow up. Consequently, the summit should announce a series of working groups, each chaired by an attending country, that will meet soon after to develop detailed work plans. At the follow-on summit next year, groups should report on and review of outcomes over the last 12 months, while making concrete plans for the long game against autocracies ahead.

There are plenty of skeptics heading into the summit. Those living in democratic countries are welcome to voice those doubts thanks to the freedoms of expression and of the press protected by such societies. But the Biden administration has an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong, by using the summit as a launchpad for an ambitious and enduring effort to strengthen democracy around the world. If it can do so, perhaps that initial invite list of 100 and some countries will grow in years to come.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

Jared Cohen is the founder and CEO of Jigsaw at Alphabet Inc. and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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