The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s summit: What’s democracy got to do with it?

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These are dark times for democracy. Seventy-three countries witnessed an erosion of freedom in 2020, the highest in 15 years. In 2021, tyranny triumphed as besieged activists from Myanmar to Sudan faced jail time, exile, torture and death. Chinese jets, meanwhile, are buzzing Taiwan while Russian troops knock on Ukraine’s door. The bad guys, some argue, are winning.

In this maelstrom, President Biden’s Summit for Democracy — a virtual, two-day event kicking off Thursday with about 110 participating countries — would seem the salve the free world needs: An act of renewal by a leader who positioned himself as the savior of America’s own surprisingly fragile democracy. Biden — who has portrayed democracies as locked in a global contest against ascendant autocrats — will fulfill a campaign pledge by presiding over an international gathering meant to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption and amplify respect for human rights.

But the summit is in danger of being dead on arrival. For all its professed good intentions, the gathering is coming under intense fire from those who call its very concept naive, preachy, even risky, in part because of its prejudicial, invitation-only format. The White House guest list omits nations like Bolivia and Sierra Leone, while welcoming others like Iraq and Pakistan with far worse track records, opening the administration up to easy criticism that it judged entry based more on U.S. strategic interests than commitment to democratic principles. Critics also suggest the exclusive entry policy smacks of stone throwing from the United States, a country that, in the era of voting right restrictions and Trump Republicans, is very much a glass house.

“Rarely has America’s democracy crusade abroad contrasted more with its commitment to democratic practices at home — where the threats include Trump’s false claims that the presidential election was ‘stolen,’ an insurrection to stop a democratic transition and efforts to restrict voting rights,” Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky wrote in The Post.

Confusing messaging from Washington hasn’t helped. As my colleagues reported, the White House has been less than clear about how it drew up the guest list. U.S. officials have done contortions to assure some countries without a summit invitation — such as one-party dominated Singapore — that the decision wasn’t personal, even as the move to leave out the likes of Russia, China, Turkey and Hungary appeared precisely that.

“This is not designed to be a forum in which we sit in judgment of other countries,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters in the Asian city-state last week. He added, “some of our closest partners like Singapore … were not invited. But that is not a commentary on the strength of our partnership with Singapore.”

But if summit access isn’t a U.S. judgment call on a country’s democratic bona fides, then what exactly is it? And if Washington is saying it’s possible to be a strong U.S. partner without adhering to democratic norms, then what’s the point of hosting a democracy summit in the first place?

The administration’s approach may end up being self-defeating. But perhaps the point is to try to at least nudge the needle on democracy back in the right direction.

Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, told me that attendees are being encouraged to propose targets for improvements in tackling public corruption, protecting human rights and the free press and countering authoritarianism. A follow up, in-person summit is expected to be held next year to assess progress.

“The worse-case scenario is not that it will backfire, but that it will lead to very little, and be yet another gathering where countries talk about democracy but not much happens,” Feldstein said.

There might be a bit more bite at the summit than some expect. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Biden administration is preparing to unleash a flurry of new sanctions against “foreign-government officials and people it accuses of corruption and human-rights abuse,” while urging other nations at the summit to “join its pressure campaign.”

Not surprisingly, the summit’s biggest detractors are China and Russia. Their ambassadors to the United States — Qin Gang and Anatoly Antonov — co-authored a scathing preamble to the event last month, denouncing it as evidence of a “Cold War mentality” that “will stoke up ideological confrontation.”

Chinese officials have dubbed the summit a “joke” and are furious over Washington’s invitation to Taiwan. While Taiwan’s inclusion may be exactly the kind of gesture Biden needs to prove Washington is serious about global democracy promotion, some argue it is risky at a time of deteriorating relations between Beijing and Washington.

“The Biden team … needs to be firm with the Taiwanese government that it cannot use the summit invitation to insinuate support for independence or other goals inconsistent with the One China policy,” academics James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson warned in Politico. “Otherwise, the invite risks not only further complicating U.S.-China relations but also having Taiwan’s presence — and subsequent China tensions — becoming a main storyline crowding out the summit’s intended narrative.”

The summit convenes as Biden faces a dangerous new test from Moscow. My colleagues reported last week that U.S. intelligence has found the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive in Ukraine as soon as early next year, involving up to 175,000 troops. Biden on Tuesday held a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which he made clear a military escalation would result “in strong economic and other measures.”

In the face of their summit snub, China and Russia are both pushing the quixotic narrative that their countries are simply different kinds of democracies. Just days before the event opens, China held a rival “democracy summit,” unveiling a white paper touting itself as a “Democracy That Works.” The joint letter by the Chinese and Russian ambassadors describes Russia as “a democratic federative law-governed state.”

Those attempts to dress up authoritarianism in the costumes of democracy is a master class in the kind of misinformation and obfuscation the Biden summit is meant to tackle. But the guest list is undermining the message, leaving Washington open to old criticism of coddling compromised leaders when it suits its purpose.

Poland, for instance, is invited, despite that nation’s democratic backsliding, anti-LBGT stance and erosion of the rule of law. The U.S. needs the country more than ever to counter Belarus and Russia. Bloomberg columnist Mihir Sharma saw strategic interest in the decision to invite India and Pakistan but not Bangladesh.

“The U.S. might have determined it still ‘needs’ Pakistan to help manage Afghanistan — and thus cannot officially admit that Prime Minister Imran Khan was effectively selected by the country’s all-powerful military establishment, and not simply elected,” Sharma wrote.

“Such cynicism somewhat undermines the notion that the summit is about ‘renewing shared purpose,’” he continued. “Certainly, it will give countries like India the sense that it doesn’t matter whether our own democratic credentials erode over time — the U.S. will still call us a democracy, because they need us.”

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