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Reviews |  The Biden Democracy Summit was never a good idea.  But here’s how to make it work.

First of all, don’t be afraid to call your guests. Taking geopolitics into account, even if it means compromising one’s ideals somewhat, is a reality in foreign policy. With a summit presented as being literally “for democracy”, this risks turning from complication to contradiction. The administration has drawn the line by refusing to invite NATO allies Hungary and Turkey, whose democratic powers are in serious doubt. A number of other remote democracies about which we have expressed our concerns – Poland, the Philippines, Brazil and India – have been invited. Each has its geopolitical logic. But their undemocratic practices have worsened over the past year.

The Biden administration argues that these countries are not only invited for realpolitik reasons, but that including them provides opportunities for their civil societies to challenge authoritarian tendencies. (The White House may be seeking inspiration for the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, which ultimately helped foster the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.) Yet the risk is that the leaders can walk away saying that the United States has recognized them. as democratic. Everyone needs to make it clear that their invitation does not mean that Team Biden frees them from their undemocratic tendencies. While it may be difficult for the administration to be too overtly public during the summit, well-placed press leaks can help ensure that the diplomatic pressure behind the scenes is not so silent as to lack bite.

The message to Polish President Andrzej Duda should be that if the United States stands by his side against the militarization of migrants by Belarus at the border, it also supports the efforts of the EU Court of Justice, which has imposed to Poland a fine of more than one million euros per day. for violation of EU law on judicial independence. And while Tucker Carlson can praise Duda, the Biden administration should make it clear that it will use its influence to help those working to reverse Poland’s assaults on the courts and the free media.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should be reminded of the crucial role the United States played in the downfall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and the reestablishment of Philippine democracy in the 1980s. The United States should make it known that it is Determined to help ensure that next year’s Philippine elections are free and fair, with a particular eye on the autocratic family unity ticket of Marcos’s son and Duterte’s daughter.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, long self-proclaimed “tropical Trump”, is already making disturbing statements like “only God can remove me from the presidency”. Given the disturbing record of the United States in supporting undemocratic forces in Brazil during the Cold War, it is particularly crucial that the Biden administration make it clear that its commitment to a “long-term” strategic partnership with Brazil does not mean the United States will ignore the state of Brazilian democracy.

As for India, the administration got off to a good start with the State Department’s March 2021 human rights report, which broadly delineated human rights violations and criticized the “lack of accountability for official misconduct… at all levels of government”. But the security partnership between the United States and India has tightened under the enhanced Indo-Pacific Quad, even as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently ranked India as the worst of all “backward” democracies. It is therefore all the more important that the next human rights report is not less frank and that the United States is not afraid to call on the government of Narendra Modi.

Second, don’t let democracy alone dictate who you work with. Another challenge for Biden at the summit will be to assert the shared affinities between democracies without further dividing the world into two camps. Ideology and interests do not always match. Democracies often have competing interests. Democracies and autocracies can have convergents.

Other democracies are often economic and geopolitical competitors and often have different ideas about how to deal with threats posed by authoritarian states. In this regard, the summit is a good time to reaffirm Secretary Antony Blinken’s assurance to NATO in March that “the United States will not force its allies to choose ‘us or them’ with China. ”

Meanwhile, democracies cannot afford to oppose autocracies on all issues. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union shared interests on issues such as arms control and smallpox eradication. Today, the United States and China (as well as Russia) have a common interest in fighting climate change, reducing the risks of nuclear proliferation, and fighting pandemics. Moreover, China is closely linked to the world economy in a way that the Soviet Union never was.

The administration’s decision to invite Taiwan highlights this delicate balance between values ​​and geopolitical reality. In a sense, Taiwan is absolutely on the invitation list; its democracy gets one of Freedom House’s highest rankings. But the invitation is obviously a delicate matter given Chinese concerns. Whatever sense of greater courtesy the virtual Biden-Xi summit fostered, he was troubled days later by Beijing’s protests against Taiwan’s summit invitation. The administration keeps Taiwanese participation at a relatively lower level, but this diplomatic distinction does not fully clarify the challenges.

While showing support for Taiwan and its democracy is an important foreign policy goal, Team Biden also needs to be firm with the Taiwanese government that it cannot use the summit invitation to imply support. independence or other objectives inconsistent with one-China policy. Otherwise, the invitation risks not only further complicating U.S.-China relations, but also that Taiwan’s presence – and the Chinese tensions that flow from it – become a main scenario crowding out the expected summit narrative. More generally, Biden should stress that, notwithstanding the summit framing, democracies retain a practical interest in working with non-democracies.

Third, use civil society groups to hold countries to account. A common criticism from the summit – with which we agree – is that it will be almost impossible to force countries to live up to the democratic commitments they are asked to make. The Biden administration has compiled an “illustrative menu of options” for initiatives they hope invited countries choose to sign, and they plan to hold another summit in a year to assess progress. These commitments must be concrete enough to make the summit more than a “simple photoshoot” – a risk that has become evident with the few Paris climate commitments of 2015, a failure which now hangs over the summit. Glasgow COP-26.

To ensure attendees are held accountable, Biden is expected to fully endorse the fifth Copenhagen Democracy Summit in June 2022, of which more than 500 attendees will undertake a “civil society review of commitments made” at the Biden summit. The Copenhagen meeting is a great opportunity to empower a consortium of groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Transparency International and various NGOs in the global South to provide the kind of accountability dashboards that governments will not provide. not themselves.

Fourth, use the summit to make real progress on fixing America’s shattered democracy. Finally, we expressed our concerns last year that now was not the right time for the United States to host an international gathering focused on democratic values. Since then, these concerns have only been exacerbated by the January 6 insurgency; the refusal of many Americans – fed on lies by their political leaders – to accept the results of the 2020 election; rampant political violence against election officials, health care workers and school board officials; and a systematic effort by Republicans in a number of states to restrict voting rights.

We give the administration credit for being humble in the face of the challenges facing the United States. In announcing the summit, Biden acknowledged that for ourselves and for the way the world sees us, “we must openly and honestly address our history of systemic inequity and injustice and how it still holds back. so many people in our society “.

Indeed, in the past, foreign policy considerations have stimulated crucial domestic political changes. Historian Mary Dudziak writes that during the Cold War, “as presidents and secretaries of state. . . Concerned about the impact of racial discrimination on US prestige abroad, civil rights reform has become crucial to US foreign relations. Even Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual godfather of power politics, stressed the need to “focus efforts on creating a home society that can. . . serve as a model for other nations to emulate. If Biden were to use the summit to launch a major initiative to repair American democracy so that it is once again emulable, the summit might prove useful after all.


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