President Joe Biden is preparing to convene his first Summit for Democracy this week. He’s invited the leaders of more than 100 countries to participate in the virtual event, with the goal of “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world.” It seems an increasingly urgent task as, according to the pro-democracy U.S. research institute Freedom House, a “long democratic recession is deepening” and 2020 was the “15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” The Economist Intelligence Unit has meanwhile ranked America as a “flawed democracy” since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, and, CNN polling from September indicates, nearly all Americans believe that their democratic institutions are either “being tested” or “under attack.” Autocrats around the world are trying to take advantage of this. The Chinese Communist Party is already saying Biden’s summit is “set to become a joke” and attacking the U.S. over its political divisions and response to Covid-19. With all these challenges and complications, how important is this meeting?

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He sees the summit as a response to rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding in a lot of countries, and it’s consistent with Biden’s overarching perspective on foreign policy, which says that either democracy or autocracy is going to prevail through this moment in world history. Kurlantzick doesn’t expect that such a large and diverse group of countries, many of which are far from model democracies themselves, will pledge to any serious near-term democratic reforms. But the fact that they’re joining with the American president on the international stage—in the absence of the world’s authoritarian power players—to demonstrate their commitment to the idea of democracy is a tentative statement of its own.


Graham Vyse: What’s the U.S. administration hoping for out of this summit?

Joshua Kurlantzick: The immediate goal is to counteract the idea that democracy is failing globally—including in the United States, to some extent—and to prove that democracies can work together and form common strategies to promote political reform and revitalization. Ultimately, the goal would be for democracies to prove they can address some of the issues that have led to declining trust in democratic institutions—including the idea that your vote doesn’t matter or won’t result in any policy changes—though that’s not going to happen in a two-day summit. So, Biden’s goal is to collect all these democracies and get them to agree on at least some ideas about what can be done.

Vyse: Will it work?

Kurlantzick: It’s a decent idea, but there are a few problems. First, one of Biden’s goals in office is to revitalize U.S. democracy, but most countries around the world aren’t very enthused about U.S. democracy as a model. Second, I understand why the administration wanted to invite a wide range of countries, but they invited a number that are partly free or not free at all, and that will probably undermine the effect of the summit. Finally, when you’re trying to get more than a hundred countries to agree on anything of substance, I’m skeptical about that.

Oscar Chan

Vyse: What are the stakes right now in showing that democracy works?

Kurlantzick: Biden has actually said that democracy is in a global battle with autocracy for the future. I’m not sure I’d use those terms, but Biden probably wants to say democracy needs to deliver economic growth and public goods in contrast to autocracies—and specifically to China. Also, I think he’s saying that democracy needs to reflect popular will. If countries that are nominally democratic are actually being governed by minority rule, it’s something those countries need to address—and that potentially includes the United States.

Vyse: I’ve heard a number of concerns about his summit. One—and this is a case Robert Wright has made here at The Signal—is that creating some kind of league of democracies will end up creating a de facto league of authoritarians, further polarizing the world and fostering a heightened sense of global conflict. Another worry is that, in suggesting an epic struggle between democracy and autocracy, you could overstate the strength of autocracy around the world and inflate the threat it’s posing. What do you think about these fears?

Kurlantzick: With regard to autocracies like China and Russia, there’s a long history in American foreign policy of sometimes overestimating the strengths of autocratic opponents. In the later part of the Cold War, for example, the United States probably did so with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, there were probably other times when the U.S. and other democratic powers underestimated the strength of autocrats, primarily in the 1930s.

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