The Summit for Democracy: Power By Example or an Example of Power?

This piece was submitted to the U.S.-China Perception Monitor by two reporters at Xinhua News, Xu Zeyu and Zhai Xiang. The views are their own, and do not represent those of Xinhua News. Responses are forthcoming.

Biden came into office announcing his intention to lead the world “not merely by the example of power but by the power of example.” With a lavish procession to deliver his promise, the upcoming virtual “Summit for Democracy”, drawing over 110 countries and regions, offers an ideal opportunity for such power display of “example”. In the aftermath of Trump’s restless diplomatic flip-flops, the move underscores Biden administration’s anxious bid not only to reassert its own interpretation of “democracy” as a political moral compass worldwide, but also to build another overarching narrative for American global strategy as the decades-long rallying cry of “War on Terror” dissipates.

America is Back?

This formality is actually nothing new. Back in 2000, when the American hegemony was at its peak, a prototype “Community of Democracies” endorsed by 106 signatories for Warsaw Declaration amounted to a bold attempt to realize Francis Fukuyama’s “End-of-History” prophecy. The vision of a world order built entirely on the Western version of “liberal democracy” then seemed as close at hand as it had ever been.

However, the departure of Madeleine Albright, a major champion of Warsaw Declaration, as U.S. secretary of state coincided with the watershed September 11 attack, which triggered Washington’s two-decade obsession with the specter of an enemy it eventually failed to defeat. The guiding principle of American global strategy shifted thereafter. From Afghanistan to Iraq, the world witnessed the growing militarization of American diplomacy, which by no means helped lay solid building blocks for “democratic transition” but only to bring about more destruction, corruption, institutional failures, and human rights abuses.

The reorientation of foreign policy from War on Terror started when Trump was in office, proclaiming that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” As the messy pullout from Kabul put an inglorious end to the protracted War on Terror, it is about time that the U.S. ditch the rusty rhetoric of “anti-terrorism” and rekindle the good old fantasy of the “democracy club.” With “Community of Democracies” drowned in oblivion for over two decades, its chief architect Albright recently reaffirmed the self-appointed destiny for the U.S., “although tattered and torn, freedom’s flag is ready to rise.” Surely, that pretentious flag is about to flaunt at the imminent summit to recapitulate Biden’s banality “America is back,” only that its standing would simply go back to where it was 20 years ago.

Old Talk, New Realities

Judging from the three-pronged theme of the summit, there is little room for innovative agendas to reinvigorate its allies or impress the new kids on the block. The incumbent U.S. government might have conveniently drawn most of its inspiration from the “Copenhagen Democracy Summits,” which has enjoyed ringing endorsement from U.S. governmental agencies in previous administrations. In the keynote speech Biden delivered at its first session in 2018, he invoked the fear of political systems outside the Western orbit. To no one’s surprise, that is exactly what he did again for the upcoming summit, calling on the participants “to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” Why, then, doesn’t Biden administration avoid the juxtaposition and keep empowering the framework of Copenhagen?

The fact is that the U.S. ulterior motive for convening the 2021 summit has much less to do with democracy. This old rhetoric is aimed to tackle the new reality in realpolitik: to salvage the American global leadership in today’s world where the very idea of American supremacy is challenged by the  multipolar drive. For Biden, emboldening ideological confrontation in the guise of global “democracy” sermon seemed like an obvious way to strengthen U.S. position in its perceived great-power competition. And it would entail a higher-level meeting for the world to pay attention.

For one, rebuilding the narrative of defending “democracy” is an attempt to rehabilitate U.S. global alliance system. Trump reduced this system to a protection racket and dealt blows to its foundational stone. Even though Biden proclaimed America’s alliances were the “greatest asset” and pledged “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” with its key partners once again, the U.S. unilateral retreat from Afghanistan and AUKUS rift with France made people take his pledge with a grain of salt. Promulgating in high profile the set of Western values, widely accepted among U.S. allies, can be useful in shelving their past grievances and provide an opportunity to make America, in Biden’s own words, “a much more credible partner” once again. For another, U.S. government intends to gain more leverage to play the geostrategic game behind the facade of a moral crusade. Not only was this intention exposed by a joint article by Chinese and Russian ambassadors to U.S., but the invitations mixed with realpolitical considerations were also questioned by domestic observers. The question is, will a “Summit for Democracy” be the way out of the quandary that American global leadership has found itself in?

Powdering the Example

The first problem for Washington to regain global influence through this narrative is whether U.S. still has enough “power of example” to hold a massive gathering in the name of democracy. Racial unrest, social cleavages, and political polarization have been eroding the ground for America’s state apparatus, and the American “democracy” has become problematic even by Western standards. According to The Economist’s Democracy Index 2020, the United States is categorized as “flawed democracy.” Similarly, a research by the University of Würzburg shows the U.S. ranks only 36th in terms of “democratic quality” and is therefore classified as “deficient democracy.” Staunch proponents of an American version of democracy would make excuses for its institutional recession, but the fact is that the “City upon a Hill” is losing its appeal to the other parts of the world. According to a latest research by Pew Research, fewer than 20 percent of people in developed countries, including Americans, consider U.S. as a model of democracy worth emulating. More importantly, according to another research, there has been a so-called “democratic decline” on a global scale in the past, and the root cause lay in the U.S. itself, not the “authoritarian states,” labeled and scolded by America.

Second, it calls into question whether Biden’s summit will successfully forge bonds with its allies or potential allies. The participant list, incorporating over 110 countries and regions, has become an awkward subject. If too many guests with different penchants are to be invited, the dinner menu would almost surely go without a fixed genre. The overload of the summit could deviate or dilute its original focus, rendering it an all-encompassing free talk forum. On the other hand, given the ideological bent of this summit, who is on or off the list could, and have stoked up controversy and uproar. While a cold shoulder to NATO members Hungry and Turkey has already undercut the summit’s effectiveness in consolidating solidarity, invitations for Poland and the Philippines, in stark contrast, have simply generated confusion. Biden himself blast Polish ruling party for lacking “checks and balances,” and the Philippines have been vehemently criticized for alleged human rights violations by the West. However, their geographical proximity to Russia and China earns them a seat at the table. For a summit for “democracy,” the procedure of selecting participants, entirely dominated by the U.S. government, is in itself “non-democratic.” The notion “American Tributary System”, a reference to American alliance system by Professor Khong Yuen Foong of the National University of Singapore, might be able to put this summit into perspective. In return for market access and bayonet-enforced peace, America seeks tributes in the form of others’ recognition of U.S. hegemony and their will to “emulate its political forms and ideas.” Now that the “tributary system” is replete with challenges and doubts, it takes more concrete inputs rather than grandiose gatherings to make it work again.

Finally, the summit will do little to put America in a better position to compete with China. Despite ideological affinity and transatlantic traditions, major European countries have been careful not to choose sides. Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister of France, recently admitted Europe’s common ground with the U.S. on values and systems, all the while stressing Europe’s independent strategic priority. He said, “the United States wants to confront China. The European Union wants to engage China.” It is all the more unlikely for these countries to reach any meaningful consensus on China at the summit.

American global leadership is waning. A “Summit for Democracy” is understandably a Democrat President’s first instinct, but it will certainly not be the fix. It is a promising sign that the Biden administration, unlike its predecessor, captures the importance of exhibiting “power of example.” However, instead of polishing the cliche discourse that fanned the flame of the last Cold War, it will be a lot more responsible for the U.S. to set an example of building great-power cooperation and to avoid the next.