WASHINGTON – One of President Biden’s most specific foreign policy promises was a promise to convene a global democracy summit in his first year in office. The gathering is said to publicly oppose the authoritarian and populist tides that arose during Donald J. Trump’s presidency and, as Mr Biden and his advisors see, threaten to flood the political values of the West.
However, in the weeks since Mr. Biden was elected, American democracy has been staggering. This month a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and disrupted the sacred peaceful transfer of power. Next week, in a year from now, the Senate will begin its second impeachment trial against Mr Trump. Republicans in Congress are ready to impose a legislative deadlock by obstructing Mr Biden’s movement.
The feeling of a dysfunctional, if not completely broken, democratic system makes foreign rivals crow – and suggests that the United States has nothing to do with teaching other nations.
“America no longer sets the course and has therefore lost the right to set it,” wrote Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, on Facebook after the uprising in the Capitol. “And above all to impose it on others.”
Americans could “be proud of their democracy and freedom,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, recently told reporters. But after experiencing so much political chaos, she added, “Deep down, you can hope that you can live like the Chinese do.”
Government officials say neither opportunistic comments from foreign rivals nor recent expressions of bona fide skepticism from foreign policy analysts at home have softened the plan Mr Biden has promised as a candidate: convening a “summit for democracy” where like-minded leaders could discuss opportunities to strengthen their own systems internally and protect them from threats like corruption, electoral security, disinformation, and the authoritarian model that has gripped China and Russia and invaded countries like Turkey and Brazil.
Mr Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs last spring that the event would “renew the spirit and common purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring the world’s democracies together to strengthen our democratic institutions, act honestly against backward nations, and forge a common agenda. “
A person familiar with the summit planning that has been going on since the elections said Mr Biden had remained undeterred by the recent political unrest in the United States and will likely host an event with other heads of state, details such as the timing and location have not been established . Others familiar with the process said they expected an event towards the end of the year. A White House official did not respond to a request for comment.
However, in Washington, a debate has erupted over the idea among former United States government officials and scientists. It is closely related to plans for the summit, but it involves greater concerns about the country’s role as a global leader in the post-Trump era.
The immediate question is whether the political crisis is a reason to postpone the plan for the summit and to reconsider the push to promote the democratic model around the world, as some argue.
“The United States has lost credibility. There’s no question about that, ”said James Goldgeier, professor of international relations at American University and former National Security Council advisor in the Clinton administration. In a recent foreign affairs essay, he argued that Mr. Biden should instead hold a democracy summit at home – one that focuses on “injustice and inequality” in the United States, including issues such as voting rights and disinformation.
“If you’re completely stuck on Capitol Hill and unable to get things done to improve people’s lives, you aren’t going to have a lot of moral authority,” added Golden Vulture.
“How can the United States spread democracy or serve as a role model for others when it has little functioning democracy at home?” Emma Ashford, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in Foreign Policy this month. “Washington’s foreign policy elites remain committed to upholding a three-decade-long foreign policy that aims to reshape the world along America’s lines. You are way too smug about what that picture has become in 2020. “
Biden government officials say this criticism creates the wrong choice between restoring the country’s strength domestically and its position abroad.
During the public address in August, Jake Sullivan, who is now Mr Biden’s national security advisor, spoke of “the intersection between domestic and foreign policy, not just as an abstract concept but as the core of our grand strategy”.
“Any effective strategy for American engagement in the world must begin with making these deep investments in the strength of our own democracy and democratic institutions,” Sullivan said, “and getting underway on issues like how to deal with systemic racism.”
While doing this work, summit advocates say that after four years it would be an important moment for the world as Mr Trump praised strong leaders like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia confirmed his arguments that stability and tight central control are more important than civil society and the will of the people.
“I firmly believe that the events of the last few weeks – and years – make it necessary to hold a summit,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and former chief executive of the State Department for Human Rights and Democracy in Obama’s administration.
He argued that the Capitol Rebellion and Mr Trump’s wider efforts to reverse the election results showed the resilience of America’s core institutions. “Nobody should look at these events and suggest that they undermine the strength of our example,” he said.
Mr Malinowski and other supporters of the summit admit that this brings with it some practical complications, especially those that are precisely invited to attend.
In his essay on foreign affairs, Mr Biden said his summit could be modeled on President Barack Obama’s four summits, where world leaders met to exchange ideas and make specific commitments to reduce and secure nuclear weapons .
Mr Biden added that at his event civil society organizations would be “at the forefront of the defense of democracy” and “a call to action” for technology and social media companies that are becoming vessels for anti-democratic disinformation.
Countries like Turkey, Poland and Hungary, all NATO allies, are supposedly democracies, but increasingly defined by authoritarian practices. Critics ask whether they should be invited and persuaded to reform or excluded in order to deny them the status and stature of the democratic label.
One approach would be to create a D-10 group of democracies, a concept that was worked out by the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush and to which the United States would join Australia, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy. Japan, South Korea and the European Union.
Whatever the case, proponents of this idea say it would be a distant echo of Bush’s grand “freedom agenda,” his call to transform Middle Eastern autocracies into democracies that many today see as examples of hubris in the United States.
“It must be done with complete humility and serious honesty about our shortcomings and the fact that we are not exporting an American model,” said Thomas Carothers, senior vice president, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Several supporters of the Democracy Summit agree that political chaos requires a deeply humble approach.
“I don’t think he’s talking about lecturing the world on democracy,” said Gayle Smith, a former senior director of the National Security Council for Development and Democracy in the Obama administration.
“President Biden understands this very well and we have clearly seen that democracy is not something you declare as ‘democracy’ and we are done,” added Ms. Smith, who is now president and executive director of A Campaign That Is campaigns against poverty and disease worldwide. “It’s an ongoing process.”