Joe Biden has never put much stock in America’s self-assigned mission of fostering democracy abroad. As a freshman senator half a century ago, he opposed the Vietnam War not because he regarded it as immoral but because he didn’t think the United States could reform the autocratic regime in Saigon. Years later, he did not expect much of similar efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In the summer of 2009, when I first met then-Vice President Biden to interview him for a New York Times Magazine profile, he pulled out a copy of The Freedom Agenda, my book on democracy promotion, to show me the passages he had underlined. (There’s a reason the press has always had a soft spot for the man.) He had, I noticed, marked the parts about limitation, failure, hubris. If one were to place American presidents of the last century along a spectrum of missionary democratization, with idealists like Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush at one end and “realist” skeptics like Richard Nixon and Bush the elder at the other, Biden would fit most comfortably with the realists, though he is certainly more sensitive to human rights violations than they.
Yet on Thursday—at the appalling hour of 6 a.m., to accommodate a global audience—Biden will open the Summit for Democracy, reduced by the pandemic to a giant, two-day Zoom conference. Leaders of 110 countries will make public commitments to fortify their own, in some cases rather notional, democracies.
Biden seems to have been mugged by reality. Unlike his predecessors of whatever persuasion, this president has taken office at a moment when a democratic future in the United States—and in some important allied countries—can no longer be taken for granted. No task seems more urgent than the protection of democracy at home and abroad. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told me last month, “In every conversation I’ve heard him have with a foreign leader, the centerpiece of the conversation has been that he sees the fundamental struggle of our time as the face-off between autocracy and democracy. And that’s its fundamental for the U.S. to lead the effort towards democratic resilience and reinvigoration around the world.”
The ambitions behind the summit are epic in scope. Biden hopes to reassert American faith in democracy after four years in which former President Donald Trump toadied to dictators; to lead the world’s democracies in the struggle with autocratic states, above all China, for the hearts and minds of the world’s citizens; and to agree on strategies to fortify democracies against internal and external threats. If this effort—which begins in the coming days but will last a full year—should fulfill even a part of those hopes, Biden will be remembered as the FDR-like figure whom he aspires to be.
But will it? Do summits achieve such heights? Certainly the Glasgow climate summit which concluded last month did not. After conducting dozens of interviews with officials and experts in and out of the Biden administration over the last eight months, I fear the administration will have labored mightily and brought forth a Glaswegian mouse. Owing in part to matters like the pandemic over which Biden had no control, in part to compromises that imply a less-than-total commitment to that fundamental struggle of our time, and perhaps most of all to the virulence of the toxins that have sapped the force of democracy, the odds of real success look very long. Biden may have been right about the limits of what America can do to foster democracy abroad; the protection of democracy at home is a heroic enough task all by itself. That struggle will persist after the summit is forgotten.
It is just as obvious that the world is getting less democratic as it is that it's getting hotter. Freedom House’s annual index of democracy has been declining for 15 consecutive years. The group notes that "nearly 75 percent of the world's population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year." Those countries include the United States, which is now tied with Panama and ranks behind quite a few of the Eastern Bloc countries that entered the democratic nursery only 30 years ago.
It is not so much democracy as liberal democracy that has gone into decline. What once appeared to be shared faith in liberal principles like the rule of law has been giving way across the world to a new kind of majoritarian tyranny. The profound disruptions of a globalized, post-industrial world have battered the middle class and helped provoke nationalism that populist leaders have been quick to exploit. The secularism and rationalism that rose with industrial society has helped to engender an intense sectarian spirit turbocharged by new technologies that spread disinformation instantly and sort people into self-enclosed cognitive worlds. Powerful autocracies, notably Russia and China, now actively seek to subvert democracies. One need only think of Trump's presidency to see how the designs of autocratic rivals converge with the ambitions of illiberal populists and the deforming effects of social media. What's more, the pandemic has offered a pretext for further crackdown by autocratic and illiberal states.
Erosion inside the world’s democracies requires a very different, and yet more urgent, endeavor from the one first articulated by Woodrow Wilson when he promised a new order after World War I that would make the world "safe for democracy.” That crusade now feels like a luxury. Biden, by contrast, hopes to protect or preserve democracy where it already exists. He has frequently cast his ambitious domestic agenda as proof that democracies can “deliver” prosperity and security in a way that autocracies cannot. This is no easy argument to make at a time when China has achieved sustained economic growth at a rate unprecedented in modern history. It is by no means obvious that democracies work better than non-democracies.
The language of “American exceptionalism” now has a nostalgic ring, because the United States is arguably no longer either the world’s most powerful country or its most effective democracy. Indeed, one stated premise of the summit, too plainly true to be dismissed as mere rhetoric, is that America has as much to gain from the experience of other countries as they do from that of the United States. In an extraordinary cable this summer to all diplomatic posts, Blinken urged officials to be fully candid about America's shortcomings when raising issues of democracy and human rights abroad. State explicitly, he admonished, that "we ask no more of other countries than we ask of ourselves." If the foreign policy disasters of the last 20 years have taught diplomats anything, it's the virtue of humility.
Planning for the summit exposed the disputes that have beset many administrations over the role of democracy in American foreign policy. National security adviser Jake Sullivan sought to signal the administration’s commitment by establishing a new NSC position, coordinator for democracy and human rights. To fill the position, he hired Shanthi Kalathil, a senior figure at the National Endowment for Democracy. She and her aides began to hold meetings with agencies across the government.
One of the first things I heard when I began reporting in April was that “the usual tension between idealists and realpolitik” had already broken out. Almost everything was up for debate. Who should be invited and what should be asked of them? Should there be objective criteria for invitation—like a Freedom House ranking—that could be publicly defended? Should a country’s democratic trajectory count as much as its current standing? How ambitious a commitment could be asked of the more fragile democracies? One senior administration official told me optimistically, “In many countries where we have so little leverage, the democracy summit represents a leverage opportunity. Let’s engage countries to see how they would self-winnow.” In other words, countries prepared to make a serious commitment would be invited, and those that did not, wouldn’t be.
Early on, and apparently with little controversy, officials decided the summit should be a "big-tent" affair. This was a fateful decision. A number of democracy scholars who welcomed Biden's initiative, including Frances Brown and Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had called for a two-tier assembly led by a smaller group of fully committed democracies. But that was not what Biden, Blinken and Sullivan wanted. The summit—“for democracy,” not “of democracies”—would not confer membership in a club or discriminate between the robust and the half-hearted.
Officials were always careful to explain this decision in the language of inclusivity: In such an egalitarian setting, everyone would learn from everyone, as Blinken said in his cable. But the big tent also satisfied a geopolitical calculus. Nobody wanted to tell important allies like India, Poland or Brazil that they weren't welcome or could come only as part of the B team. India was a crucial ally against China, and Poland against Russia. Democracy may have been at “the center” of American foreign policy, as Biden always insisted, but it did not supplant national security interests.
Indeed, efforts to foster democracy abroad have collided with traditional security concerns for decades. In the Cold War, President Harry Truman sent aid to anti-Communist autocrats in Greece and Turkey in the name of defending “free peoples” from armed insurgency. Hypocrisy is the occupational hazard of an idealistic foreign policy. Still, the big-tent decision posed a very real problem: Once you invited illiberal states, you had to pretend that they would take the process seriously—that illiberal populists actually aspired to behave according to the very democratic norms they had trampled. What about India?, I asked an administration official. “India is a great question,” he conceded. “We need to have that tough conversation.” It did not seem likely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his fellow populists would self-winnow.
Biden had specified during the campaign that the commitments he sought would fall into three categories: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights. Administration officials seemed most preoccupied with the first category, perhaps because the corruption problem linked the developing countries from which corrupt actors stole with the wealthy ones where they hid their loot. An "illustrative menu" of commitments that the administration later produced included such measures as increasing transparency in public procurement and real estate ownership—the first chiefly for poor countries, the second chiefly for rich ones.
The anti-authoritarian agenda proposed that states stand up to Russia and China on issues like electoral interference and targeting dissidents abroad—something that would no doubt be difficult for those countries’ neighbors. On the other hand, suggestions to "oppose Internet shutdowns" or "enshrine protections for civil society" required a change of heart within countries that routinely turn off the Internet and harass journalists and activists. Shivshankar Menon, India's former national security adviser, told me that while it seemed plausible that Indian leaders would use the summit to demonstrate what democratic bona fides they could, “I think it is unreasonable to expect them to go against what they feel are their interests in staying in power.” Engagement, he predicted, would be limited to “the extent that those objectives coincide.”
Europeans have long looked askance at the American pastime of spreading democracy; it had been widely assumed that many of America’s chief allies would merely tolerate Biden’s initiative. But when I spoke during the spring to senior officials in foreign capitals, I was surprised to hear quick assent to Biden’s view that democratic and autocratic states are increasingly engaged in a “contest of models.” “The days when democracy and cosmopolitanism were both thought to be dominant, that they would steamroll through the world—the end-of-history thesis—those days are behind us,” said Manuel Muniz Villa, then a senior official in Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and now provost of IE University in Madrid. Biden, he predicted, “will find much more receptive states than even a few years ago.” An official in France’s Foreign Ministry said that Paris now accepts that China is actively seeking to advance the model of autocratic capitalism and views the competition with China as “very direct and brutal.” He, too, described a “convergence” of views. European leaders hope the summit will help harden Western democracies against the external threat from Russian disinformation and the Chinese export of surveillance technology.
That said, every official I spoke to feared being pulled into a new cold war with China. American diplomats have tried to dispel those fears. “We’re not approaching this as a global anti-China alliance and a global anti-Russia alliance,” as one put it. “That couldn’t be further from the purpose.” Yet Biden almost always talks about democracy in the context of the competition with China; his vaunted “foreign policy for the middle class” is meant to show that democratic capitalism can deliver for ordinary citizens better than China’s autocratic model can. The United States is locked in a great power struggle with China, whether or not you call it a “cold war.” Europe—and Asia to a yet greater degree—fears being caught in the crossfire.
By the summer, almost nothing had been resolved. The civil society groups recruited by the administration to help plan the summit felt that they were spinning around on an endless carousel of meetings. Organizing an event many months away across multiple government agencies, all of them consumed by the more urgent news of the day, is not enviable work.
Sullivan understood that problem very well. In January, he had tried to appoint a “democracy czar” who could coordinate action across the administration and yank impediments out of the way, as John Kerry would do with the climate change agenda. In an effort that has not previously been reported, Sullivan approached Harold Koh, a legal scholar and former Obama State Department official, about the role. According to a person familiar with the discussions, Sullivan ultimately chose not to offer the position and abandoned the effort altogether. (Sullivan declined to speak for this article.) When I raised this episode with an NSC spokesperson, she pointed out that Kalathil is one of only three NSC officials with the title of “coordinator.” But White Houses don't actually run according to org charts, and sources both inside and outside the administration told me that Kalathil lacks the standing to drive this fiendishly complex process.
The summer produced another unpleasant realization: The world was not going to be fully vaccinated by year's end. If only vaccinated guests could come to the summit, many developing countries would either be unable to attend or be compelled to leave behind the civil society and grassroots groups that were intended to play a central role. There was talk of postponement. A summit is an attention-forcing event, deeply shaped by the interaction of the guests and by the presence of activists. A Zoom event would reduce the summit to kabuki. Officials came up with a very second-best solution: The virtual conference would be followed by a “year of action” during which countries fulfill their pledges—or fail to—and then by an in-person assembly in late 2022. In parallel, a select group of countries are to join an “Alliance For The Future of The Internet,” which will seek to hammer out new rules on issues like data privacy and security as well as on the regulation of tech platforms.
The in-person event wasn’t the only abandoned effort. Early on, I had heard from a democracy scholar and former Obama official that “the big headline job” was a strategy document that would lay out the role of democracy in Biden’s foreign policy, and thus provide intellectual and political guidance for those planning the summit. Yet, I could never find evidence of the report being drafted. The former official later told me that the idea had died over the summer. Kalathil, this person said, “just doesn’t have the bandwidth”—the work of coordination was overwhelming. Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer, were “not so excited about putting stuff down on paper” for fear that it would “reveal tensions in democracy policy.”
The pandemic could be written off as an act of God. But the failure to make the summit a higher priority was a choice implying that, rhetoric notwithstanding, democracy had to take its place among all the other concerns that preoccupy the foreign policy apparatus.
The civil society leaders and scholars to whom I had been talking were growing skeptical. When we first spoke, one of the key organizers of the civil society groups working with the administration talked with guarded enthusiasm about extensive exchanges with the White House and State Department about the role of civil society in helping formulate meaningful commitments both for the United States and for invitees. When we talked again in October, though, the civil society organizer told me that their role had evaporated. They worried that the American commitment to the summit would not be sufficiently bold, that not enough was being asked of the more recalcitrant invitees. The event, this person gloomily concluded, was set to be little more than "political theater that will lead to nothing of significance.”
Biden had always insisted that America had to earn its right to lead on democracy by first putting its own house in order. But now, as early hopes for a muscular summit flickered, the host country’s democratic bona fides were taking a beating. Biden had ended Trump’s dalliance with dictators and strongmen like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, but continued to work closely with the Saudis and other autocratic allies. Almost all the major human rights groups that work on the Middle East recently sent a scathing letter to Blinken denouncing the "Strategic Dialogue" with Egypt, which largely ignored the regime's brutal repression while praising its nominal "National Human Rights Strategy." What's more, the rushed departure from Afghanistan, with the accompanying abandonment of brave local activists, was not, to say the least, a good look for democracy summiteers. Sarah Holewinski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and head of the summit's human rights working group, told me, “We had a real crisis moment where we said, 'How can we have this summit when this is what happened to the Afghan people?’”
Developments like these have kindled a suspicion that Biden is far more deeply moved by threats to America's democracy than he is by those facing the rest of the world. Like the Cold War presidents from Truman to Reagan who propped up anti-Communist tyrants, or George W. Bush, who all but abandoned his post-9/11 “Freedom Agenda” in the face of opposition from autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Biden was prepared to make his peace with countries—democratic or not—that aligned with the United States in the new era of great-power rivalry.
There cannot, by contrast, be any doubt about Biden's commitment to restoring democratic rules and norms in the United States. Yet here he had the reverse problem: If he seemed capable but less than willing to do the hard work of promoting or preserving democracy overseas, in dealing with America’s worrisome democratic erosion he seemed entirely willing but largely powerless. In the immediate aftermath of the democratic crisis on January 6, Biden officials had looked forward to passing an ambitious electoral-reform law that would ensure that the will of the American people was faithfully reflected in electoral outcomes. Such a law would serve as the supreme "deliverable" at the summit. But the effort foundered in the face of united Republican opposition and the unwillingness of key Democrats to eliminate or modify the filibuster. Whatever the depth of Biden's own commitment, Republican leaders and their voters seem content to let democracy sink so long as the Democrats go down with it.
The European officials I spoke to sympathized with Biden’s plight, but had been deeply spooked by the January 6 riot. Several mentioned Robert Kagan’s Washington Post essay suggesting that by 2024, America might well experience “incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”
Administration officials are hardly blithe in the face of this reality, but they do their best to come up with second-best justifications. Blinken put the case this way: “The fact that we acknowledge our own challenges and don’t run away from them or hide them gives us real credibility. That in and of itself can be a source of strength and progress.” Humility in the powerful is certainly more appealing than bluster, but the most salient fact of the moment is the collapse of democratic norms that got Trump elected, and might get him re-elected.
There is yet a deeper point here. In what way will, say, agreements on new rules to safeguard against the spread of disinformation, important though they are, rally faith in democratic safeguards in the United States or persuade Republicans that it’s not worth gaining power at the price of American democracy? At bottom, democratic erosion in the United States, as in India or Poland or the Philippines, has less to do with external threats that can be blunted by joint action than with an internal loss of faith that can only be addressed domestically. Administration officials talk of the summit as a place to exchange “best practices”; yet democratic erosion is not a technocratic problem. For all their shortcomings, global summits on migration or climate may offer more hope for change than a global summit for democracy.
Serious negotiations with countries only got underway in the fall. A number of small countries responded eagerly. Erin Barclay, coordinator for global democratic renewal at the State Department, said, "I'm hopeful about the enthusiasm I've seen from many of the countries we're talking to." She singled out as examples Zambia and Ecuador, neither previously known for their robust commitment to democracy.
Mike Hammer, the American ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, made the case to me that negotiations over the DRC’s summit commitment had given both Washington and the country’s new president, Felix Tshisekedi, added leverage for democratic reform with skeptics in the country’s leadership. "He's a leader who wants to see progress and is already acting on corruption," said Hammer. Tshisekedi recently demonstrated his seriousness by firing Albert Yula Mulimbi, the immensely powerful and, allegedly, deeply corrupt head of the national mining company.
The DRC story illustrates an important point: The summit can serve as a spotlight, and a source of encouragement, for countries whose leaders are committed to strengthening democracy but need outside help. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress similarly wrote that Lithuania, a brave democracy facing threats from Russia, Belarus and China, would benefit from the kind of show of democratic solidarity that the summit could provide.
But what about the nations where democratic preservation and political self-interest do not coincide, to paraphrase India’s Menon? That group is growing, and includes several very important countries. A number of administration officials said to me that the very fact that such countries had agreed to attend demonstrated their wish to be accepted as members of the club of democracies—and thus, perhaps, their willingness to take difficult measures to reap the associated prestige. That may be true. However, the hope back in the spring that some of those countries would agree to meaningful commitments, or "self-winnow" if they could not, had proved illusory. Whether owing to a lack of time or a lack of will, Biden officials agreed that invitees would have the last word on what gift to bring to the party. "We have asked countries to bring what they considered impactful," as a senior administration official put it.
Those commitments will only be revealed at the summit itself. That is also true of the United States, where the Domestic Policy Council has been slow to assemble a package of executive orders and administrative actions protecting electoral security and advancing the rights of women, girls and marginalized communities. The recently-passed infrastructure bill will be offered as evidence that democracies can deliver.
No less important than the commitments countries make are the mechanisms by which they will be held accountable to fulfill them during the forthcoming "year of action." In the unlikely event that, say, the Philippines promises to give more space to independent media, who will decide if it has actually done so? The administration is working with groups that have developed data systems to measure in real time how well states are achieving their expressed goals. Officials have not yet decided whether countries that do not keep their word will be disinvited from the 2022 event. Yet, absent serious consequences, the summit could easily serve as a legitimating device for less-than-democratic countries.
Given the magnitude of the effort the Biden administration has undertaken and the president’s very real fears of democratic failure, the summit is not likely to be a “nothingburger,” as several disappointed-in-advance activists and academics predicted to me. A likelier outcome is a modest somethingburger on the order of the Glasgow climate summit, which produced a great many commitments—most of them insufficient to the scale of the problem and none of them enforceable. Yet moral victory is nothing to be proud of in the face of a grave crisis. Compromises during the planning process, most of which reflect the traditional calculations of statecraft, have certainly diminished the likelihood of success. But since so much of the problem of democratic erosion lies inside states and can only be addressed inside states, the endeavor may have been intrinsically impossible.
When the summit opens on Thursday, it is probably fair to predict that Americans who do not live and die for politics, as well as other such folk around the globe, will stick to their regularly scheduled programming. Political junkies will certainly have plenty to watch. One of the summit’s two Zoom channels will offer a continuous U.N.-like drone of speeches by heads of state, while the other, potentially more absorbing, will host meetings that will bring together leaders, Biden cabinet members, civil society groups and human rights activists who have braved authoritarian regimes.
Nevertheless, what looked a year ago like a democratic jamboree now resembles a C-SPAN marathon. Given the high hopes that the prospect of a democracy summit once kindled, the whole affair may be an exercise in anti-climax.
In the course of my conversation with Blinken, I asked what he thought the United States could get out of the summit. "There is a call-to-action aspect of this that also is part of our summoning of our better angels," he said, "which the President strongly believes continues to resonate powerfully with most Americans. Things have gotten lost along the way. This is a moment to try to refocus our fellow citizens on what makes us exceptional. It does speak to something that continues to unite us, and that people aspire to, even despite the frustrations."
I wonder if this is the language of noble aspiration or of nostalgic yearning. I know that it reflects Biden’s own thinking. The president grew up at a time when hardly anyone doubted where America stood in a different contest of models. In the first foreign policy speech he gave on the 2020 campaign trail, Biden reminded the audience that the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy is what created the Free World.” That struggle, he added, “won’t just define our past—It will define our future as well.” The democracy summit is meant to sound a tocsin for that battle. We can only hope that the president’s optimism will withstand the test of reality.
Editor's note: An attribution in this story was updated to respect the reporter's agreement with the source.