Talking Points

The anachronistic vision behind Biden's Summit for Democracy

A month from now, President Biden will convene what his administration has dubbed a "Summit for Democracy," an event intended both to bolster democratic governments against ascendent authoritarianism and to demonstrate the United States remains the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, a leaked list of countries invited to attend the event suggests the vision behind it is fatally flawed.

The idea that foreign affairs should be conceived in terms of a conflict between regime types traces back to the Cold War, when the primary geopolitical tension had a real ideological dimension. Liberal democracies lined up against communist dictatorships, with each side seeking to advance its interests in part by spreading its governance and economic systems as widely as possible around the globe. Biden is clearly harking back to this kind of alignment by inviting representatives of democracies to discuss ways to fight the authoritarian threat posed by China, Russia, and other rivals and opponents.

Yet the leaked list raises serious questions. Poland, which many allege has been backsliding on democracy in recent years, will supposedly be there, but Hungary apparently won't be, though Viktor Orban's Fidesz Party may well lose power in an election next year. In the Middle East, Israel and Iraq have been invited, but Turkey, a NATO ally, hasn't. Firmly democratic allies in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, have been included. But so has the Philippines, where democracy is under threat, while other countries struggling with democratic consolidation, like Thailand and Vietnam, haven't been asked to come.

But worse than the lack of clarity about membership in the democratic club is the summit's anachronistic vision of international relations. Tensions are indeed rising between the U.S. and China, but that's not primarily because the former is a democracy and the latter is authoritarian. It's because America is a global hegemon that projects power into China's near abroad, and China is a rapidly rising power seeking to expand its influence across East Asia. That places the two countries on a collision course, and whether they'll prove able to avoid armed conflict will have very little to do either country's form of government.

The fact is democracies sometimes have mutual interests, but not always — and often countries with different regime types can find ways to get along or at least avoid open conflict. To the extent that the Biden administration's Summit for Democracy actively obscures these complicated truths, it runs a serious risk of doing more harm than good.