American Democracy Promotion Reloaded: The Summit for Democracy and Its International Political Reverberations
Abstract: One of the defining characteristics of current international politics is the decline of the relative power of the United States and the erosion of the post-war liberal international order it spearheaded. On December 9-10, 2021, the United States organized a two-day virtual global summit, The Summit for Democracy, with the stated goals of engendering tangible reforms to push back authoritarianism, protect human rights, and fight corruption.
This research paper analyzes this summit as an American attempt to reclaim the post-war international order and the American primacy in it as well as to corner the rising tide of right-wing populism within American domestic political landscape. To do so, the paper first situates the summit within the broader trajectory of US democracy promotion and then discusses the content of the summit as well as the reasons for the unusually watered-down rhetoric the US had to adopt in it.
It then broaches the entangled politics of why some countries were invited by the US and others were not; and the political calculations that went into the decision to not attend on the part of some invited countries. The paper then turns to various receptions of the summit inside and outside the US. In that vein, it questions the role democracy and human rights plays in the Biden administration’s foreign policy and discusses the limitations and risks, as well as the anticipated gains, of dividing countries along regime types.
The paper then provides an analysis of the Chinese and Russian reactions to the summit by drawing on their official declarations and on media sources. It finally documents the reception of the summit in the Middle East—the least represented region in the event. The paper concludes by evaluating the broader implications of the summit for international relations.
On December 9-10, 2021, the United States organized a two-day global summit, The Summit for Democracy, which was held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The United States (US) invited 110 countries to participate in the summit, in addition to the President of the European Commission, the United Nations Secretary-General, and several civil society actors, journalists, business and labor leaders.
Some 100 governments accepted the invitation and made their official interventions at the summit. The conference was meant to be the kick-off event for what it dubbed “a year of action,” whereby countries will commit and carry out significant tangible reforms to fight corruption, push back authoritarianism, and protect human rights. A second summit will meet toward the end of 2022 to follow up on the first summit, this time in person.
It is an interesting time to hold a global summit in the name of democracy, as debates rage over the decline and even demise of the liberal international order, the increasing turmoil in Western democracies, and the rise of China and Russia along with their growing promotion of their autocratic models of governance. Why then did the United States organize this summit?
What were the summit’s stated aims and what is the likelihood they will be attained? In what ways was this summit different from other democracy promotion policies of the previous American administrations? How was the summit received both inside and outside the US? More specifically, how did China and Russia, the two main targets of the event, respond?
How was the summit received in the Middle East—the least represented region in the event? What were the political calculations that went into the decision to extend invitations to some countries and not invite others? In the same vein, what were the politics involved in some countries’ decision to not attend the summit despite being invited?
This paper sets out to provide answers to these questions and concludes with an overall evaluation of the summit and of its chances for achieving its stated goals. It argues that the Summit for Democracy is the Biden administration’s attempt to normatively and institutionally reclaim the liberal international order, to reinstitute American primacy through reviving alliances and pressuring opponents, and to drive the nascent populist wave of ‘Trumpism’ into a corner in American domestic politics.
A Brief Overview of Democracy Promotion in American Foreign Policy
Democracy promotion refers to all kinds of governmental, quasi-governmental, and nongovernmental initiatives to foster democratic transitions in autocratic countries and to consolidate democratic norms and institutions in places where democracy has newly taken root or is recovering from a breakdown.
The United States has a long history of employing democracy promotion in foreign policy discourse and practice as some observers point out that the “democratist crusade” has been a continuous thread throughout the nation’s history. Most famously, Woodrow Wilson referred to the goal of “making the world safe for democracy” to justify America’s declaration of war against Germany in the First World War.
However, democracy promotion was present in American foreign policy discourse even before Wilson. “To be safe,” proclaimed the American President Theodore Roosevelt, “democracy must kill its enemy when it can and where it can.
The world cannot be half democratic and half autocratic.” In the interwar era, Franklin D. Roosevelt was indifferent to the rise of totalitarian dictatorships until around 1936, after which he adopted a moralistic rhetoric in depicting the US role as being to defend democratic values and institutions worldwide.
During the Cold War, the US main aim was to contain the Soviet Union, which naturally did not support democracy at home or abroad. American administrations operated under the banner of “defending the free world” against the “red threat,” which to a large extent justified support for autocratic allies and the undermining of democratic governments if they leaned closer to the Soviet Union.
In that period, the United States engaged in buttressing anticommunist dictatorships and overthrowing many democratically elected governments— most prominently, among many others, Operation Ajax against Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran in 19534 and the Pinochet-led coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.5 While the Dwight D.
Eisenhower administration did not link democracy promotion and national security together, John F. Kennedy sought to channel nationalist movements in the Third World toward democracy and away from communism. Yet, Cold War realpolitik ultimately carried the day, which was clearly articulated in Kennedy’s statements in 1961 on the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s dictatorial leader: “There are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime (a dictatorship), or a Castro regime (a communist government).
We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t denounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.” The Nixon administration, under the leadership of Henry Kissinger, took a deliberate approach to not take considerations of democracy and human rights into account in their dealings with foreign governments.
This on the one hand enabled them to achieve rapprochement with China and détente with Soviet Union. Yet it also brought about hardline policies that supported right-wing dictatorships and undermined democratically elected left-wing governments in Latin America and elsewhere.
Jimmy Carter proclaimed that he rejected the “amoral” aspects of foreign policy under détente and gave a central role to the policy of promoting human rights and democracy. He declared his position in a December 1978 speech: “We are free of the inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” Yet, Carter also had to reconcile his vision with entrenched US security and economic interests as he overlooked the repression of authoritarian regimes in various countries, most prominently in Shah’s Iran.
Ronald Reagan endorsed democracy promotion under the rubric of civil society assistance as a foreign policy priority with bipartisan support. In 1983, he established the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a governmentfunded organization to support democratic reforms across the world, as part of his “Campaign for Democracy.”
However, the ‘Reagan doctrine’ promised US support for all sorts of regimes and movements against the Soviet Union, including dictatorships in the Philippines and Chad, guerilla movements in Nicaragua and Angola, and the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The United States capitalized on the end of the Cold War and the ensuing “unipolar moment” as the moment of democracy promotion especially in the Eastern European and post-Soviet region. In the 1980s, Michael Doyle, an international relations scholar, developed the ‘democratic peace’ hypothesis which posited that democracies rarely if ever fight with each other.
The argument rose to prominence in academic circles in 1990s, so much so that another international relations scholar referred to it as “the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.” The ‘democratic peace’ theory then “moved from the classroom to the corridors of American power”8 in the 1990s, becoming “an axiom of US foreign policy.”
This was well reflected in President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1994, where he argued that “the best strategy to ensure our security and to build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere,” because, “democracies don’t attack each other.”
Notably, the Middle East was not very present in the radar of such democracy promotion activities. Its turn came with the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration sought to justify its unilateral and internationally unauthorized war on Iraq under the pretext of bringing democracy to Iraq and to the region. This so-called “Freedom Agenda” rested on the recognition that decades of support for autocratic allies had made the United States less secure, hence democracy promotion was presented as a national security strategy.
In his inauguration speech for his second term in 2005, G.W. Bush tied American national security interests to the promotion of freedom and democracy: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.
The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” The idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East, however, was quickly abandoned after the strong show of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 Egyptian elections and Hamas’s coming to power through elections in 2006.
As a result, the Bush administration deeply tarnished the reputation of democracy promotion policies in the Middle East as being nothing more than a ruse to cover militaristic policies and subversive diplomacy. Hence, to mark the rupture with the previous administration, the Obama administration took a decidedly more reserved approach to the idea of democracy promotion.
The Trump presidency, on the other hand, was a deathblow to the institutional resources of democracy promotion and to whatever credibility and moral authority the United States was left with to lead such policies.
Now democracy promotion seems to be making a strong rhetorical comeback with the incoming Biden administration. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden, who had been suspicious of democracy promotion policies, despite his support for the Iraq War, promised to put democracy and human rights at the heart of his foreign policy. This summit comes off as a fulfilment of this promise and the flagship event of his administration.
The Summit for Democracy: Stated Rationale and Goals
When the idea of a global summit for democracy started to circulate, some embraced it enthusiastically by referring to the fight for protecting and promoting democracy as the ultimate call of our time. Others have been critical of it as unproductive or even counterproductive, suggesting that a summit for all democracies might not the best strategy despite the worthy goal.14 China and Russia, two major powers who were left outside the summit and indeed were its principal targets, as well as their allies and even some of the uninvited US allies, harshly criticized the event.
Halting global democratic backslide and protecting existing democracies was one of the core pledges of Joe Biden’s electoral campaign.
Biden laid out his foreign policy vision in an article titled, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” which he published in Foreign Affairs journal in 2020 while still a candidate. There, Biden talks about democracy both as an aspired value and a strategic goal through which the United States should pursue its interests in international relations.
The article argues that the Trump presidency abdicated American leadership and strained American alliances with its traditional democratic friends, instead seeking to forge shady alliances with autocrats and dictators that emboldened them and harmed American interests globally. The article then calls for reclaiming American interests through revitalizing these battered alliances.
Democracy is key to this story. Democracy not only unifies the US as a people, Biden claims, but also “gives strength to [the American] nation.”
Trump’s presidency undermined democracy at home and abroad, and the new administration should “rescue US foreign policy” by strengthening democracy domestically and internationally. He promised to “put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” This is a call to renew the US democracy promotion agenda once more, but this time in a different register and under different circumstances.
The US State Department characterizes the summit as “a flagship presidential initiative that illustrates the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to putting democracy and human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.”
In his first major speech as Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken pointed out that democracy promotion for the US is not a question of if, but how.
This time, he argued, the US would not promote democracy through “costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force.” “We have tried these tactics in the past,” he stated, but “however well intentioned, they haven’t worked.” Rather, the US would now use “the power of its example,” “incentivize democratic behavior,” and “encourage others to make key reforms, overturn bad laws, fight corruption, and stop unjust practices.”
Blinken then explains that it is in American national interests to promote democracy abroad: “Because strong democracies are more stable, more open, better partners to us, more committed to human rights, less prone to conflict, and more dependable markets for our goods and services.”
On the other hand, “when democracies are weak, governments can’t deliver for their people or a country becomes so polarized that it’s hard for anything to get done, they become more vulnerable to extremist movements from the inside and to interference from the outside. And they become less reliable partners to the United States. None of that is in our national interest.”
On that basis, Biden promised to “repair and reinvigorate” democracy at home and abroad. To do so, he pledged to “organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world” in his first year in office.
The goal of this summit would be to “strengthen [American] democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” This summit would not simply be a photo op, he argued, but will have a concrete and practical agenda.
In that vein, the summit had three major declared goals: defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. In order to prevent the event from turning into yet another high-profile occasion where leaders indulge themselves in lofty rhetoric about the virtues of democracy while not backing it up in practice, the organizers asked the invited leaders to announce concrete policy initiatives and reforms to defend democracy and human rights in their respective countries and abroad, especially with respect to these three fields.
During the summit, Biden himself talked about various policy measures he had already undertaken. In that context, he mentioned the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Build Back Better plan as examples of policy actions that prove that democracies can deliver. He referred to his executive order on National Strategy on Gender Equality and Equity as well as policy steps on worker unionization and voter registration as initiatives to enhance human rights, and his Strategy on Countering Corruption initiative as the American attempt to fight transnational corruption and to improve transparency.
He also announced the launching of the new Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal with a 224 million USD budget for foreign assistance to bolster democratic resilience and human rights globally. He particularly mentioned the establishment of a new multilateral initiative, the International Fund for Public Media Interest, to support independent media and the new Defamation Defense Fund for Journalists to protect investigative journalists around the world through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).