Should Washington build its global alliances around democratic values?
On Thursday and Friday this week, around 100 “democratic” countries will meet virtually for the long-planned, US-backed Summit for Democracy. But question marks have been raised over which countries have and haven’t been invited. Several of America’s key partners weren’t on the list. “CEIAS Considers” asked regional exports for their opinions on whether the Summit is a good idea or not.
Board Member of CEIAS, and associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at the Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica
There are multiple ways to answer the question, and I will divide them into two main categories. The first is pointing out reasons supporting the positive answer to the question, second addresses reasons for more negative answers.
The potential benefits of the summit are not unique when compared to other international forums and can be summarized as follows. Firstly, in general, any other forum providing an opportunity to discuss current developmental trends should be seen as positive. Secondly, it is a legitimate interest of political representatives to want to talk to their partners from countries that share values, and their political systems operate on the same or similar principles. Thirdly, the ongoing crisis of democracy and the backsliding trend shows us that it is about time to start to discuss where democracy stands and where we want it to develop further.
However, at the same time, there are shortcomings and issues that can potentially backfire. Firstly, we do not have a unified perception of what constitutes a country to be a democracy. Even if there are some general principles which we agree upon, the level, quality and state of democracy is varying not only among invited participants but also in the host country. The recent report by IDEA on the state of democracy globally lists the US among countries with declining democracy. Looking at the list of countries invited to the summit, there are few disputable choices and few notable omissions. Starting with the latter, Hungary and Turkey were not invited, even though they are members of NATO which sets democracy as one of the core principles. From among those invited, we can pick India, Poland, Slovenia as their democracy is evaluated by the same report as also in decline. It is true that the US administration advertises the potential impact of the summit on improving its own democracy, however, the issue of the democratic decline needs to be addressed in regard to the other participants as well. Secondly, the list of invited countries suggests that the composition of participants was more impacted not by democracy and values, but by geopolitics and US interests. As professor Poast suggested in his Twitter thread, the summit seems to be more of a conference to talk about countering China and Russia. To disguise geopolitical interests under higher principles at the end led to the crisis in which democracy is currently finding itself. Thirdly, we would expect a counterreaction of those uninvited, potentially in the form of another summit or conference with the aim to discuss other pressing issues, development and environment can be potential top candidates for main topic.
To conclude, there are obvious positive as well as negative impacts of the summit for democracy. However, the ongoing crisis of democracy will not be solved by one meeting of politicians and civil society representatives. It requires a broader discussion and reforms in economic and social policies as well as education. It requires addressing the issues and problems with the state of democracy in the participating countries openly and frankly.
Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC
For Europeans, there was something comforting about the idea of a Summit for Democracy when the proposal was floated by the US administration earlier this year. After the disregard for allies and for the importance of democratic values that characterized the Trump era, the prospect of a values-based get-together harked back to an earlier, simpler era of transatlantic relations.
Today, the sentiments are hardly the same. Joe Biden’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan and his disregard for a key European ally in the AUKUS deal, among other examples, show that the talk about values rings hollow when detached from concrete policy actions. Moreover, it is also clear that there is a degree of continuity between the Trump and Biden administration, particularly in prioritizing the developments in the Indo-Pacific over the traditional remit of US foreign and security policy.
Held online, the Summit for Democracy faces the risk of being just another venue for empty moralizing. Yet, it can also provide a highly constructive intersection between America’s long-term challenge of containing China and Biden’s commitment to repairing its values-based alliances.
For that, it would be best if the grand rhetoric of ‘defending democracy’ were de-emphasized in favor of a more concrete agenda. The challenge facing the West, after all, is not an abstraction. It consists of putting the West’s revisionist, autocratic adversaries – most notably China and Russia – in their place, using tools of military deterrence and economic coercion.
There are some grounds for optimism. In the run-up to the Summit, for instance, the White House unveiled its new, updated anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy strategy. In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), meanwhile, the tide has been turning against Beijing. From the moribund state of the 17+1 format, through the lack of enthusiasm for the Belt and Road Initiative, and to the displays of sympathy toward Taiwan from officials from the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, and even Slovakia, the region has started to acknowledge not only the threat from the Kremlin but also from the Chinese Communist Party.
The administration should seize the opportunity and forge a new ‘New Europe’ – a coalition of largely though not exclusively post-communist countries cognizant of the twin threat of Chinese and Russian autocrats and willing to do something about it. With tangible carrots for responsible actors (a NATO secretary general from CEE, perhaps?) and costs imposed on those who continue to serve as a vehicle for Chinese interests in the region (think Hungary, Serbia, or Greece), the number of fence-sitters may go down, making CEE the leading force for a tougher European outlook toward China.
To be sure, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in this plan. Yet, the most important requisite of its success is the realization that shared, democratic values are only the beginning of a conversation, not its endpoint – and certainly not a substitute for a shared understanding of security threats or a strategy.
Director of European Values Center for Security Policy based in Prague
The simple answer is, yes. We are in the initial stages of a long-term geostrategic conflict launched by the Communist Party of China against liberal democracies globally. It is based on a decision of Chinese Communist leadership which aims to restructure the global norms to give China a larger geopolitical role. Next decades will be all about the Chinese Communist Party trying to take over international organizations, attempting state capture in selected regions, or imposing dictatorship rule on foreign countries by force, hostile infiltration, or strategic blackmail. This geostrategic struggle has an ideological component since Chinese Communists openly attack liberal democracies as a system of governance.
It makes perfect sense to mobilize democracies to counter this global threat. Our problem in Europe is that many policy-makers still naively hope Europe can stay aside from this global confrontation, only to benefit economically while avoiding taking normative or geostrategic sides. That is clearly not possible and it is effectively the end-goal of China to have Europeans believe that they can stay neutral, using greed and naivety across European establishments.
In Europe, the main issue debated has been Hungary not being invited. It makes perfect sense on three levels: First, Viktor Orban is openly saying he wants to end liberal democracy in Hungary and he is practically doing it. Second, the Hungarian government is the best ally of Russia and China in Europe. Third, Viktor Orban openly supports other autocrats in the region.
In my opinion, the Summit For Democracy is not a good idea for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Till now democracy and human rights did not have a big impact on handling U.S. alliance relations in Asia but Biden wants to change it. Scores of prominent global democracy barometers find that the decline of democracy has emerged and is declining in an increasing number of both advanced and new democracies as well in Asia. European countries mostly support the idea of the summit, but the Asian countries are not so enthusiastic.
They usually try to balance between the US and China and are reluctant to join initiatives that would tip the scales to one side. If the US wants to form an alliance against China, it will have to consider less pro-democratic values in attracting allies in Asia. Summit For Democracy, it does just the opposite.
That just four of 11 Southeast Asia countries got an invite: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste. That means most of that region’s governments do not, in fact, share U.S. democratic values. The Biden administration has invited Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy which is heavily criticized by the Beijing authorities and will not improve the already difficult US-China relationship.
David Hutt is a journalist based in the Czech Republic focusing on Europe-Asia relations. He previously reported from Southeast Asia. He is the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat and a correspondent for Asia Times. He also writes the newsletter Watching Europe In Southeast Asia, which provides analysis and forecasts on EU-ASEAN relations.