Biden’s Summit for Democracy to be held December 9-10, 2021 aims to bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding and force a common agenda. The summit will invite heads of state and key private sector actors, from civil society organizations on the frontlines of the defense of democracy to technology giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google which remain vital for preserving the integrity of modern democratic practices.

The Summit for Democracy is likely to fail for a two main reasons. First, in selecting participants, Biden will probably alienate both friends and foes as his administration tries to balance their stated values against America’s hard interests. Secondly, the summit seems to confuse the symptoms of democratic decay with their cause: authoritarianism or autocracy has grown increasingly potent where people perceive the liberal democratic promise has not, and cannot, deliver at home. Biden’s true democratic restoration must begin and meaningfully progress in America before a global summit is either useful or feasible.

To start, the proposed Summit for Democracy will likely deepen divisions between democratic and non-democratic states, hindering cooperation when it is needed most. A Summit for Democracy is a foreign policy tool likely to create an inhospitable environment for meaningful negotiation. Biden’s summit may only recreate 20th century divisions between the West and the rest, at a time when solutions to  21st century challenges demand radically new forms of collective action and cooperation between all states, democracies or not.

A summit to bolster democratic values may also get awkward at the invitation stage, when U.S. officials are forced to generate a guest list that alienates friends and allies.

Biden’s Summit for Democracy comes at a time of diminished optimism regarding democracy’s potential growth. According to the democracy-tracking NGO Freedom House, in 2020, the number of “Free Countries” in the world reached its lowest level since the beginning of a 15 year period of global democratic decline, while the number of “Not Free Countries” reached its highest level (82 Free Countries, 58 Partly Free countries, 54 Not Free Countries.

The biggest danger in Biden’s summit may be that it distracts from more meaningful first steps to protect and bolster the health of global democracy. Today’s complex political challenges are not strictly caused by, nor do they fall exclusively within the purview of, democratic states. For example, the summit’s inclusion of the technological behemoths — whether Amazon, Google or Facebook — suggests one priority for democratic restoration will be through domestic regulation between the private and public sector, particularly in the realm of information technology. The Summit for Democracy may help allies calibrate common principles for this regulation, but the true test of reform will play out within America first — home to these digital hegemons — and may prove beyond the current capability and willingness of Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Biden’s summit pledge is also weakened by the gap between principle and practice in contemporary America. A summit that champions democratic values only works if those values are clearly evidenced. If America has demonstrated anything by its actions in recent years, it’s that the promise of the liberal project — and the perception of its potential benefits — has been manipulated to fuel political division in America. Biden must harness his governing coalition to illustrate how the democratic package of goods — the constitutionally-preserved bundle of protections and liberties — remains fit for purpose and capable of delivering returns to American citizens, who rely on representative politics to safeguard their prosperity.

With worldwide satisfaction and trust in democracy wavering, complicated further by the pressure of a global pandemic and associated uncertainty, Biden’s administration must focus on the evident frailty of American democratic institutions and how those institutions and the cultural norms on which they depend might be strengthened. If the Summit for Democracy is to uphold the spirit of politics Biden wants reflected in the world, that spirit must shimmer first in America.

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