Biden’s democracy summit was important, why were some displeased? - analysis

US President Joe Biden: “This gathering has been on my mind for a long time for a simple reason: In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy."

 US President Joe Biden delivers closing remarks with leaders from democratic nations at the State Department's virtual Summit for Democracy, in a speech from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, US, December 10, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
US President Joe Biden delivers closing remarks with leaders from democratic nations at the State Department's virtual Summit for Democracy, in a speech from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, US, December 10, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)

The US hosted a Summit for Democracy last week. It was an important symbolic event. Not much was accomplished, in part because the meeting wasn’t in person and it’s not clear if the US is willing to put together a stronger alliance of democracies, but the fact that it was held still matters. Nevertheless, it was panned by some press coverage. Why? 

Let’s start with why US President Joe Biden said. “This gathering has been on my mind for a long time for a simple reason: In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, and — all around the world, democracy needs champions,” he opened with. “I wanted to host this summit because here is the — here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” he said.  He noted that “American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions; to recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation captured in our Declaration of Independence, not unlike many of your documents.” He also said that “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident.  We have to renew it with each generation.  And this is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view.  Because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.” He acknowledged that according to groups like Freedom House democracy is in global retreat.  

Democracy is in retreat because democratic nations are being undermined and divided. Authoritarian nations once were on their back foot because democratic media was being consumed by their dissidents. Today it is the opposite. Using connections to big tech and being able to influence and dominate major social media networks, from Facebook to Twitter, the authoritarians can often get critics shut down and even detain people for anonymous posts that are critical of the regime. From Russia to Turkey, Iran to China, this has been the method. States like Qatar, Russia, Iran, Turkey and others have created their own state media. This media often will pose as liberal and progressive abroad, pushing messages of “dissidents” in the West, while praising allied authoritarian regimes. That means on Al-Jazeera you will never find an article critical of Qatar, but any country that Qatar’s friends in the Muslim Brotherhood may oppose will be critiqued. Similarly, the network may pose as progressive in the West, talking about critical race theory, but it doesn’t critique the racism inherent in Qatar’s treatment of foreign workers. Worker's rights only matter to TRT, RT and other authoritarian media when reporting on the US, not when praising the dear leaders in Russia, Turkey or elsewhere. 

This makes this era different than the 1960s when the US was confronting the Soviet Union. In those days free thinkers in the Soviet Union would beg to get their hands on western democratic media to know what was happening. Today it is those in the West consuming TRT, RT and other media being produced in Moscow and other authoritarian areas. The power that. this media has is now much more. In the era of the 1960s to 1990s the free media in democracy were generally wealthy and journalists were well paid. These days newspapers are going bankrupt every day and it’s unclear how much independent journalism will survive in the West, while authoritarians plow huge sums into their own media. It’s no surprise to see an army of people previously employed in western media turning up working for the dictators. Democracy is thus now on the back foot everywhere. Those who embrace the West or democracy find themselves abandoned. Those who embrace authoritarians find themselves embraced.  

Yet Biden’s democracy summit came in for critique by media in democracies. Once again one can see how western media will be critical of its own democratic attempts to work closely on democratic issues, while authoritarian media will sit on the sidelines and nod, quietly whispering “let the democracies undermine themselves.” For instance, Time Magazine slammed Biden’s democracy summit as the “height of hypocrisy.” NPR claimed that “some countries which identify as democracies, weren’t invited to the democracy summit.” Perhaps that is because just identifying as a democracy doesn’t make a country a democracy. North Korea identifies itself as the “democratic people’s republic of Korea” and it is none of those things. The Atlantic also said that Biden’s democracy summit was missing something.

US President Joe Biden delivers closing remarks with leaders from democratic nations at the State Department's virtual Summit for Democracy, in a speech from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, US, December 10, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)US President Joe Biden delivers closing remarks with leaders from democratic nations at the State Department's virtual Summit for Democracy, in a speech from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, US, December 10, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
 

Foreign Policy was concerned the democracy summit could backfire, in an analysis that seemed to imply authoritarian regimes might be offended by it. “But what if problem No. 1 is actually a big global problem like climate change or the pandemic? If so, then US foreign policy’s main task is to foster cooperation with countries of every sort instead of dividing the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states, such as those whose political systems are like the United States’ versus those that aren’t. If that is Biden’s top priority, then a summit that quite consciously excludes a lot of big and important countries is likely to be counterproductive,” wrote Stephen M. Walt. Walt is known for, among other things, writing a book slamming the Israel “lobby” years ago.  

Historically Biden’s summit is in line with a bipartisan agenda in the US that generally supports democracy around the world. This has a long history going back to US Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and FDR. John F. Kennedy for instance said in 1960  that "in the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half slave or half free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom, in the direction of the road that we are taking..." George H.W Bush promised a new world order in part based on an idea of a free world. "Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective — a new world order — can emerge: a new era — freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace." 

Biden has wanted to sound some of these same notes. It’s clear that the authoritarians are seeking to work more closely together at other forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and other countries want the US to be pushed off its perch as a global leader since the Cold War. The new multi-polar world will see the US role and that of democracies eroded. Biden has sought to reverse that a bit.