The “Summit for Democracy” convened by the Bidden administration has been widely criticized for its numerous hypocrisies and inconsistencies. These include the place given to elected but highly authoritarian governments like that of Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, both of whom have severely damaged liberal democracy and human rights in their countries — as well as continued U.S. support for dictatorships in the Middle East and corrupt and oppressive oligarchies in Latin America.
The Biden administration has stated that after the Summit, “following a year of consultation, coordination, and action, President Biden will then invite world leaders to gather once more to showcase progress made against their commitments.” Supporters of the Summit have argued that this will be used to hold leaders like Modi to account for undemocratic practices. The word “showcase” is however a dead giveaway. Given America’s perceived need for India as a critical partner against China, it is far more likely that Modi will simply trumpet the glories of Indian democracy and U.S. representatives will confine themselves to pious bromides and generalities that other governments will simply ignore.
Supporters of the Summit have made a parallel with the role of the human rights provisions in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 in undermining Soviet rule. The impact of the Helsinki Accords, however, formed only one small part of a whole complex of factors responsible for the eventual Soviet collapse, none of which apply to U.S. partners like India. Those factors included the role of local nationalisms, the obvious economic failure of Communism compared to the West, and strong Western geopolitical and ideological pressure. Does anyone really think that Washington is going to bring such pressure to bear against India? Or that even liberal Indian nationalists would welcome such pressure from America?
It needs to be recognized that the U.S. global primacy that this summit is meant to bolster ideologically depends on authoritarian client states. America is precisely as likely to try to help remove President Sisi of Egypt or Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as Russia is to help remove President Lukashenko of Belarus or President Assad of Syria, and for the same hegemonic reasons.
The problems baked into the Summit however go deeper, and relate to its whole intellectual framework. This embodies a set of fundamental and highly dangerous errors concerning political culture, governance, human rights, state development, and the international system.
Thus the summit is intended to draw a clear line between “dictatorships” and democracies, along the lines of the Cold War division between the “Free World” and the Soviet bloc, and with the United States as the natural leader of the democracies. Even during the Cold War, this was only true in Europe, and even in Europe, was qualified by U.S. support for the dictatorships in Portugal, Turkey, and Greece.
Elsewhere in the world, the United States supported a long list of often savage authoritarian regimes. Indeed, it can be argued that far from strengthening the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights in the world, the Cold War American belief in a struggle of democratic good against totalitarian evil actually strengthened U.S. willingness to support anti-communist tyrannies and employ illiberal measures itself. For in the words of the great American historian (and opponent of the Vietnam War) C. Vann Woodward:
The true American mission, according to those who support this view, is a moral crusade on a worldwide scale. Such people are likely to concede no validity whatever and grant no hearing to the opposing point of view, and to appeal to a higher law to justify bloody and revolting means in the name of a noble end.
Today, the entire distinction between authoritarian and democratic systems has been blurred by the aforementioned rise of illiberal democracies. The attempt to draw a clear dividing line between democratic systems that are responsible to their peoples and respect human rights and authoritarian systems that disregard them has its basis in the obvious truth that throughout modern history, authoritarian states have been guilty of terrible abuses of human rights.
However, to attribute human rights abuses solely and automatically to authoritarian states ignores the truth behind the dictum of German-American philosopher (and advisor to President Lincoln) Francis Lieber that “weak government is a denial of liberty.”
In much of the world, the abuses perpetrated by state forces against poor and vulnerable people are not the will of the government, but are the result of the inability of the state to curb or reform the predatory, violent, and corrupt behavior of ordinary police, military, and officials. This behavior in turn is not contingent, but stems from very old and deeply embedded factors in the cultures and societies of the countries concerned, as well as from contemporary poverty and lack of development.
This should hardly be difficult for Americans to understand. No serious person thinks that racially charged actions by individual U.S. police take place on the order of the White House, or that the appalling level of rape in U.S. prisons is U.S. government policy. These are deeply rooted pathologies that have been reformed by U.S. democracy, but not fully, and only over a very long period of time.
From these points of view, several of the “democratic” countries on the list of invitees to the summit lie somewhere between a cruel joke and a magnificent gift to Chinese, Iranian, and Russian propaganda. All these governments have to do is ask their populations where they would prefer to live: China or the Philippines? Iran or Iraq? Russia or Nigeria? Only the Taliban victory in Afghanistan spared us the sight of Afghanistan’s former grotesquely corrupt, ineffective, and pseudo-democratic state also taking its place at the summit.
During the period of extreme poverty, corruption, violence, fake democracy, and oligarchical domination that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians felt that their country was in fact heading in the direction of Nigeria, and that the United States would have given ideological cover to Russia’s disintegration by praising Russian “democracy.” The propaganda claim of the Putin administration to legitimacy and public support rests fundamentally on the charge (in part at least justified) that he saved Russia from this fate and restored basic levels of state services, living standards, and public order.
An even more serious issue with the Summit lies in the area of international order and legitimacy. A U.S. international policy based on the premise that only some states are legitimate renders impossible the development of any kind of consensual development of international law. By implicitly dedicating itself to the destruction of rival state systems, it threatens the vital interests of those states and ensures that they will retaliate by trying to harm U.S. vital interests, including the domestic integrity of American democracy.
By tying legitimacy to levels of “democracy” this approach also adds an element of uncertainty to the conduct of international affairs that could rebound against the United States itself. Thus most unfortunately, large numbers of supporters of the Republican and Democratic parties now regard rule by their opponents as in some sense illegitimate and undemocratic.
This Democrat attitude to the Republicans is shared by many European liberals and (in private) liberal governments. Could any U.S. public official (or for that matter private citizen) however possibly accept the principle that international respect for the legal rights and vital interests of the United States depends on whether a Republican or Democratic administration is in office?
No stable or “rules-based” international order, and no rational U.S. global policy, can be based on such shifting sands. It would be far better if this summit never happened. Once it has happened, it will be best if it is forgotten as quickly as possible.