This week the U.S. will hold a two-day international Summit For Democracy— and in true American democratic fashion, this is an invite-only affair, with 100 of the world’s top democratic nations and U.S. allies set to attend this digital summit. As a way to redeem themselves from a four-year period of egregious backsliding, the Biden-Harris Administration has committed itself to be a beacon of democratic preservation. Since the campaign trail, Biden has committed to uniting democratic nations against the slow encroachment of authoritarianism.
In the first meeting on Thursday, Biden addressed attendees and asked if we will “allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?” The president also pledged to spend $424 million on international programming to support independent media, anti-corruption work, and other democratic measures. These measures will be vital to address the rising threat of democratic erosion that is occurring across the globe. Biden’s pro-democratic action comes as a welcome relief from that of the Trump era when American democracy sunk to all-time lows.
While some appreciated the acknowledgment of the frailty of our democracy by government leaders, others couldn’t help but feel the stinging irony and hypocrisy of the event. For a country that has done little to stop or even dilute the erosion of our democratic system, why has the U.S. committed to being the beacon of democratic preservation? On the contrary, President of Freedom House Michael J. Abramowitz raised a very important question about the summit: without U.S. leadership, who else would lead the charge to preserve democracy?
Based on public opinion data, the rest of the world isn’t looking to America. The Pew Research Center released a survey of the top 17 global economies about Global Democratic Anxiety. Among the 16 advanced economies surveyed, 57% felt that America used to be a good model to follow, but hasn’t in recent years, a staggering 25% felt America was never a good model for Democracy, and only 17% considered American democracy to be a good model to follow.
Two international powerhouses—China and Russia—also took this moment to express their discontent with the “so-called Democracy Summit.” In response to being excluded from this event, Chinese and Russian media have put forth a plethora of scathing comments bashing America’s role in preserving democracy, at one point equating the summit to a brothel mistress teaching schoolchildren morality. While these are mostly outlandish soundbites being used to create political fodder, some of the criticisms carried weight. Specifically, the Chinese foreign ministry said that “gunshots and farce on Capitol Hill have completely revealed what is underneath the gorgeous appearance of the American-style democracy.” While China certainly is in no position to issue democratic critiques, the underlying truth to this statement serves as a grave reminder of the dark places American democracy has dipped this past year.
With the launch of this Democracy Summit, the U.S. continues its transition away from Trump-era diplomacy and into one of collaboration and democratic preservation. However, America still must confront some harsh truths about its global diplomatic standing. The U.S. is not the democratic beacon it used to be and must be very careful to avoid projecting that image. The Democracy Summit is a step in the right direction and hopefully leads to more global pro-democracy collaboration. Next, it would be great to see some tangible policy commitments from the Biden-Harris administration that promote racial equity and human rights initiatives, combat the spread of misinformation online, and hold would-be authoritarians accountable.