On December 9 and 10, President Biden kicked off a virtual Summit of Democracy, fulfilling one of his signature campaign pledges. The much-vaunted Summit, which focuses on defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights, fits neatly into the Biden administration’s fight against authoritarianism. In fact, Biden’s foreign policy is partly defined by his democracy vs. autocracy dichotomy.
The intention behind the Summit of Democracy – convincing the rest of the world that democracy is still the best form of government – is quite laudable and ambitious. Yet, the Summit highlights the difficulty in balancing democratic ideals with geopolitical interests. Yet, the guest list of over 100 countries from across the world includes many of the United States’ closest allies and partners who hardly quality as democratic due to recent authoritarian trends and persistent democratic backsliding. Mr. Biden, through including some American allies and partners that have questionable democratic records, has highlighted just how difficult it is to balance democratic ideals with geopolitical interests, instead choosing allies and partners over democratic ideals.
Russia Outweighs Democracy in Europe
The Biden administration demonstrated a degree of inconsistency when deciding which European countries to invite. Mr. Biden stood his ground with long-time allies, Hungary, who has openly championed illiberal democracy, and Turkey, who has been taking a more authoritarian approach for years with cozy ties with Russia. Poland, however, was invited to the Summit. Both an EU member and a NATO ally, the Biden administration chose interest over ideal when extending an invitation to Poland, whose Law and Justice Party has been shifting Polish politics further to the right in recent years.
Some surmise that the Biden administration included Poland not because of its stellar democratic record, but to show solidarity as Poland faces aggression from Belarus, a Russian ally. This is true for Ukraine’s inclusion in the Summit as well. Though Ukraine is not considered to be a full-fledged democracy, it is a strategic partner vulnerable to invasion by Russia, and plays a key part in the Biden administration’s clash with Ukraine’s authoritarian neighbor. Once again, interests eclipse ideals in the Biden administration’s choice to invite allies and partners with questionable democratic records because those partnership are key to the Biden administration’s clash with Russia.
China Outweighs Democracy in Asia
Geopolitics played a significant role in deciding who in Asia to invite to the summit. The United States invited India, the world’s largest democracy, to the Summit. However, India has not been immune to criticism over its democratic record, particularly due to the poor treatment of Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. Despite U.S. criticism on these human rights issues, the partnership between India, who is also a member of the Quad, and the United States proved more important than holding India accountable since the U.S. sees India as a key partner in its rivalry with China.
And, then there is Pakistan. Since India was invited, the Biden administration was almost obligated to invite Pakistan to avoid a geopolitical meltdown. Even though the State Department warns of the problematic degree to which Pakistan’s military plays a role in governing among other troubling criticisms, the U.S. invited Pakistan to the Summit anyway. This is likely because the United States needs Pakistan’s cooperation in working with the Taliban in the aftermath of the United States’ disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan. In both cases, interests surpass ideals.
Taiwan is another example. Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, is caught in the rivalry between the United States, where the line between supporting Taiwan with rhetoric and defending Taiwan in the event of an invasion from China is admittedly blurry, and China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory. Taiwan’s inclusion in the Summit seems almost like a no-brainer based on democratic records alone. However, the U.S. extended an invitation to Taiwan to attend at the risk of drawing further ire from China as Taiwan is an important component in both the rivalry with China and his pledge to confront authoritarianism. Once again, the United States chose relationships with allies and partners at the expense of furthering democratic ideals.
Interests Trump (No Pun Intended) Ideals Once Again in Latin America
In Latin America, one country that has constantly flouted democratic traditions in the last few years was invited: Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, populist, Trump-like figure leading Brazil, has shown his true authoritarian colors, speaking nostalgically about the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985 and joining a rally calling for a military intervention into Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court in 2020. Perhaps one of his most egregious authoritarian displays yet occurred when he insinuated that he would not accept the 2022 presidential election results.
Under Mr. Bolsonaro, there is a great deal of concern for the state of Brazil’s democracy. Yet, the Biden administration seems reticent to confront Bolsonaro over his antidemocratic rhetoric and policies, as was evidenced by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s trip to Brazil in August. While Mr. Sullivan pushed back against claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was rigged, it became evident that the Biden administration is not pushing Bolsonaro too much in hope of his cooperation on climate change and China. In this case, the Biden administration’s partnership with Brazil in its fight against climate change and China superseded a promise to further democracy throughout the world.