By Tianbo Yang '24; Image by The Economist
On December 9, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered the opening remarks of the first of two Summits for Democracy to an audience of leaders from 89 “democratic” nations. In his speech, he highlighted the major themes of the Summit: “push back on authoritarianism, fight corruption, promote and protect human rights of people everywhere.” This Summit is clearly meant to signal Biden’s resolve to reverse former President Donald Trump’s isolationist policies and return the United States to the leadership role in the fight to promote western democratic values worldwide. However, this is unsurprising given Washington’s behavior since Biden’s election, and will likely not result in major changes in the relationships between the participating countries. It is the more subliminal signals being conveyed by the Summit that I am more interested in analyzing, and that perhaps have the greater geopolitical ramifications.
Upon taking a closer look at the list of invitees, it becomes clear whether a country is invited or not has relatively little to do with how democratic it is. Freedom House is an American-based NGO that scores how “free” a country is based on traditional western democratic values such as election integrity, freedom of speech, human rights, and government accountability. I compared the countries invited with their Global Freedom Scores and found many inconsistencies. For example, many countries that were not invited to the Summit such as Bolivia and Sierra Leone are freer than many of their neighbors that were invited because they enjoyed greater geopolitical significance or closer ties to the United States. Moreover, several countries that are considered “backsliding” or declining democracies such as India, Brazil, the Philippines, Poland, Serbia, and Pakistan are on the list.
These inconsistencies beg for alternative explanations for why some countries are invited and others aren’t. Various media outlets such as ABC news, The Wall Street Journal, and TIME Magazine have theorized that the unstated purpose of the Summit is to build a coalition against Russia and China. There is a lot of evidence to support this. In his opening statement, Biden blamed “outside pressure from autocrats” for the decline of democracy over the past decade, an implicit nod to Russia and China’s growing influence. Moreover, non-state entities such as the European Union and the Republic of China (Taiwan) received an invitation, likely due to them being extremely important players in America’s geopolitical struggles against its rivals.
Mapping the invitees reveals a striking east-versus-west polarization. Out of 110 countries invited, 39 were from Europe and 27 were from North and South America. Elsewhere in the world, invitations seem to mostly follow strategic considerations for containing China. Only 2 countries in the Middle East were invited: Israel, a longstanding U.S. ally, and Iraq, an American client state. This highlights Biden’s disinterest in the region as a whole. In South Asia, only India, Nepal, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are invited despite all 6 of them having lackluster Global Freedom Scores. In Sub-Saharan Africa, invitations suspiciously mirror the list of major recipients of Chinese foreign investment, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, two of the largest beneficiaries of Chinese investment, being invited over their comparatively more democratic neighbors, Tanzania and Mozambique. Biden may be looking to court the favor of these authoritarian regimes as Africa morphs into a collision point between Western and Eastern spheres of influence.
The apparent hypocrisy of the invitation list did not go unnoticed. Russian and Chinese ambassadors Anatoly Antonov and Qin Gang issued a joint statement calling the Summit “an evident product of its Cold-War mentality” and warning that it would “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines’.” 20 countries including Pakistan declined the invitation, making the already western-dominated conference even less regionally diverse. Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan reportedly stated that his country had no intention of becoming a part of any political bloc.
Aside from building a coalition against Russia and China, I believe that another purpose of the Summits for Democracy is to help the United States control the behavior of its allies. By deciding who can attend these annual conferences, the United States has positioned itself as the arbiter of democracy, with the power to decide which country is free and which is not. If Summit attendees can back up their resolutions with decisive action taken against non-attendees, it can provide a powerful incentive for states to stay in line with American prerogatives.
I believe that the Biden administration is at least partially aware of this. Invitations to the summit were not extended to Turkey and Hungary, despite being NATO members. Unlike Trump, who largely overlooked Turkish President Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s shoddy human rights records, President Biden has condemned the two regimes since he took office. Not inviting the two countries can be seen as a continuation of Biden’s attempts to destabilize Erdogan and Orban’s grip on power, in hopes that an opposition more receptive to American values can replace them. In response, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington accused the Biden administration of penalizing countries that were close to the Trump administration.
Notably absent from the list of invitees are the Central American Northern Triangle States: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to invest $4 billion to fight criminality in the region, which he views as the root cause of the immigration crisis at the southern U.S. border. However, in the week leading up to the Summit, the Biden administration announced a wave of sanctions targeting government officials in these three countries, justified on the basis of corruption and interactions with criminal gangs. All three countries are not invited to the Summit. These are signs that the Biden administration may be adopting a policy of triadic deterrence against the Northern Triangle States, hoping to pressure them into addressing organized criminal actors within their borders.
However, by positioning itself as the arbiter of democracy, the United States may have alienated the countries that are not invited to the Summit and pushed them closer to Moscow and Beijing. Nicaragua, one of the countries that did not receive an invitation, had long been an ally of Taiwan and was one of the few remaining countries to formally recognize the Republic of China. On the day of Biden’s speech, Nicaragua’s foreign minister announced a severing of all diplomatic ties with Taiwan and an extension of recognition to the People’s Republic of China. How other uninvited countries react in the upcoming days will be critical for the geopolitical consequences of the Summit.
Through the Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration sends several signals to the international community. It signals America’s resolve to resume the leadership role in international affairs and communicates its support for Europe and Taiwan against Russia and China respectively. It also takes the opportunity to punish certain allied states for stepping out of line, demonstrating that the United States is still willing and able to leverage American hegemony to enforce American prerogatives. Only time will tell if these signals can help Biden establish a cohesive international bloc to contain America’s geopolitical rivals or will prove to be more divisive than constructive.