US President Joe Biden came to power proclaiming that the defining question of the current era is whether democracies will fare better than non-democracies. Almost a year later, the challenges to democracy have only intensified. Washington has warned that China appears to have repeated military operations against Taiwan; Biden held a video call with Vladimir Putin this week after Russia positioned tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders. Yet the president’s handling of the historic contest – notably with his ill-conceived online “Democracy Summit” this week – seemed less secure than many allies hoped when he was elected.
Biden handled the elements of Putin’s meeting well. The unusual intelligence sharing with NATO and EU members helped rally support for deterrence against a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The threat of sanctions such as blocking the conversion of the ruble into dollars and restricting Russian sovereign debt trading in secondary markets should give the Kremlin serious thought. Western allies have signaled that the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany could be blocked if Russia invaded – although this purely geopolitical project should have been stopped long before now.
There were also arguments for Biden to challenge Putin to defuse by offering talks related to Moscow’s concerns about NATO’s potential expansion in Ukraine. Yet the US president has taken it the wrong way. It is not clear that he made the withdrawal of Russian forces a prerequisite. By signaling the inclusion of Russia and four major NATO allies, he played a role in Putin’s attempts to return to great bargaining power. Biden had to reassure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and nine NATO members from Eastern Europe that he had not made concessions to Russian pressure and that Ukraine would be “at the table” for all. discussions where it would be on the agenda.
These calls provided an awkward backdrop for the first day of Biden’s misjudged Democracy Summit. There have long been formal organizations that demand adherence to democratic values, notably NATO and the EU. Convening an informal ‘club’ of democracies raises difficult questions about who is invited. Why the illiberal Polish government, but not Hungary? Why India, an ally of the United States whose democracy is moving in the wrong direction, not Turkey? Why are some weak African democracies, but not more established ones in Asia?
White House officials have hinted that the diversity was meant to signal that the summit was not an exercise in self-satisfaction and that all democracies have room for improvement, including the United States – after that protesters stormed the Capitol in January. It may be useful to share notes on anti-corruption and institution building. Yet there is a danger of giving credit to the autocratic propaganda that democracy is on the decline – especially in Biden’s message of a “global democratic recession.”
Even then, such initiatives risk provoking counter-alliances. Russian and Chinese envoys to the United States wrote an unusual joint article accusing the Biden administration of stoking Cold War-style “ideological confrontation.”
For America, determination, self-confidence, and clarity on its own red lines and the will to defend them is the key to strengthening democracy. Freedom House, which followed the recent decline of global democracies Biden referred to, also warns that great nations must “get their own homes in order.” It is also the business of the Republicans; Biden lacks the votes to enact protections for American democracy even as states pass laws to limit access to the ballot. Solidarity with other democracies is important, but so is setting an example.