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The Biden Democracy Summit: Behind The Scenes – OpEd

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On December 9 and 10, 2021, the United States hosted an international conference on democracy. The two-day virtual conference, which aimed to help revitalize democracy around the world, is set to be followed by another face-to-face meeting next year. The meeting, which focused primarily on identifying the dangers and opportunities that democracies face today, is set to be a vehicle for declaring individual and collective commitments, as well as government programs and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights both domestically and internationally at a time when democracy is at its worst. The fear of a sharp decline in democratic values was so great that Freedom House as a global monitoring organization, in its annual report on the state of global freedom, chose to call 2021 the year of Democracy under Siege. Announcing the 15th consecutive year of the decline of global freedoms, the organization warned of a shift in the fragile global balance in favor of an authoritarian approach. Even military coups that were previously expected to be events of the past and specific to the Cold War are returning to the scene as in Myanmar, Sudan, and Guinea. 

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However, this meeting was not intended for finding a way out of the current situation, at least in theory, through cooperation among a number of democratically committed countries in a deteriorating situation. Instead, it was meant to perpetuate the instrumentalist and deceitful approach of the United States and the Biden administration to freedom and democratic values. The idea of holding this meeting was accompanied by a wave of criticism and doubts from the very beginning. Given the rise of China and the need to confront that, some critics argued that due to the deepening rifts and the deteriorating state of democracy domestically, the United States is not qualified to hold such a meeting. Others criticized the re-centralization of democratic values in foreign policy as contrary to US national interests because of the potentially destructive effects it might have on the structure of US alliances. At the same time, they believe that playing with the card of democracy through polarizing nations will only lead to a further deterioration of relations and increased tensions between the Biden government and Russia and China. This view soon proved to be true. In reaction to the meeting, Chinese and Russian officials described it as inciting other nations into a hostile ideological alliance against their own countries, and as a step towards continuing the policy of containment.

There was also criticism of the list of participating countries prior to the meeting, which undoubtedly reflects the worst aspect of the meeting, which is the blatantly deceitful and implicit foreign policy approach of all US governments to issues like democracy. This is perhaps the longest-running and most embarrassing feature of US foreign policy. Many of the friends and allies of the so-called free world throughout the Cold War, backed by Washington’s leaders and weapons, were in fact nothing more than a handful of bloodthirsty and corrupt dictators. What mattered to American officials at the time was not the adornment of these regimes with democratic traits, but merely their anti-communist and anti-Soviet characteristics. Thus the quality and nature of their national sovereignty were insignificant and were usually overlooked. An evaluation of the list of countries invited or present at President Biden’s Democracy Summit once again showed that the US double standards on democracy are still alive and well. Although the names of countries that are specifically authoritarian regimes did not appear on the list of participants in the meeting, the invitation and presence of a number of other countries was a real surprise to those who truly believe in and adhere to democratic norms.

Despite State Department reports on numerous cases of extrajudicial killings and repeated violations of civil rights in Pakistan and the Philippines, both countries were on the list of countries invited to the meeting. Similarly, ignoring the declining trend of democratic values and the tendency to adopt authoritarian practices in countries such as India and Brazil in recent years, the names of these two countries were also among the defenders and promoters of democracy in the world.  Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting and controversial invitations was that of Kosovo. Despite the fact that key and political elites of this country are facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in international courts, and are accused of systematically killing prisoners of war to sell their organs on the international black market, they were invited to the meeting.

The invitation or non-invitation of countries to attend the Democracy Summit by the Biden administration seems to have been a function of a specific logic and pattern. Altogether, two groups of governments made the list of invitees to the summit, even when there were serious doubts about their commitment to democratic norms. The first group consists of important geopolitical actors that Washington counts on to advance its strategic goals around the world. This consideration explains why it was not possible in principle to exclude India and Brazil from the summit. The Biden administration wants India to play a more active role in US policy to contain China. Brazil is also a key economic and political player in the Western Hemisphere, and Washington has particular concerns about the Bolsonaro government and the growth of its economic ties with Russia and China. In this way, Biden government officials have made it clear that they will in no way allow shortcomings in the internal governance of countries to stand in the way of their strategic goals.

It appears that other smaller, less geopolitically important countries with highly questionable democratic conditions were invited to the summit only if they had abided by US policy on issues of international importance. Poland, for example, succeeded in obtaining the permit to enter the summit, while Hungary did not despite its membership in NATO. There is little doubt that the Hungarian government under Orbán rule has shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies. But the fact is that Poland has not shown a very different and democratic attitude compared to Hungary, with the big difference that Warsaw has eagerly accepted Washington’s confrontational policies towards Russia, while Budapest in adherence to these policies seems somewhat hesitant.

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Washington’s fraudulent measures reached a new level by inviting Ukraine to the summit. Ukraine has an even worse record than Hungary in silencing critics and violating civil liberties. In the Freedom House 2021 report, Ukraine is ranked 69th in the group of relatively free countries. Of course, as the democratization situation in Ukraine continues to decline, the country is expected to rank far lower than 60 in the coming years. Washington seeks to treat Ukraine as a NATO member and make Kyiv a front-line ally against Russia. Therefore, the deterioration of democratic values and practices in this country is practically negligible for the United States.

The implementation of such a double standard should be a source of shame for the Biden government. The Democracy Summit revealed that Biden’s commitment to freedom and democratic values as a key component of American foreign policy remains as unreliable and fraudulent as in the past. The Democracy Summit reflects, above all, Biden’s tendency to use the trick of promoting democracy to expand US geopolitical and geostrategic goals and objectives, to restore its lost hegemony, and to build alliances to contain the growing power of China. Nevertheless, Biden is not, and will probably not be, the first or last president in American history to use the levers of democracy to advance his foreign policy goals.

*Timothy Hopper, an international relations graduate of American University

Timothy Hopper

Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University.

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