How the Biden administration tackles such questions could offer broader clues about its foreign policy plans, including which countries the new president will favor and which ones he will keep at arm’s length.
“I’m very skeptical about it. I’m not sure who even wants to attend,” said an Asian ambassador, speaking on condition of anonymity to not undermine ties with the Biden team. “Sure, the British will be here. The Canadians will turn up. But is it just a Western grouping then? Does Peru qualify? They’ve had elections, but they’ve also been impeaching their presidents every week.”
An Arab diplomat questioned whether it’s a good idea to set the bar for admission too high, especially when the world faces so many transnational challenges.
“Honestly, it depends on the agenda,” the diplomat said. “If Covid-19, technology or climate change is on the agenda, how effective will it be if it’s a small tent?”
Perhaps the most critical signal the gathering will send is that, under Biden, the U.S. won’t shy away from defending democratic norms under attack from rivals like communist-led China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, some foreign policy analysts argued. That will be a welcome change from Trump, who openly curried favor with strongmen, they added.
“The subtext is that there’s been competition from the illiberal forces out there in a different direction, and it behooves the United States to get into the contest,” said Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute, which promotes democratic institutions abroad.
Biden aides declined to comment on the record for this report, but they pointed to a spring essay by the president-elect in which he laid out some aspects of his “Summit for Democracy.” Biden wrote that the gathering “will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.”
The coronavirus pandemic could force organizers to hold the summit virtually, especially if Biden is determined to hold it during his first year in office. Some former U.S. officials argued, however, that Biden should delay the gathering until it can be safely attended in person, giving it more impact.
No matter when it is held, two countries are near-certain to be denied entry: China and Russia.
Russia, in particular, is accused of trying to interfere with U.S. elections, earning it special opprobrium from the Biden crowd. But China, with its combination of economic might and political authoritarianism, is viewed as the greater long-term threat to the world’s democracies, and Beijing is likely to be a major topic of conversation during Biden’s summit.
Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, urged the Biden team to invite Taiwan to the summit. The breakaway island, which China claims as its own, has a democratic governance system.
Twining further called on Biden and his aides to make sure that the summit includes discussion on countering China and Russia on the cyber and tech fronts.
“It feels to me like democracies have a lot more work to do together around protecting data, protecting the information side of free and open societies,” said Twining, whose organization promotes democracy overseas.
Spokespersons for the embassies of China, Turkey, Hungary and Poland did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on “hypothetical issues.” The Philippines Embassy said in a statement that decisions about the summit are “prerogatives of American foreign policy,” but that “the Philippines will continue to thrive as an independent democratic country.”
Biden has called the event a “Summit for Democracy,” not a “Summit of Democracies.” That linguistic distinction could give organizers some room to maneuver on invitations: If your government says it’s for democracy even if it’s not very good at it, then maybe you get on the list.
It’s a risky approach, however. Lots of governments claim to be democratic but aren’t, and letting them show up could lend legitimacy to their false assertions.
An extreme example is North Korea. Its official name is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” but it is run by a dictator and probably the closest thing on Earth to a totalitarian state. Another example is the so-called Republic of Belarus, whose citizens have spent recent months demonstrating in a bid to oust longtime dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
It’s safe to say that North Korea and Belarus probably won’t be invited to the summit. But what about countries like Myanmar and Pakistan?
During the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, the United States lifted sanctions to help Myanmar (also called Burma) replace a military junta with an elected, civilian-led government. But Myanmar’s military still holds major levers of power; it also was behind the 2017 mass slaughter of Rohingya Muslims.
In Pakistan, political parties engage fiercely in regular elections, but the military also wields significant influence over the civilian government. Still, in his congratulatory tweet following Biden’s victory, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he looks “forward” to the democracy summit, so he apparently is expecting an invitation.
David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor under the George W. Bush administration, said Biden should not invite countries that are backsliding on democracy — such as Turkey, Hungary and Poland — but should invite those moving toward it, such as Sudan.
Biden should make clear that “it does matter which direction your country is moving — it will affect our relationship,” Kramer said.
India could prove the trickiest case of all, former U.S. officials and analysts said.
For decades, the vast, diverse South Asian country has held elections, allowed for an array of political opinions and generally been regarded as a democratic success.
The United States views its relations with India as important in part because it sees the country as a bulwark against China.
But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads a Hindu nationalist party, has cracked down on political opponents, the press and India’s Muslims, among others, since taking power in 2014. As a result, political observers are warning that India’s democracy itself is under threat.
A spokesperson for the Indian Embassy declined to comment.
Biden’s summit wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. or other actors have tried to rally the world’s democracies.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed for a “D-10” grouping of 10 leading democracies to coordinate against China. The D-10 idea predates Johnson, but it has been given some lift in recent years as more traditional forums such as the United Nations Security Council have become deadlocked due to disagreements among China, Russia and the United States.
In 2000, more than 100 countries signed on to a declaration establishing the “Community of Democracies.” That grouping describes itself as a forum for learning from each other and working together to advance democratic priorities, including at places like the United Nations.
But the Community of Democracies has become mired in its own bureaucratic struggles and has little influence, former U.S. officials and analysts say. Some note that the group’s creation was spearheaded by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the U.S. and Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek in Poland; yet today, Poland is backsliding on its democratic dreams while the U.S. has had its own struggles in the age of Trump.
Biden’s defeat of Trump has certainly caught the attention of the autocrats whom Trump openly praised.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi — whom Trump reportedly called his “favorite dictator” — rushed to congratulate Biden, signed up new Washington lobbyists to burnish his image, and even released some of Egypt’s thousands of political prisoners (although he then arrested others).
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose authoritarianism has deeply frustrated Biden, has in the weeks since the U.S. election promised to carry out major economic, legal and human rights reforms. His critics say his actions will matter more than his promises.
Advocates say that Biden will have to walk a careful line during his planned summit, one in which he boosts the ideals of democracy without coming across as though he’s lecturing.
After all, the Trump years have exposed weaknesses in American governance institutions; Trump has broken with U.S. tradition in refusing to concede and is actively trying to use government levers to overturn Biden’s victory.
“I would hope there would be an element of humility” during the summit, said Mitchell of the National Democratic Institute. “There is no perfect democracy. The United States is not a perfect democracy. No one is.”