President-elect Joe Biden has announced that he intends to hold a “Summit for Democracy” in his first year in office. His emphasis on the United States’ democratic allies and partners is a welcome change from President Donald Trump’s bromances with autocrats. On its face, the summit’s agenda—to “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values”—seems straightforward enough. Former National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman even wrote in these pages, “The idea of a democracy summit is not new, but the need for one has never been greater.”

But the policy conflates ideology with interests and risks incurring costs that outweigh its benefits. A new administration may find that the summit overloads its circuits at a demanding time, forcing the United States to wrestle with the complexities of determining an invitation list and bringing Washington face-to-face with resistance to the assumption that it is entitled to sit at the head of the table at global gatherings.

The United States would be better served by focusing its attention on the smaller groupings of democratic allies and partners that already exist and by revitalizing its own instruments for promoting democracy and human rights—as well as by recognizing that with respect to democracy, the most important task for the United States is to rebuild norms and institutions at home.

Invitation Only

The first problem for the United States will be determining who gets invited to a democracy summit and on the basis of what criteria. Most European Union and NATO members comfortably fit the definition of a democracy, but not all. Should the Biden administration invite Hungary and Poland, whose leaders have broken one democratic norm after another and which for weeks blocked passage of the EU’s 1.8-trillion-euro budget and COVID-19 rescue package because it included a provision affirming the rule of law?

NATO member Turkey, which Freedom House puts squarely in the “not free” category, would also seem a poor fit for such a gathering. But excluding strategically important countries such as Turkey could have ramifications for bilateral relations with allies critical to combating increasing Russian aggression. The Biden administration should use U.S. relationships with such countries to put pressure on their leaders, but a public snub of treaty allies to a major gathering hardly seems the most constructive place to begin.

Outside of Europe, Washington will have to make some tricky calls. Take, for example, India, often touted as the world’s largest democracy and part of the Indo-Pacific Quad—the United States, Japan, Australia, and India—that the United States has welcomed to advance all four countries’ joint interests in a region where China is ascendant. Japan and Australia are committed democracies, but in the past six years, India has had the second-highest decline in civil liberties among 167 countries ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Last February witnessed attacks on Indian Muslims so severe as to be likened to Kristallnacht.

A new administration may find that the summit overloads its circuits at a demanding time.

No shortage of other candidates present similar dilemmas. Indonesia made some democratic progress after the fall of its authoritarian regime in 1998, but recent years have seen first stagnation and now regression. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro delights in being called the “Tropical Trump,” relishing what two Brazilian scholars call his war on democracy. And then there’s the Philippines, a country strategically important to the United States, yet one whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, has authorized the wanton murder of more than 8,000 people and violated so many other core democratic norms and practices as to embody “democracy’s dystopian future.”

The Middle East and Africa are rife with lose-lose options. Tunisia is the only Arab country Freedom House rates as “free.” Do the summit’s parameters expand to include “partly free,” friendly countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco? That would still, rightly, leave out Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which likely would look for compensation in other aspects of their relations with the United States. South Africa would qualify for the summit, as would Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, and Namibia—but here, too, choosing these democracies over geopolitically more important countries such as Nigeria and Kenya would reverberate through bilateral relations.

Proponents of the summit may claim that the promise of inclusion will offer leaders of partial democracies, or nondemocracies, incentive to change their practices. But U.S. policymakers cannot realistically expect that Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Bolsonaro, and their ilk would be interested in “honestly confronting” their backsliding in favor of a “common agenda” based on “common values.” Invite them and they’ll go home with their countries reinforced as DINOs (democracies in name only). Don’t invite them and they’ll exploit the snub to further feed xenophobic nationalism. 

Ideology vs. Interests

To convene a summit for democracy is to take a manifestly ideological approach to the global agenda. There is no question the United States has affinities with fellow democracies that it does not share with autocracies. But ideology and interests do not always align.

During the Cold War, a monolithic view of global communism blinded American policymakers both to the 1950s Sino-Soviet split and to the distinctiveness of Third World nationalisms. Today’s American policymakers should not make the same mistake in assuming a commonality of interests among autocracies, particularly Russia and China. These two powers share a dislike for American dominance of the global system and for the traditional U.S. support for the rule of law, but they remain uneasy partners, particularly as they compete for advantage in regions important to them both, such as Central Asia and the Arctic.

Ideology and interests do not always align.

Moreover, divergent political ideologies have not precluded U.S. cooperation with Russia or China based on mutual interests, even in periods of distinct ideological competition. “I can’t take communism,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it when justifying the United States’ World War II alliance with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, “. . . but to cross this bridge I would hold hands with the Devil.” After staring into the nuclear abyss with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke the following year of a need for a “strategy of peace” in the atomic age. Though imperfect, Cold War–era arms control agreements that the United States and the Soviet Union signed to manage their nuclear rivalry were substantial achievements. Americans and Soviets also worked together toward a number of other shared interests, notably the global eradication of smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s. And despite such points of contention as the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the United States, Russia, and China worked together on the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord as recently as 2015. For the United States to convene a high-level summit that spotlights the exclusion of China and Russia would make managing tensions with those countries that much more difficult at a time when they already run high.

Nor does common ideology make for fully shared interests with other democracies. It never has: not for the Iraq war, not for the Vietnam War, and frankly not for the isolationist United States before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, even as Hitler attacked one fellow democracy after another. To sample from the current agenda: Germany has been resisting U.S. pressure on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Russia; Japan and South Korea continue to hold their own trilateral summits with China; substantial differences over Iran and the Palestinians are likely to reemerge in U.S.-Israeli relations. On these and other issues, ideology matters, but interests matter more.

Skip the Summit, Get to Work

A United States that once again cares about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law will be far preferable to one that does not. But rather than a new summit, Washington can work through existing entities such as NATO and the G-7. The United States can enhance its cooperation with the European Union, promote greater multilateralism among its core Asian allies, and even find better ways to coordinate with its NATO and Asian allies.

NATO recently released its 2030 report, which reaffirms the founding treaty’s “principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law” and proposes a Center of Excellence for Democratic Resilience. Better to work on members such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey through those mechanisms, in addition to bilateral pressure, than to call a giant new global confab.

The European Union has pursued initiatives in recent years to revise and enhance its democracy promotion efforts. The G-7 has its limits—notably, it does not include any countries from the global South—but it has played a valuable role in promoting democracy, particularly during such democratic transitions as Spain’s in 1975 and South Africa’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Organization of American States has an “uneven” record at best but proved effective during coup attempts in Guatemala and Paraguay in the 1990s. And the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently pressed China on democracy and human rights issues, such as the repression of the Uighurs and the revocation of autonomy in Hong Kong. None of these mechanisms is perfect, but all have value, and drawing on them does not come with the downsides that a global summit for democracy entails.

The Biden administration should put some of the effort and resources that might go into a democracy summit into revitalizing its democracy promotion and human rights protection agencies and policies instead. Funds slashed, morale plummeted, successful programs undermined: the U.S. Agency for International Development has been decimated under Trump, and the National Endowment for Democracy, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Broadcasting Board of Governors, U.S. Institute of Peace, and other programs across the executive branch need support. The Biden administration can promote American values by working through the alliances and partnerships that already exist, while re-funding those U.S. agencies dedicated to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

The Head of the Table

Throughout his campaign and now during the transition, Biden has made reclaiming the seat “at the head of the table” a central theme. Certainly, Washington’s convening power is impressive, as Secretary of State–designate Antony Blinken has stressed. But if Americans are honest with themselves, that seat at the head of the democracies’ table has to be earned back.

The end of the Cold War 30 years ago was a triumphant moment for the United States. Three decades later, the country has impeached two presidents, waged an ill-advised war in Iraq, unleashed a global financial crisis, mismanaged a pandemic, and struggled to address vast domestic economic inequality and systemic racism. Americans continue to contest their own basic democratic practices and norms. An administration that seeks a global leadership role must first work to reform American democracy at a level deeper even than the damage President Donald Trump has done.

The entire Biden administration will have no more urgent task in democracy promotion than rebuilding American institutions and norms to be more resilient to the types of shocks they have suffered over the past four years. A strong dose of humility will be in order: demonstrating American leadership is a matter not of declaring it as an entitlement but of showing that the United States is rededicating itself to the principles of its founding.

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  • JAMES GOLDGEIER is Robert Bosch Senior Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Professor of International Relations at American University.
  • BRUCE W. JENTLESON is William Preston Few Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Duke University and a former U.S. State Department official in the Obama and Clinton administrations.
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