The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
A stunned world watched in horror on January 6 as hundreds of far-right extremists, incited by President Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol. The rampage ultimately failed to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory, but it has complicated the president-elect’s commitments to return the United States to the role of champion of democracy worldwide. In particular, it raises hard questions about Biden’s widely publicized plan to host a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office.
In the wake of last week’s attempted insurrection, the scholars James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson argued in Foreign Affairs that the incoming Biden administration should abandon its plan for a global democracy summit and focus instead on repairing democracy at home. We respectfully disagree. Scrapping the summit entirely could damage Biden’s broader efforts to reestablish the United States as an engaged, constructive, and cooperative international actor. Moreover, and perhaps more important, a U.S.-hosted summit could serve as a vital mechanism for repairing and reinvigorating American democracy at home. Instead of canceling the event, Washington should use the summit to develop a new blueprint for U.S. global engagement on democracy—one that is more humble and honest about painful political challenges at home but is no less committed to supporting the cause abroad.
In pushing ahead with the summit, the Biden administration should strive to organize more than a symbolic gathering, where officials make lofty statements but engage in minimal action. Such a “summit lite” would reinforce existing cynicism about the depth of Washington’s commitment to democratic norms and squander the new administration’s short window of opportunity to initiate a substantive democracy agenda.
But Biden’s team must also avoid trying to accomplish too much with a single summit—by seeking to establish a new strategic alliance or league of democratic states, for example. The United States should continue to participate in existing democratic groupings with well-defined parameters, such as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) in the Indo-Pacific. It should also entertain the British idea of expanding the G-7 to a D-10 that includes Asia’s three most important democracies (Australia, India, and South Korea). But an attempt to forge a new, large-scale, open-ended democratic “alliance” would almost certainly fail given that the geopolitical and economic interests of a diverse group of democracies do not align well on many issues.
Instead, the incoming administration should dedicate the summit to domestic democratic renovation, in which participating states make collective, mutually supportive commitments to improve their own democracies and to stand up for democracy whenever it is threatened in other countries. Such an egalitarian reframing of the discussion about democracy, organized by a new U.S. administration willing to speak with honesty and realism about the United States’ own democratic failings, would make a powerful statement about Washington’s commitment to democratic renewal in the post-Trump era.
The summit’s planners will face a powerful temptation to turn the agenda into a laundry list of every concern across the democracy advocacy community. They should resist this pull. Instead, under the overarching theme of democratic renewal, the summit should zero in on several discrete topics to focus discussion and action.
Early in his campaign for president, when Biden first proposed hosting a summit of the world’s democracies, he identified three priority agenda items: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. Anticorruption policy—which is key to solving the problem of accountability that haunts so many democracies—is an excellent choice for the summit’s agenda. It is a policy domain ripe with concrete, impactful potential actions in realms ranging from tax and finance to government procurement to transparency and civil society.
Washington will have to walk a tightrope between reclaiming global leadership and humbly acknowledging its flaws.
Defending against authoritarianism must also be a focus of the summit, but some caution here is necessary: references to authoritarianism may be understood as code for “aligning against China and Russia” and deter or chill some other democracies that would otherwise actively participate. It would be a problem if authoritarian countries perceived the summit as an effort by the United States to forge a democratic coalition aimed at regime change in authoritarian countries. The Biden administration can minimize this risk by framing its objectives more broadly: to prevent political interference by authoritarian actors in existing democracies and to support universal democratic values and aspirations by people wherever they live.
Biden’s goal of advancing human rights should command agreement from a wide range of potential partners and will help the United States reaffirm its commitment to universal values after four years of selective advocacy of certain rights, such as religious freedom. But the human rights agenda is vast, and focusing the discussion, perhaps by agreeing in advance on a few key rights to emphasize, will be crucial. Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly seem like natural candidates for inclusion, given the attacks on them in so many places.
One additional agenda item that is both timely and likely to garner wide support is democratic inclusion. Efforts to build more representative institutions, and to end the political, economic, and social marginalization of certain populations, continue to challenge newer and established democracies alike. This is an area where the United States, thanks to its long history of exclusion, can lead with humility.
Cutting across all of these issues is the transformation wrought by digital technologies. Although technology itself is politically neutral, it has enabled grave threats to democracy in many countries while also creating tremendous opportunities for citizen engagement and transparent, responsive governance. The summit must wrestle head-on with how to adapt democracy responsibly to the digital age.
In addition to the agenda, the Biden administration must determine the appropriate invite list (that perennial summit-host headache). It will have to decide whether to invite a smaller, selective set of established democracies that are seriously committed to self-improvement and acting on substantive challenges or to take a big-tent approach and include countries that claim democratic aspirations but fall significantly short in practice. Historically, multilateral democracy summits have opted for greater inclusion—at the expense of credibility and coherence.
Given that tradeoff, Biden’s summit planners should consider a tiered model. They could form a small steering committee whose members would be full partners in shaping the agenda and mobilizing commitments from others. Steering committee members would publicly communicate about the summit in order to help avoid the impression that it is a narrow, U.S.-led endeavor. They would also co-lead discussions on the main thematic areas and help drive progress on summit commitments via thematic working groups that continue to meet after the summit is over. They might even host follow-on events or future summits. The steering committee would consist of a handful of countries that demonstrate passion and capacity for such a role and provide some geographic diversity, without chasing the elusive goal of perfect regional representation.
The summit must wrestle head-on with how to adapt democracy responsibly to the digital age.
The Biden team could then take a moderately big-tent approach to general summit participants, with some threshold of demonstrated “will” to merit an invitation. All participating countries would need to pledge to make substantive commitments in order to attend and ideally would take concrete actions before the summit. Summit planners should also use some clear and externally based criteria for determining who is in and who is out, drawing on reputable independent indexes of countries’ fidelity to democratic values and practices—cognizant, of course, that the standing of the United States in these rankings has slid markedly in recent years.
Another hard question the administration will have to grapple with is whether to invite nongovernmental entities, and if so, which ones. Democracies thrive thanks to the combined efforts of countless stakeholders—including civic groups, private-sector entities, and multilateral organizations. The summit must reflect this reality, without opening the floodgates to an impractical number of participants. In order to whittle down the vast universe of potential invitees, organizers should tie the list of nongovernmental participants directly to the summit’s specific themes. Nongovernmental attendees could then participate alongside governments in working groups organized around each of the summit’s themes. This approach would still require difficult choices—and demand that organizers find ways to ensure diversity—but it would foster more focused outcomes than a maximalist invite list and reflect the reality of democracy as practiced in the modern world.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once famously noted that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Biden’s campaign pledge to host a democracy summit delighted many global leaders and citizens who have been demoralized by Trump’s relentless attacks on democracy at home and abroad. But executing an effective summit will require painstakingly translating lofty campaign poetry into practical governing prose. That will not be an easy task: the United States will have to walk a tightrope between reclaiming global leadership and humbly acknowledging and addressing its flaws. But rallying a community of like-valued nations to advance domestic democratic renewal is the surest path to restoring U.S. leadership of the democratic world.
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