Three American Opinions: Biden’s Democracy Summit

An In-depth Insight into What Happened at Democracy Summit
Matthew Yglesias - China
Steven Feldstein
Dan Balz

The recent Democracy Summit that was called for by President Joe Biden was criticized for more than one reason, including the countries that were invited or not, its virtual format, and America’s own democracy problems.

In his opening address, Biden said: “This gathering has been on my mind for a long time for a simple reason: In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, and — all around the world, democracy needs champions.”He added: “We say: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ that all women and men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … Democracy doesn’t happen by accident.  We have to renew it with each generation.  And this is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view.  Because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.”

These are three American opinions about the summit, drawn from their tweets, website and media interviews:

First, “Who was invited, and who was not was important,” said Steven Feldstein, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Second, “America’s own democracy is in danger,” said Dan Balz, columnist at the Washington Post, and co-author of two books:  “The Battle for America” and  “Storming the Gates: Protest Politics.”

Third, “It is all about China,” said Matthew Yglesias, columnist at Stubstack, and before at Vox magazines.

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Steven Feldstein: Invited and Not Invited:

Steven Feldstein

“The invitations went to liberal democracies, weaker democracies, and several states with authoritarian characteristics, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Pakistan. Rather than limit participation to a core group of committed democracies, Biden’s team opted for a big tent approach. The majority of invitees—seventy-seven countries—ranked as ‘free’ or fully democratic.  Another thirty-one invitee ranked as ‘partly free.’ Finally, three countries fell into the ‘not free’ camp …

Eight who were invited fell exceptionally low on democracy’s rankings, raising troubling questions about their invitations: Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Serbia, and Zambia.

Four additional invitees prompt serious backsliding concerns due to heightened levels of autocratization, or big declines in freedom of expression over the past ten years: Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Poland …

When it came to regional representation, Europe led the world with thirty-nine invitees, followed closely by twenty-seven participating countries from the Western Hemisphere. Asia Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa also enjoyed robust participation with twenty-one and seventeen invitees, respectively …

Identifying the participants for such a major diplomatic gathering was a complicated process, and settling on the final summit list was more a product of bureaucratic and interagency sausage-making than anything else …

Broader U.S. strategic interests mattered. Pakistan, the Philippines, and Ukraine are all flawed democracies with endemic corruption and rule of law abuses. Yet they are important partners of the United States—whether to counterbalance Chinese influence (Philippines), or to withstand Russian encroachment (Ukraine). The exclusion of Hungary and Turkey might have been based on Biden’s reluctance to do anything to help the reelection of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan …”

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Dan Balz: America’s Democracy:

Dan Balz

“President Biden gathered, virtually, representatives of more than 100 countries for what was billed as a ‘Summit for Democracy.’ The goal was to rally nations in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world …

But the summit drew some criticism, in part for who was invited and who was not. But the most persistent questions focused on whether the United States, at a time when democracy is threatened at home, could stand as a beacon for the rest of the world in this most important undertaking…

First, the nation is deeply divided, and those divisions have affected the state of democratic institutions. In an era of polarized voting and the drop in ticket-splitting, Republicans enjoy structural advantages in the Senate and the Electoral College. Increasingly, the majority of the population can be ruled by a minority of the population.

Second, the number of competitive House districts shrinks with every decennial redistricting, thanks to gerrymandering and the geographic sorting of the population, often leaving it to the political wings of the two parties to pick their House members and to set the tone and agendas.

Third, the executive branch is ill-prepared for many crises, anticipated or not, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown.

Fourth, the Supreme Court is in danger of being seen as reflective of the country’s political divisions rather than independent of them, to the point that there is more talk than ever on the left about whether changes should be made to its structure …”

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Matthew Yglesias: China:

Matthew Yglesias- China

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that a subtext of President Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ was an effort to raise the ideological stakes in the competition between the U.S. and China. And only a fool would believe that the strategy will work without a healthy dose of diplomatic hypocrisy …

Biden rightly sees that the frank amorality of former President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ opinion was at odds with any effort to get tough on China. In part because Trump hoped to make a deal to increase Chinese purchases of American products …

If Biden’s diplomatic boycott of the Olympics and his continuation of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports were about containing China, then America’s commitment to democracy is going to have to be pretty loose …

Consider, for example, America’s old enemy Vietnam, which has been intermittently at odds with China for decades and has been growing friendlier with the U.S. over the years. Vietnam is not only a natural ally in an effort to contain Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, it’s also a useful economic partner …

Inconveniently, however, Vietnam continues to be the same Communist Party-dominated autocracy that it’s been ever since the fall of Saigon.

A foreign policy based on an ideological commitment to democracy would counsel against including Vietnam in any new alliances designed to contain the influence of China …”


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