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A summit for democracy or building a bloc to counter China and Russia?

Article by Alex Folkes

December 15, 2021

A summit for democracy or building a bloc to counter China and Russia?

President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy took place virtually at the end of last week. Attended by a large number of nations whose leaders made a slew of welcome policy commitments aimed at showing their democratic and human rights credentials; however, both the purpose and outcome of the event remain unclear.


The principle divide is between those who see this as a Summit for Democracy as the name implies or those, such as the UK, who see it as a meeting of many of the world’s largest democracies and semi-democracies who want to use the might of these countries to counter the threats posed by Russia and China. A large number of events on the fringes of the main summit also concentrated on the idea of bringing states together in opposition to autocratic menace.


Ted Piccone has analysed the 112 strong guest list in great detail and found that some of the countries excluded are ranked higher by the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index than some who were round the table.[1] That was probably always going to be the case. As Piccone points out, other metrics are available, direction of travel is also key and there are geopolitical considerations to be accounted for (which is probably why Pakistan makes the cut alongside India). But his key point is this: If the aim was a summit to strengthen democracy and the rule of law around the globe then inviting those with a worse ranking is not a problem. We hope they will learn from the experience and make improvements in future. But if the summit is being set up as the lead in to a club of democracies to counterbalance the authoritarian states then it very much matters that those around the table are the ones who can genuinely point to their rule of law and human rights as being in the top tiers.


President Biden has strong credentials in this field. He has championed democratic values for many years and this event was a key plank in his election manifesto. That it had to be downgraded due to the pandemic is understandable, but it is laudable that it still went ahead. The world has seen many summits based on economics, military and environmental matters, but this is the first time in many years that the focus has been (or should have been) on human rights.


Much of the event took place behind closed doors, but the opening statements by world leaders were released publicly.[2] These leaders took a variety of approaches. Some simply lauded their own achievements whilst others made commitments to improve in various areas. Notable were the approaches of Poland, which concentrated on the problems in Belarus, and of the Czech Republic who were the only country to specifically mention the need for election observation and democratic assistance.


But it is the behind the scenes deals which matter most. Was this an event that aimed to shore up democratic principles in countries which are backsliding and encourage moves in the right direction among others? Or was it an event where a new bloc could be formed of the big democratic powers to stand in opposition to authoritarian states, particularly as Russia builds forces on the border with Ukraine?


President Biden, in his opening address, suggested it should be the former and he mentioned a number of changes he wanted to see in his own country. The idea that no nation is a perfect democracy was important to establish from the outset and Biden’s references to the challenges his country faces were cautionary.


In the latter camp firmly stands UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His idea is for a D10, a small group of the biggest nations based on the G7 but expanded to include South Korea, Australia and (most controversially) India. His idea is to use this group, selected for their size and economic might, to stand against Russia and, particularly, China.


Others have proposed similar mechanisms with the same goals, but are slightly more inclusive. The Alliance of Democracies group sees a congregation of 30 or so states.[3] But again, their focus would be on countering Russia and China rather than promoting freedom of the media, more democratic elections, and equal rights for women and national minorities or unbiased courts.


The Summit is being followed by a so-called ‘year of action’ before another event (hopefully in person) at the end of 2022. Key to deciding which camp has won will be the list of actions that are envisaged.


Thomas Pepinsky, writing for the Brookings Institution, said:[4]


“The Summit for Democracy will be most effective if it remains focused on strengthening and defending democracy rather than constructing a dichotomy between the world’s democracies and their authoritarian counterparts. It would also be a mistake to focus on corruption, economic performance, and material prosperity as areas in which democracies can outperform authoritarian regimes.”


The same organisation has updated its ten commitments for enhancing democracy, and these address some of the key issues both in established democracies such as the US, and in countries where democratic values are newer.[5]


The two ideas, of an alliance of democracies and a summit for better democracy around the world are not mutually exclusive, of course. But if improvements in human rights really are going to be made then it is important that the two approaches are not confused.


Image by The White House under (CC).


[1] Ted Piccone, The awkward guests: Parsing the Summit for Democracy invitation list, Brookings, December 2021,

[2] It has been reported that the address by the Leader of Taiwan was not made public due to potential conflict with the USA’s ‘One China’ policy.

[3] Ash Jain, Matthew Kroenig, and Jonas Parello-Plesner, An Alliance of Democracies: From concept to reality in an era of strategic competition, Atlantic Council, December 2021,

[4] Thomas Pepinsky, Biden’s Summit for Democracy should focus on rights, not economics and geopolitics, Brookings, November 2021,

[5] Susan Corke, Norman Eisen, Jonathan Katz, Andrew Kenealy, James Lamond, Alina Polyakova, and Torrey Taussig, Democracy Playbook 2021: 10 Commitments for Advancing Democracy, Brookings, December 2021,

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