Skip to content

President Biden’s Summit for Democracy launch underwhelms

Article by Alex Folkes

August 20, 2021

President Biden’s Summit for Democracy launch underwhelms

President Joe Biden made a big deal about democracy during his election campaign – and it is an issue he has demonstrated a great deal of passion for over much of his career. The manifesto promise he made to hold a ‘Summit for Democracy’ during his first year in office was well received by those of us in the democracy and human rights sector who have seen many summits held to discuss economic, military and environmental issues, but never one that focussed solely on the tenets of the liberal international order.


To be fair to the President, coronavirus has not made it easy to stick to his pledge. For the summit to work, it really needs to be a big affair with many countries, NGOs and academics around the same table. But even given these constraints, the announcement a week ago from the State Department is a little underwhelming.[1]


The statement looks like a bit of a placeholder with an online get-together in December and a follow-up a year later to review progress. Those in government, NGOs and business will be taking part, but it could almost be read as though these people will only be drawn from the US. I assume that is not what is meant, but there seems to be no answer to the biggest question – will this be a meeting of the self-selecting biggest and the best democracies as exemplified by Boris Johnson’s call for a ‘D-10’ based largely on economic might? Or will it be a meeting of all who consider themselves or want to be democracies – an open table which might exclude only the likes of China, North Korea, Belarus and, perhaps now, Russia? The former risks an outcome which preaches from a very shaky moral high ground. The latter might help to carve some of the slower moving states away from their authoritarian neighbours and set them on a new course.


Such a summit might also help to reinvigorate the position of the international election observation movement following the decision by both Belarus and now Russia to effectively put their polls beyond expert eyes.


The last time democracy was a key foreign policy aim was during the international re-set of the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe. But while some countries have indeed moved forward, in many other states moves towards elections were democracy in name only and corruption and human rights abuses remain rife. Even this modest progress is backsliding now and so there is a lot of pressure on President Biden’s summit to deliver. The failure of the 1990s changes to stick (and of the colour revolutions and Arab Spring to deliver in most countries) was largely because the focus of the Western powers was more on opening up new markets for their own companies and securing energy supply and, latterly, on seeking regional partners to act as a bulwark against Islamist terrorism regardless of their human rights records. Democracy for the sake of democracy would be a huge step forward.


If there is a clue to President Biden’s intent then it comes in the form of the statement that the US recognises the need to improve its own practices. There is reference in the launch statement to the struggle to create ‘a more perfect union’. So one would hope that if the US acknowledges its shortcomings then no other country will be allowed to claim that it has everything right. A ‘them and us’ club would not advance the causes of democracy nor any other aspect of human rights.


The statement contains an invitation for NGOs and others to consider how to protect democracies against authoritarianism and corruption and safeguard human rights, but the details are scarce as yet – although more are promised. But it will take a lot of sherpas to turn this statement into real progress by the proposed date of December.


Image by Gage Skidmore under (CC).


[1] See: The Summit for Democracy,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre