The Value of a Summit

The meeting that Biden organized has warned against political corruption and authoritarian disruption.

President Joe Biden could not imagine the difficult conditions under which he would fulfill his campaign promise of holding a summit to promote democracy. Although he announced his plan during the 2020 election campaign when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its worst, it was impossible to imagine that the summit would have to take place virtually without the solemnity and helpful context of a bilateral conferences and parallel meetings.

He could not predict the almost simultaneous geopolitical crises with China and Russia over Taiwan and Ukraine respectively, both crises threatening medium- term conflict in China and immediate war with Russia. Nor could he have predicted that Donald Trump and the Republican Party would submit the American democracy to the shameful discrediting episode involving the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. We are still waiting for the requisite legislative and judicial responses to a such a constitutional violation.

The initial message about the summit signaled a change in attitude from that of Trump, especially how he disavowed a contempt for democracy and affinity for dictators. But the effective message is a sign with respect to Russia and China, and both autocracies have interpreted it as evidence that a cold war is already in progress. Beijing’s reaction was so particularly furious that it has prepared a parody summit and published a white paper entitled, “China, Democracy That Works,” along with a frightening report about “The State of Democracy in the United States.”

The Chinese communist regime has felt especially hurt by the invitation the U.S. sent to Taiwan, an unassailable democracy, although it is also emerging from a dictatorship and is a counterexample of the evolution experienced by mainland China. Taiwan has every reason to fear a forceful annexation by a dictatorial regime. Beijing’s reaction to the summit convened by President Biden confirms the obsolescence of the one country, two systems principle, under which the return of Hong Kong took place. That same principle guided the idea of a future peaceful and democratic unification of Taiwan and mainland China and enabled the United States and the international community to support the one-China principle.

Added to the difficult circumstances surrounding the meeting was how incongruent the guest list was. The invitees include democracies that are so defective that they do not deserve to be called a democracy, while other countries where democracy is still possible were not were not invited. The summit has pointed out two dangerous territories for democracy: political corruption and the use of technology as instruments of authoritarian disruption. More interesting is the idea that democracy is not only being defended on the international stage, but that the place where it needs the care of governments and citizens is within each of the democratic countries, starting with the country that convened the summit. Perhaps this is the main lesson and the one that provides the most value to the Biden summit.

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