Many nations aren't interested in picking sides between the US and China

Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy in Washington faces problems and inconsistencies

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the 2023 Summit for Democracy in Washington. AFP
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When the US hosted its first “Summit for Democracy” in 2021, it was billed as a big deal. As US President Joe Biden said in his opening remarks, the gathering had been “on my mind for a long time” because “in the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, all around the world, democracy needs champions”.

This week, leaders from 120 countries began gathering online on Wednesday for the second summit, this time co-hosted by the US with Costa Rica, Zambia, the Netherlands and South Korea. And yet, despite the fact that Mr Biden has made “fighting authoritarianism” the key feature of his foreign policy, there has been so little excitement or enthusiasm for this event that many, if not most, people may not be aware that it is happening at all.

This may be partly because many don’t buy Mr Biden’s idea of dividing the world into “democracies versus autocracies”. It is self-evident to them that the way societies organise themselves and the values they uphold are far more complicated and nuanced than Mr Biden’s overly simplistic formulation. It is also perfectly obvious that the Summits for Democracy (at least one more is planned) are just a way to rally countries against China and Russia, however high-falutin the language employed – and plenty of the attendees have no interest whatsoever in picking sides between Washington and Beijing.

The problems and inconsistencies don’t end there. The US has always had close partners and friends that are not democracies. Two countries that are democracies, on the other hand, and are, moreover, Nato allies – Turkey and Hungary – have pointedly not been invited, for the second time. And it can be argued that inviting Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to take part at the very moment that his controversial planned legal reforms, which critics view as a mortal threat to the country’s democracy, have sparked the biggest protests in Israeli history, does not sit easily with the summit’s name, let alone its aims.

“When the US and its partners make decisions to exclude some states for backsliding while ignoring the failings of others, it opens them up to charges of hypocrisy and favouritism,” argued a commentary issued by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Instead of rhetorically dividing the world into opposing camps, the US should be open to cultivating better relations with as many states as possible regardless of regime type.”

Digging a little deeper, USAID administrator Samantha Power’s office released a statement last week stating that: “The 2023 Summit will be an opportunity for world leaders to showcase progress made on their commitments to build more resilient democracies.” Another official involved in the summit stressed the need for “ending polarisation and bringing back normalcy where elections determine outcomes, and winners and losers accept the results”. Many might argue that it is America and some of its allies that need to start by repairing their own tattered democratic systems before lecturing others. And as for “winners and losers” accepting the results: what comes to mind before former president Donald Trump and his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, or the endless refusal of UK “remainers” to recognise in good faith that they lost the 2016 Brexit referendum?

Many don’t buy Mr Biden’s idea of dividing the world into 'democracies versus autocracies'

Also this week, another gathering has been taking place – the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, on the Chinese island province of Hainan. Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping giving the keynote opening speech, it’s still a more low-key meeting than the Summit for Democracy, but arguably of more consequence. Consider its board of directors: they include former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, former Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former Pakistan prime minister Shaukat Aziz, former New Zealand prime minister Jenny Shipley, Samsung vice chairman Kinam Kim, former US secretary of commerce Carlos Gutierrez, and Ratan Tata of the eponymous Indian conglomerate, while its council of advisers includes former prime ministers of Japan, Finland, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as several senior Chinese and ex-UN officials.

Founded to promote economic integration in Asia, its mission is now “to pool positive energy for the development of Asia and the world”, with this year’s conference titled “An Uncertain World: Solidarity and Co-operation for Development amid Challenges”.

Co-operation: that’s the word, as opposed to the contestation that is the raison d’etre of the Summit for Democracy. Those attending know they are there to look at what they can do together, not concentrate on what divides them – and to do so with some confidence going by the economic outlook just released by the Forum, which declared that “Asia is a bright spot in the bleak global economic landscape”, with global economic governance moving “into the ‘Asian moment’… Asian economies are champions of reform of the multilateral trade system, deeply involving themselves in global monetary and financial governance and promoting the development of and co-operation in the digital economy”.

The Boao Forum is sometimes referred to as “the Asian Davos”. While its leading lights are drawn from the elite strata just as much as they are at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the focus in Boao is inevitably more on developments that will benefit whole societies rather than the globalist billionaire class that, to some, “Davos man” has come to be seen to represent. Of both events, however, it could be asked: what did they actually achieve? That is not the point of such conferences. It’s about setting a tone, forging new friendships, finding new opportunities and synergies, and deepening understanding.

That’s what’s going on in Boao this week. There may be a good case to say that it deserves more attention than the second Summit for Democracy – a meeting that will appear riven with hypocrisy by some, aggressive to others, and quite simply irrelevant to those who were not invited but are quite happy charting their own destinies, with no need of any extra “guidance” from Mr Biden and his allies.

Published: March 29, 2023, 2:00 PM