16 February

Written by Stewart M. Patrick

The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump presents a dilemma for Joe Biden, who wants to make democracy promotion a central plank of his foreign policy. How can the United States claim to embody, much less promote, democratic values when one of its two major political parties is gripped by an emergent, homegrown fascism? Unless and until the Republican Party or its successor unequivocally repudiates the authoritarian cult of Trumpism and the conspiratorial mindset that fuels it, the United States will remain a house divided, lacking credibility to advance the cause of democracy and the institutions of free societies abroad.

What a difference three decades makes. When the Cold War suddenly ended, leaving liberalism unchallenged, many Western intellectuals and policymakers heralded the “end of history” and ideological conflict itself. The Clinton administration’s National Security Strategy, in 1994, defined the country’s chief international goal as facilitating the expansion of the world’s community of market democracies, a trend many considered inexorable. America’s hubris reached its apogee a decade later, in the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush. In the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, his administration’s second National Security Strategy, in 2006, elevated democracy promotion to the chief goal of U.S. foreign policy, even if it was by force. The United States would defend worldwide what Bush called “the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.”

By the end of Bush’s second term, though, such dreams were fading. Democracy promotion had become conflated with violent regime change and endless nation-building exercises. Resurgent geopolitical competition and populist nationalism added to the disillusionment, leading Barack Obama to downgrade democracy promotion in his own foreign policy agenda, while reining in the excesses of the Bush era. But it was Trump’s victory—with his ready embrace of tyrants worldwide and his steady undermining of democratic institutions in the United States itself—that grievously damaged America’s reputation as democracy’s champion. Trump’s efforts to countermand the decision of American voters in November’s election, culminating in his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection, provided the coup de grâce.

It is on this shaky ground that Biden now seeks to rebuild America’s global brand. He has his work cut out for him. From the founding of the republic until recently, it was an article of faith among most Americans that the U.S. had a providential role to play in world affairs. The main debate was what the world’s oldest functioning democracy should do with its exceptional status. Should it restrict itself to serving as a beacon to inspire other nations, wishing them well on their own democratic journeys? Or should it act as a redeemer nation, crusading to accelerate democratic transitions and remaking others in America’s image? Today, there is widespread skepticism that America can do either.

This self-doubt, and growing global skepticism about U.S. credibility, comes at a perilous time. According to the watchdog group Freedom House, democracy in the world has retreated for 14 straight years, thanks in part to a precipitous decline in governance in the world’s two largest democracies, India and the U.S. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent “Democracy Index” paints a dire picture, too. By its measure, fewer than 14 percent of the world’s countries today qualify as full democracies. Nearly a third—31.1 percent, including the U.S.—are deemed “flawed.” More than half of all nations possess either “hybrid” or “authoritarian” regimes, according to the survey.

In an effort to reverse these trends, Biden has proposed hosting a Summit for Democracy early in his term. Skeptics have questioned America’s standing to host such an event, warning of the risk of dividing the world into democratic and non-democratic camps. They point to the dilemma of the guest list—namely, how to avoid either antagonizing non-democratic allies that are shunned, or legitimizing flawed democracies that are invited.
This is not the first time that the fortunes of democracy have been under threat globally, of course. The most worrisome moment over the past century was arguably in 1940, when much of Europe, with the exception of the United Kingdom, had fallen to the Nazi onslaught. At that pivotal moment, Jean Monnet, a Free French official working in Washington, proposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the U.S. serve as the world’s “arsenal of democracy,” by providing allies with the armaments and military equipment needed defeat fascism. In one of his famous fireside chats, FDR promised to do just that.

Fast forward 80 years, and it’s time to reverse that formulation. Given the parlous state of democracy around the world, the priority for the U.S. and its Western partners must be to instead strengthen their “democracy arsenal,” by rededicating themselves to the norms, institutions and practices of democratic governance at home.

This ethos should infuse Biden’s plans for any summit. Yes, the gathering should reaffirm the universality of democratic principles. But its primary focus should be to explore how existing democracies, all of them fragile, can best defend themselves from common threats that are as likely to emanate from within as from without. These dangers include: a fragmented digital environment in which facts are easily overwhelmed by misinformation; the hollowing out of democratic institutions by corrupt political and economic interests; the ongoing challenges of creating truly inclusive democracies, including in the face of entrenched racism; the slow erosion of civil liberties at the hands of elected demagogues; and efforts by authoritarian powers to manipulate political discourse and interfere with electoral politics in open societies.

The rationale behind such a summit is not idealistic but deeply realistic. It reflects a conviction that a world order based on a core of resilient democracies is likely to be a safer, more open and more prosperous one. What of the argument that such a summit is inherently divisive and could hinder cooperation with authoritarian China and Russia on matters like climate change or nuclear nonproliferation? One logical retort is that this ideological division already exists, thanks in large part to Chinese and Russian behavior. More pointedly, neither of those countries is letting an abiding interest in practical cooperation with the U.S. impede its ongoing efforts to undermine democracy in America, or anywhere else for that matter.

In the end, the missing ingredient for Biden’s democracy summit is not foreign but domestic: namely, the lack of any credible democratic constituency within the Republican Party that could give such an event the bipartisan imprimatur that it needs. Unless the GOP recovers its moral compass, Biden’s Summit for Democracy will surely become yet one more partisan football in a deeply dis-United States.