Anne Applebaum, a renowned American journalist, historian and academic, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and an expert on the history and politics of Eastern European countries, wrote an article entitled 'The Bad Guys Are Winning' for The Atlantic magazine this November. The article, a fierce critique of Putin and other authoritarian leaders such as Belarus's Lukashenko, called on the bloc of democratic countries, mainly composed of states in North America and Western Europe, to take a much stronger stance in defending liberal democracies against the threat from Russia and China. The picture painted in the article is of a world divided between democracies and dictatorships, or more simply put (as the title suggests) between "good guys" and "bad guys".
This stark division, like a new Iron Curtain, is in the minds of many politicians and analysts in the Western world: Europe, the United States and Canada are seen as beacons of democracy, welfare and human rights, surrounded by regimes whose ideals are the opposite of democratic and enlightened values. This dichotomy seems to have gained momentum in recent years, in the face of the consolidation or rise of authoritarian regimes and the apparent decline of the European Union and the United States. This (again, apparent) decline of both is not only related to the inability of both actors to shape the world beyond their borders (be it in Afghanistan, the Middle East or Africa), but also to the emergence of authoritarian movements within them, claiming a political model similar to that of the "bad guys".
The epitome of such movements in the West was seen on 6 January 2021 in Washington DC, when an angry and fanatical mob occupied the Capitol, spurred on by a former president who refused to accept the rules of the democratic game. On the other hand, the EU is home to illiberal governments such as Orbán's in Hungary or Morawiecki's in Poland, which openly disdain democratic institutions and, at worst, seriously erode them. For analysts such as Applebaum, the "bad guys" are not just rivals of the "good guys", but pose an existential threat to their political and social model.
This worldview, according to which a granite bloc of democratic countries is irremediably encircled by a set of dictatorial regimes bent on expanding their influence and exporting their political model, is shared by Joe Biden, at least according to his statements in the 2020 presidential campaign and over the past year. His foreign policy also seems to reaffirm this dualistic view of international relations. On 9-10 December 2021 the United States, along with 77 countries selected by the Biden administration, will attend the Democracy Summit. It will be the first time such an event has been held, fulfilling an election promise made by Biden. The aim of the summit, which will be held virtually, is to provide a platform for invited leaders to propose and discuss initiatives and commitments to defend democracy in the face of the perceived advance of authoritarian forces, according to the US government itself.
This summit is part of the new president's political agenda aimed at breaking with the four years of Trump and getting the United States back involved in global politics through multilateral initiatives; this is what Biden referred to when he launched the message "America is Back" a few weeks after his election in November 2020 was confirmed, a slogan he has repeated many times since then. The phrase is no accident: the fact that it is back indicates that America was once a leader in international affairs, something interrupted by Trump from 2016 to 2020.
Or at least that is the narrative of Biden and much of Western liberalism. And, following that narrative, now America is not only back, but along with other democratic countries must protect itself and the rest of the world from dictatorship and authoritarianism. The Democracy Summit is the instrument with which the United States and its democratic allies want to confront their autocratic rivals.
Today, the authoritarianism that the Democracy Summit claims to confront is embodied by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Indeed, although the impending summit has been heralded by its promoters as a vehicle for curbing dictatorships, a less idealistic view suggests that the summit is more of a tool used in an attempt to sideline Russia and above all China by forming a united front in the face of Beijing's growing global influence. The summit's guest list includes many of the countries surrounding China, some of them with frequent disputes with the Asian giant, such as the Philippines, Mongolia and India.
The inclusion of these states responds to US geopolitical interests rather than their democratic credentials: although nominally democracies, the Philippines and India have suffered significant erosion of civil liberties, democratic institutions or the treatment of minorities. Their invitation to the summit is intended to affirm Washington's closeness to their governments in the face of China's growing influence in East Asia, regardless of whether they are democracies or not. Pakistan, which enjoys good relations with China, has also been invited to the summit despite the delicate state of its democracy.
The invitation of Taiwan, a country not recognised by Beijing, to the Democracy Summit has also angered Xi Jinping's government, and can be seen as another example of the US isolating a Chinese government that feels provoked. In short, despite the simplistic and idealistic vision of a two-bloc world, and the noble goal of the US-organised Democracy Summit, geopolitical interests are prevailing.
The reality is that, despite the message propagated by Washington after Biden's victory, the United States has not been the promoter of democracy and human rights that the slogan "America is Back" alludes to. Leaving aside the considerable challenges to the rule of law at home, American foreign policy has never been defined by a staunch defence of democracy and human rights, even if that has been the discourse offered from the White House on many occasions. Some of the oldest and strongest US alliances are with anti-democratic regimes, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Previously, the US also supported the dictatorship of the Shah of Iran until 1979 and a large number of governments whose practices were far from democratic.
Moreover, throughout the 20th century, the US actively and decisively contributed to the ousting of democratically elected governments. The coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, financed and supported by Washington, brought down elected governments that had initiated policies contrary to US interests. Better known is the CIA-orchestrated coup d'état in 1970 that deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende, also elected at the ballot box.
There is no such thing as neutral in international politics, and neither is the Conference for Democracy. Despite its lofty ideals, and the undeniable need to defend liberal democracy, the summit should be viewed with scepticism because of its inclusion of non-democratic countries and its unspoken goal of isolating China. This does not detract from the usefulness of the conference, but the division between good democrats and bad autocrats is overly simplistic and does not correspond to current or historical reality, but offers a naïve snapshot of the world.
The United States is not and was not the global champion of democracy and liberalism, and the fragmentation of today's world goes far beyond the democracy-dictatorship axis. Indeed, the so-called democratic bloc already included dictatorships in the past, such as Spain and Portugal until the 1970s, due to the primacy of American interests over an idealised vision of international politics. Pragmatism has prevailed over idealism.
In this fragmented and diffuse world there is not just one division between countries but many, and attending to grey scales is key to understanding international dynamics. However, the simplistic perspective epitomised by the Democracy Summit, and the net separation between good guys and bad guys, dilutes this complexity and contributes to constructing a naïve view of diplomacy and international politics. Despite Biden's lofty ideals, the summit is more likely to further accentuate the gaps between the US and China, which is alarming in a long-standing tense context. Even if the Democracy Summit is intended to mitigate the current global disorder, isolating China and Russia rather than seeking common ground with both may lead to deepening the multiple divisions in the world.