Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Democracy
10 December 2021updated 13 Dec 2021 11:40am

Joe Biden’s summit will not save democracy

The US president’s Summit for Democracy confuses talking about doing something with actually doing something.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – US President Joe Biden hosted his virtual Summit for Democracy on Thursday and Friday. It consisted of representatives from governments, NGOS, and the private sector around the world. 

“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Biden said in his opening remarks. “We have to renew it with each generation… In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time.” He added that democracy was resilient, capable of both self-correction and self-improvement. 

Democracy is critical to the health of the United States, and democracy does require care and attention. But that isn’t done by talking about how important it is. The problem at the centre of the summit was this: you can’t talk your way to a better democracy. 

There were other issues with the summit. For one thing, some argue that the United States should just deal in geopolitics, working with whomever will work with it. For another, those who do believe that the United States should be working first and foremost with democracies will note that this convening’s guest list wasn’t all that democratic. Countries like Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are marked as “Not Free” in the latest assessment by the think tank Freedom House of political rights around the world, were invited. So was the Philippines, which is ranked “partly free” by Freedom House and whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, brags about the killings he once carried out while waging his war on drugs.

But the larger issue, to my mind, is that the summit confuses talking about doing something with actually doing something. It is all well and good for Biden to say that he cherishes democracy, but the reality is that he has clashed with voting rights groups for not doing enough to push Congress to pass national voting rights legislation while state legislatures across the country make it more difficult for people to vote.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

It’s nice that Biden says democracy is important, but, according to a CNN poll from this past September, over half of Americans believe an elected official will overturn the results of a future election if their party doesn’t win. It’s fine for Biden to say that the summit was about democracies fortifying themselves in the face of authoritarianism, but the Biden administration is pushing through an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Nor did the Biden administration take action against the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, though US intelligence believes he was personally responsible for the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Content from our partners
How to navigate the modern cyber-threat landscape
Supporting customers through the cost of living crisis
Data on cloud will change the way you interact with the government

There was one significant moment from the first day of the summit, however. This week, the US Treasury Department established a new rule that shell companies will need to share the names of those controlling them, which should help crack down on corruption in America. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “There’s a good argument that, right now, the best place to hide and launder ill-gotten gains is actually the United States.” If the United States and world are to pull through for democracy, it will be with that kind of combination of humility and willingness to enact change. 

Topics in this article :