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2 December 2021, Gateway House

Democracy summit: Biden needs a win

The upcoming Summit for Democracy hosted by U.S. President Biden, has high expectations from him. With trust in the U.S. having suffered badly, it remains to be seen how much confidence the democracies at the summit will have in American efforts at restoration of world leadership.


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On December 9 and 10, U.S. President Joe Biden will host the Summit for Democracy, a virtual meeting of heads of state, leaders of the private and philanthropic sectors, civil representatives from democracies around the world. The agenda[1] is to promote solidarity against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and advance human rights and democratic principles. It is an optically magnificent opportunity for the president to demonstrate global leadership in the community of nations, a departure from the “America First” approach of the Trump Administration.

The first of two such summits planned during Biden’s presidency, this event should be read as an effort to mobilise world opinion and resources to counter the belligerent ascent of China, whose behaviour in recent years is an affront to the rule of law and world order. Examples are militarisation of the South China Sea, genocide and atrocities against the Uighur Muslim and Tibetan minorities in western China, repression of Hong Kong, bullying of Taiwan and Australia – and most recently construction of an enormous helicopter base[2] on the Tibetan Plateau to complement an existing logistics hub for Chinese fighters, bombers and other aircraft all designed to intimate India. China’s earlier efforts to harass India in Ladakh and the Doklam region are well known.

Thus far, the status quo to contain China has not worked. Its celebrated Belt and Road Initiative embraces about 70 countries as a challenge to the post World War II protocols for trade and investment, with the command-and-control culture of the Politburo writing new rules – and causing member nations to become dependent on China through indebtedness, with Pakistan a prime example.

Europe has been relatively supine in the face of China’s ascent, ranking commercial relations over national security concerns. The U.S. multi-faceted but largely ineffective strategy[3] towards China affirms economic competition, focused tariffs, and strategic ambiguity over Taiwan. It relies on regional alliances such as Exercise Malabar and the Quad, makes use of naval logistics and intelligence cooperation with India, and calls out China’s repression of freedoms. Avoidance of war is of paramount importance.

The question is whether the summit will be form or substance, inclusive or dominated by Western interests only. Participants will be asked to propose initiatives that support the expressed agenda.  However, fear of reprisals by Beijing and the need for Chinese financial largesse may counter the best of intentions. Putin’s Russia should also be called out for its mobilisation of 100,000 soldiers[4] along the Ukraine border. However: there is really not much that the U.S. and NATO can or would do other than to impose further sanctions and supply military equipment to an outgunned Ukrainian army. Iran should also figure on the agenda. However: the protracted talks in Vienna have yielded little to date – Iran’s centrifuges keep on spinning and enriching uranium-238 to uranium-235, now achieving 60% purity,[5] with 90% regarded as the level needed for a nuclear weapon.

An unstated purpose of the summit is to improve President Biden’s 38% approval rating (compiled by Real Clear Politics)[6] by presenting the president as an effective global leader who can galvanise democracies against the onslaught of autocracies that appear to be gaining ground. The rating of Vice President Kamala Harris is reported at 28%, and a general perception is that she has achieved no traction in her job. With inflation running at an annualised rate of 6.2%, rising gasoline prices, and a feeling that immigration is out of control with no discernable improvement in the lawless situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden Administration is on the ropes at home, and even mainstream media have become uncharacteristically critical of the Democratic leadership.

The recent American withdrawal and debacle in Afghanistan has shocked allies and Afghan partners alike, and the Biden Administration would like to put this colossal foreign policy failure behind it. With trust in the United States having suffered so badly, it remains to be seen how much confidence the democracies at the summit will have in American efforts at restoration of world leadership.

The U.S. and India do have an opportunity to collaborate[7] beyond the status quo, which is relatively conventional. Protection of global 5G networks offers one possibility. India’s competence in information technology is well recognized: early this year, Tata Consultancy Services surpassed Accenture to become the world leader in market capitalisation among IT firms.

Another potential collaboration between the U.S. and India would be in space platforms, offensive and defensive. India has an interplanetary venture with its Mars Orbiter Mission[8] initiated in 2013. The country has a credible space program, led by the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bangalore.  There is little doubt that the battlefield of the future will involve electronic warfare and electromagnetic engineering. Primacy in laser development from space platforms, unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, Artificial Intelligence, dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum, and denial of an enemy’s access thereto will be essential for success.

The Summit for Democracy will need to produce individual and collective work products that are actionable and common to all democracies. Otherwise, it will be yet another West-led narrow initiative, or a multilateral body like the UN, G7, and G20, whose contributions include a talking platform for photo ops.

Because Joe Biden is President of the United States and the host of the summit, more will be expected of him than anyone else. In short, President Biden badly needs a win.

Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.

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