Herding Cats

Why the Biden administration shouldn’t rush into a summit of democracy

Relations between the United States and its closest democratic allies have never been easy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt clashed repeatedly with Prime Minister Winston Churchill over military strategy and the fate of the British Empire throughout World War II. During the Cold War, French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew his country from NATO’s military command in the late 1960s while the U.S. Congress threatened to cut America’s own military commitment to NATO in half in the early 1970s. More recently, the French and German governments strenuously opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Today, however, the differences between the United States and its democratic allies around the world are deeper – and more subtle – than at any point since the end of World War II. Multifaceted and complex international political and policy questions like the global growth of Chinese power or the further evolution of information technology do not appear to have clear answers, and trust in American leadership has quite reasonably eroded after four years of President Trump. A new uncertainty exists as to whether any agreements forged with the United States will last beyond a given president’s term in office. 

On the campaign trail, candidate Biden spoke of convening a summit of democracy in his first year in office. Its purpose, he said, would be “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” But President Biden would do well to put off such a summit until major strategic differences between the United States and many of its core allies can be resolved, or at least reduced to more manageable proportions.

These strategic disagreements became readily apparent at this year’s virtual Munich Security Conference, where President Biden declared that America was back on the global stage. He made clear the United States would work closely with its European allies to shore up what he called the foundation “on which our collective security and our shared prosperity are built.” America and its democratic allies, he said, needed “demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”

For their parts, however, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were more circumspect. Merkel’s foreign policy, for instance, appears more motivated by advancing German business interests overseas than creating a common democratic front. She pushed hard to conclude a joint investment agreement between the European Union and China during the American presidential interregnum against the pleas of incoming Biden administration foreign policy officials. Berlin also remains deeply committed to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany – even in the face of potential U.S. sanctions against companies involved in the project.

While President Macron at least appears to be open to fresh thinking, from an American perspective his general strategic approach leaves much to be desired. In 2019, he famously warned that NATO was “experiencing brain death.” Understandably preoccupied with the threat of jihadi terrorism to France, moreover, Macron had previously combined a call for greater NATO support of the French-led counterterrorism mission in the Sahel with new overtures toward a diplomatic understanding with Russia. Though Macron’s desire for European allies to take greater security responsibilities for their own neighborhood ought to be welcomed by the Biden administration, his unflagging focus on Africa and the Middle East has so far overshadowed larger, global strategic questions like Russia and China.

Other American allies will likely prove more amenable to the Biden administration’s approach. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for instance, appears to be angling for a position as Biden’s international wingman, in part to counteract the negative strategic consequences of Brexit and ingratiate himself with Biden personally. Over the past year, moreover, Australia has been subject to a Chinese economic coercion campaign as a result of its barring Chinese tech companies from its networks. Japan’s ambassador recently expressed solidarity with Australia, suggesting that the Biden administration may have better luck with America’s Pacific allies when it comes to its proposed summit of democracy.

Still, American allies in Asia come with their own set of complications. Relations between Japan and South Korea, for instance, remain strained over still-contentious historical questions regarding Japanese war crimes during World War II – despite a seemingly strong shared interest in resisting Chinese economic coercion, something both countries have experienced first-hand. Similarly, the increasing illiberalism of the Modi government in India will put limits on just how far the budding strategic relationship between Washington and New Delhi can go – and to the purposes it can serve.

All in all, pulling America and its fellow democracies together to pursue shared strategic interests will prove to be a much more complicated and unwieldy challenge than the Biden administration appears willing to admit at the moment. Some allies will be more receptive to the Biden team’s overall strategic approach, while others will be more hesitant if not resistant. If a summit of democracy is to prove successful, the Biden administration has a lot more diplomatic groundwork to lay – the United States cannot simply expect other democracies to show up at a summit and take their assigned seats. 

Getting fellow democracies on the same general page will be a difficult challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable one if the Biden administration proceeds methodically. First, Biden could reach out and shore up a smaller core group of allies like the UK, Australia, and Japan before going on to diplomacy with other nations. The Biden administration can also acknowledge French concerns about counterterrorism and incorporate them into its strategic agenda in exchange for greater cooperation on Russia. Moreover, the Biden team can look for other points of potential strategic cooperation with Macron, such as his drive to make France a leader information technology and computer networks.

If Macron’s concerns appear more tractable to American diplomacy, Germany may well prove a tougher nut to crack. But Chancellor Merkel’s upcoming departure from the German political scene presents a unique opportunity for diplomatic progress toward the Biden administration’s stated strategic goals. A number of voices in German politics and policymaking have expressed discontent with Merkel’s approach to China, for example, wanting German policy to take concerns about democracy, human rights, and Chinese economic power more seriously moving forward. It therefore makes sense for the Biden administration to wait and see who emerges as Germany’s next political leader before embarking on a diplomatic campaign bring Berlin on board with its summit of democracy. Even if the United States and Germany still fail to see completely eye-to-eye on China or Russia policy, they can still narrow the gaps that emerge whenever these issues come up for discussion.

A longer diplomatic incubation period will also give the Biden administration more time to formulate a shared agenda for its summit of democracy. The Biden campaign’s proposal listed three broad priorities: fighting corruption, protecting democracy, and advancing human rights. All worthy goals, but far from detailed enough to justify convening a summit. Instead, the Biden administration should pursue sharper and more focused objectives for its summit, crafted in part through diplomacy with the allies it hopes to bring together.

There are signs that that’s happening: in his Munich speech, for instance, President Biden maintained that the “galvanizing mission” of the democratic front he’s proposing should be to show that democracy can deliver on its promises. It’s a point that Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed in his recent speech outlining the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities as well. Still, the administration has much more diplomatic work to do before it engraves formal invitations to its summit of democracy – especially given the substantial differences between and among the United States and its closest allies.

Having made a summit of democracy its main foreign policy goal, the Biden administration has every incentive to get it right – even if that means delaying or discarding the summit itself. Moving forward, practical alignments between the United States and its fellow democracies on big strategic questions like China, pandemic recovery, and new technologies will prove more important than big summit photo-ops that accomplish little of substance. President Biden should aim to leave his successor with a sturdy concert of democracy that tackles difficult strategic questions, not yet another international talking shop.