Summit (Kinda) for Democracy
The Biden team faces a steep hurdle getting people on board in the fight against authoritarianism according to a new 20-country survey.
Later this week, President Biden will host a two-day virtual Summit for Democracy with a focus on getting participants to offer specific actions for “an affirmative agenda of democratic renewal” centered on three goals: (1) defending against authoritarianism; (2) addressing and fighting corruption; and (3) promoting respect for human rights.
Putting aside the questionable inclusion of countries like the Philippines or India and Poland, where the commitment to democratic norms by current governments seems non-existent or in trouble, the bigger question for the Biden team is whether it is even possible to rally people from hundreds of different nations to stand up against authoritarian states like China and Russia.
Based on a massive multinational poll of more than 22,000 people across 20 countries, conducted by YouGov and Global Progress, and featured recently in other TLP posts, the answer is decidedly muddled. Although citizens in some democratic nations are ready to join together to stand against authoritarian states, many others are skeptical and express a desire for a more friendly posture towards China and Russia.
The YouGov/Global Progress survey presented respondents with a pair of statements and asked them to choose which one comes closer to their own view. As seen below, by a narrow 43 percent to 39 percent margin, citizens across all 20 countries favor their respective countries taking steps to “build strong alliances with like-minded democracies around the world to ensure they can better protect their interests and values from authoritarian states such as China and Russia,” over the alternative of their country maintaining “friendly relations with China and Russia so as to benefit from the economic investments and the benefits of trade,” with around one fifth of respondents unsure of their views on the matter.
The close overall margin on the question of banding together against authoritarian states versus taking a friendlier line reflects real differences across the 20 countries surveyed. Nations can be grouped into those that are more pro-democracy, pro-democratic cooperation and those that are less aligned on what to do or deeply split.
In the pro-democracy, pro-democratic cooperation camp are the following countries, ranked in order of overall support for the top statement from above:
India (56 percent to 32 percent)
Indonesia (54 percent to 34 percent)
Australia (52 percent to 33 percent)
Sweden (51 percent to 28 percent)
Canada (50 percent to 28 percent)
United States (46 percent to 27 percent)
United Kingdom (44 percent to 31 percent)
Poland (43 percent to 36 percent)
Interestingly, citizens in both India and Poland—two of the countries mentioned above with suspect governmental actions on democracy these days—tend to favor cooperation with democratic allies against China and Russia over a softer line. The U.S. itself falls somewhat lower down in the top tier group, with less than half of Americans choosing greater democratic cooperation to fight authoritarianism but only around one quarter desiring a friendlier line with China and Russia. Notably, unlike most other measures tested in the survey, there are no real partisan differences in America on this particular question—roughly equal percentages of Biden voters (55 percent) and Trump voters (59 percent) want the U.S. to join with other democracies to protect the nation’s interests and values against China and Russia.
In the softer line on China and Russia camp are a few nations that are normally strong allies of America on other matters, but whose citizens express a greater desire for maintaining friendly relations with these authoritarian states for economic reasons rather than joining together to challenge them. These countries are ranked in order of their support for the friendlier approach statement from above:
Mexico (26 percent to 67 percent)
Brazil (36 percent to 50 percent)
Spain (35 percent to 49 percent)
Italy (31 percent to 46 percent)
France (35 percent to 44 percent)
A third group of countries emerge in the hand-wringers on China and Russia camp, with populations basically split about what to do and internal fissures on the matter that are more pronounced than in other countries. These hand-wringer countries include:
South Africa (47 percent to 47 percent)
New Zealand (45 percent to 42 percent)
Portugal (42 percent to 44 percent)
Czech Republic (41 percent to 43 percent)
Germany (41 percent to 40 percent)
Netherlands (40 percent to 38 percent)
Hungary (39 percent to 41 percent)
Looking closer into the dynamics in some of the hand-wringer countries, we find clear splits along party and regional lines on what to do about defending democracy against China and Russia. For example, in Germany voters for the main center-right CDU/CSU and center-left SPD parties are roughly split on the two statements about defending democracy, with slight pluralities favoring democratic cooperation. In contrast, a slight plurality of far-left Die Linke voters and a strong majority of far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) voters back a friendlier approach to China and Russia over the tougher alternative. Green Party voters hold the firmest pro-democracy line of all the parties, with 57 percent favoring democratic cooperation over a softer line.
In conjunction with these party patterns, regional differences among German voters also shape the internal divides on what to do about China and Russia. For example, Germans in north east regional states like Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, and Thuringia strongly favor friendlier relations with China and Russia while people in places like Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg are more likely to favor democratic allies banding together to take on these authoritarian states.
These results present a stark reality for President Biden’s democracy agenda. People across the globe are not yet convinced that more needs to be done—alone or in conjunction with others—to challenge China and Russia and protect national interests and values.
If Biden and America’s democratic allies want to forge a new consensus in support of democracy—and against one-party states that are repressive and undermine human rights—they are going to need a much sharper rationale for action and a clearer set of points for why people around the world should be concerned with defending democracy. More importantly, voters in America and other nations need to know concretely how democratic cooperation against China and Russia will help them economically and in terms of their safety.