US President Joe Biden is notorious for gaffes. Photo: AFP / Chip Somodevilla / Getty

MANILA – “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example,” then-US president Donald Trump declared proudly in his 2017 inauguration speech.

In line with his “America First” unilateralism, Trump’s administration scaled back significantly Washington’s historical role as a promoter of human rights and democracy.

But while Trump’s transactional foreign policy appealed to authoritarian regimes, the president oversaw a dramatic collapse in its influence among fellow democracies, a 2020 Pew Research Center survey showed.

Fast forward to the present, the Joe Biden administration is eager to reassert America’s historical role as a global anchor and champion of democracy by hosting a much-ballyhooed “Summit for Democracy” later this week.

Among the long list of 100-plus invited nations are traditional transatlantic and Indo-Pacific allies, but also Taiwan, a democratically-governed island that is considered a renegade province by China, which for obvious authoritarian reasons is not invited to the summit.  

But amid ambiguities over its precise definition of a “democracy”, the Biden administration’s decision to invite questionable allies and snub strategic partners has unleashed a firestorm of criticism, which may end up undermining the very purpose behind the global confab.

Eager to exploit lingering anger among snubbed nations, both China and Russia have jointly accused the US of hypocrisy while touting their own alternative version of “democracy.”

Beijing has gone so far as to host its own “democracy forum” to promote the supposed virtues of its own “Democracy with Chinese Characteristics”, where a single-party provides political stability and sustained economic growth.

During his election campaign last year, then-presidential candidate Biden vowed to place human rights and democracy at the heart of his foreign policy.

He signaled not only a radical departure from the Trump administration’s value-free approach to strategic relations but also a break from the more somber diplomatic language of former president Barack Obama, who warned against “impos[ing] these [democratic] values on another country with a different history and a different culture.”

US President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. Photo: Andrew Harnik / Pool/ AFP

Vowing to restore US global leadership, Biden has described Sino-American geopolitical competition in starkly ideological terms, warning “[w]e’re in a contest…with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.”

Biden has also called for a more muscular approach to democracy promotion, since “[d]emocracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”

Marking the International Day of Democracy in September, Biden maintained that “[n]o democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final,” thus “[e]very gain made, every barrier broken, is the result of determined, unceasing work.”

To this end, the US president is set to host two Summits for Democracy, which will aim to bring together world leaders, private sector representatives, and civil society groups under one united umbrella.

The upcoming “Summit for Democracy”, to be held December 9-10, according to the US State Department, aims to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.”

In terms of policy objectives, the Biden administration hopes “to solicit bold, practicable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting respect for human rights,” and combating chronic corruption in state institutions.

To his credit, Biden has dramatically restored global confidence in US leadership in the past year, thanks to his more reassuring rhetoric as well as an early emphasis on alliance-building and global cooperation.

According to a global Pew Research Center survey this year, average confidence in the US presidency increased from as low as 17% in the twilight months of Trump presidency to as high as 75% in the early months of Biden’s. America’s global favorability also doubled from 34% under Trump to 62% under Biden, the survey showed.

The composition of invitees to the upcoming “Summit of Democracy”, however, is becoming a geopolitical headache. Among the invited nations are the Philippines and India, two countries that have been gripped by authoritarian populism in recent years.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

According to Freedom House, a think tank focused on measuring democratic health around the world, both the Philippines and India are only “partly free”, underscoring the limits of political freedoms and civil liberties beyond the rituals of democratic elections.

Under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent “drug war”, tens of thousands of suspected drug dealers have perished under suspicious circumstances.

Thanks to Duterte’s crackdown on the opposition and free media, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa jointly won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

Meanwhile, many key US partners such as Singapore and Vietnam, as well as treaty ally Thailand, were snubbed. In the Middle East, only Israel and Iraq were invited, bypassing large numbers of allies in the Persian Gulf and the broader Arab world.

Overall, only eight Muslim-majority nations, including Albania, Indonesia, Iraq, Kosovo, Maldives, Malaysia, Pakistan and Niger, were invited.

The authoritarian superpowers of Russia and China were quick to respond. In a rare joint op-ed by the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to Washington, the envoys lambasted Biden’s summit as “an evident product of its Cold War mentality.”

According to ambassadors Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China, the summit would only “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new dividing lines” in an increasingly uncertain and tense global security environment.

China has upped the ante by organizing its own “International Democracy Forum”, where the Chinese State Council is set to celebrate its “superior system” and unveil a white paper entitled “China: Democracy that Works.”

Among the themes to be discussed are China’s supposed “Whole-Process People’s Democracy Under the CPC Leadership” and “A Sound Institutional Framework”, both thinly-veiled jabs at the political dysfunction and partisan polarization in the US and other major democracies.

“The US touted itself as the leader among democracies, organized and manipulated the so-called democracy summit. This is a disguise of democracy, but in reality, a containment and oppression to countries that have a different development model,” State Council Information Office spokesman Xu Lin said.

Performers dance during a show as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing on June 28, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

“A good democracy is one that governs well, pushes for development, and is not ineffective and dysfunctional in its governance, nor one that sees the piling up of domestic problems. Yet this type of democracy has become the international template. This is a ridiculous scenario,” the Chinese official added.

Tian Peiyan, deputy director of the Policy Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, assailed the US political system as “the very opposite of democracy”, while touting China’s one-party system as a source of policy stability and economic growth. 

Amid a backlash, top Biden officials have been on a damage-control tour across key regions. During an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk ruled out “regime change policies” and instead emphasized how the Biden administration is focused on “hard lessons learnt” from failed democracy promotion initiatives in the region, including after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Emphasizing a need for returning “back to basics”, Biden’s Middle East envoy reiterated that the US would instead focus on “the basics of building, maintaining, and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink visited Singapore in order to assuage concerns among snubbed regional partners.

Emphasizing that the Biden administration doesn’t “sit in judgment” of uninvited nations, Biden’s Asian envoy tried to downplay the summit as an opportunity for a “select number” of democracies to exchange views and cooperate on a set of shared values.

“This is not designed to be a forum in which we sit in judgment of other countries,” Kritenbrink told reporters in Singapore in response to questions over the absence of Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand from the list of regional invitees.

“Given that only a number of countries were invited, there are a range of countries including some of our closest partners like Singapore who were not invited. But that is not a commentary on the strength of our partnership with Singapore,” Kritenbrink added.