An “Illustrative Menu of Options”: Biden’s Great Summit of Democracy is a Tote of Vague Ideas


Overall, the variety of ideas underscores Biden’s view that strengthening the world’s democracies in an era of growing authoritarianism requires tools beyond mere rhetoric about free and fair elections. Biden is, after all, the host of the summit in a year that has seen at least six coups in countries ranging from Myanmar to Sudan.

But it is far from clear how many countries participating in the summit will make commitments or how many will follow. While none of the suggested commitments appear to be internationally binding, many will require governments to sell them to their constituents in their countries and allocate funds to make them happen. This is also true in the United States, where a polarized political environment has blocked Biden’s efforts to push through priorities such as voting rights legislation.

“The symbolism of the rally is important, but the real change on the ground that the summit would generate remains to be seen,” said Steven Feldstein, senior researcher at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are a lot of big questions on the table that the initial rally will not address, such as what to do about weaker democracies showing regression.”

Spokesmen for the White House-based National Security Council have not commented on this story. But a person familiar with the upcoming summit pointed to the ever-changing status of the ideas under discussion: the document outlining the tech alliance, for example, was “overtaken”, but won’t say what that meant.

“The administration is launching a lot of different initiatives and kicking the tires on a lot of different ideas,” the person said. “All are at this stage pre-decision and subject to significant refinement. “

“A fully Hobbesian future”

The document that presents the technology alliance proposal is tagged as “Non-Paper // For Discussion Purposes Only”. He argues that one of the reasons for launching such a democracy-led alliance is to counter the rise of an “alternative view of the Internet as a tool of state control promoted by authoritarian powers such as the Internet. China and Russia ”.

The core principles of the alliance would include: a collective commitment to develop and implement high standards in data privacy, data security and cybersecurity; a commitment to cooperate on the regulation of technology platforms and information integrity; and the commitment to establish a technical cooperation forum on cybersecurity standards and incident response.

In addition, the proposal calls for a commitment to ensure open and interoperable access for software and applications between members; non-discrimination in national regulations; and shared commitments regarding data localization.

“By pursuing this proposal, we do not see [sic] to divide the Internet but offer a collective response to the actions of a growing number of countries, in particular authoritarian countries, and thus avoid a descent into an entirely Hobbesian future where beggar behavior becomes the norm, ”the document said.

It is unclear how the alliance would differ from existing networks such as the Freedom Online Coalition. According to the text of a letter seen by POLITICO, those linked to this coalition urge the Biden team “to seek multi-stakeholder contributions as you consider creating new initiatives that may duplicate or divert attention or resources. of the work of the FOC. . “

The person familiar with the situation said the Biden administration was engaging supporters of the FOC and was fully aware of its concerns, but that the idea of ​​the alliance was not necessarily at odds with US support for the FOC – which the United States is a member. .

Due mainly to the Covid-19 crisis, the administration had to lower expectations for the December summit, the convening of which was one of Biden’s most concrete foreign policy commitments during the 2020 presidential campaign.

The original idea was to host an in-person summit of world leaders earlier in Biden’s first year. Instead, the administration now plans to hold a first virtual summit in December, which will be followed by a “year of action” that will culminate with a second rally, presumably in person, in 2022.

Brainstorming for the summit, administration officials came up with an “illustrative menu of options” for commitments the United States could request from the various countries invited to the meeting. This document includes a range of potential commitments that fall under the three main themes of the summit: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights.

For example, countries can be encouraged to convene a joint law enforcement and civil society commission to deal with human rights issues. Or they could run for a place on a United Nations committee that deals with NGOs as a way to counteract the influence of authoritarian governments like China. Or they could commit to using tools like export controls and sanctions to limit the ability of other governments to target dissidents across borders.

One of the documents POLITICO obtained appears to be a compilation of the accomplishments of the Biden administration that U.S. officials plan to tout at the December summit.

This list includes the creation of a White House Gender Policy Council; Biden’s executive actions designed to improve access to the vote; and the publication of the “First US National Strategy to Combat Domestic Terrorism”.

Exclusion of civil society?

As the White House advances its planning for the virtual summit, civil society organizations have expressed growing frustration with what they see as their marginal role in the global gathering.

Various NGO leaders and other activists shared draft letters and memos aimed at lobbying the White House to engage them and give them more airtime during the summit. For now, much of the virtual event appears to be devoted to three-minute speeches from the heads of government in attendance.

The person familiar with the situation stressed that the administration is actively engaging with outside groups and that it “will involve civil society in a meaningful way in all aspects of the summit itself … The summit is not only about the foreign heads of state “.

In a meeting Thursday with civil society advocates, administration officials read the list of governments to invite and said there would be at least 17 official events approved during the summit, an informed person said. of the session. Some of the side events will include representatives of civil society, administration officials told those who gathered on Thursday. The administration also unveiled websites linked to the summit.

It is difficult to say how far such assurances will go.

In a note seen by POLITICO, some civil society groups urge the administration to “insist to participating governments on the importance of consulting civil society and other stakeholders on their commitments in an inclusive and timely manner.”

The note also urges the administration to “publish the list of invited countries so that civil society partners in these countries are better aware of the opportunities they have.”

“It is a shame that this initial event in December is not more inclusive,” said Sarah Repucci, senior official at Freedom House, an organization that monitors the health of democracies around the world.

While some details have leaked out about the guests, the administration has not officially released a full roster. Some countries, like Turkey and Hungary, were not invited because their leaders have been undermining their democratic systems for years. Taiwan is among the guests, according to the list obtained Thursday.

Repucci said it was important to hold the summit, at the very least to send a signal to seemingly emboldened authoritarian states, especially China and Russia.

“What democracies do matters,” Repucci said. “They must lead by example and unite, because dictatorships unite.”


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