A long time ago, before the pandemic, he promised to convene free-world leaders. It’s still a good idea.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to a lot to do on Day One: rejoin the Paris climate agreement, lift Donald Trump’s racist anti-Muslim immigration ban, and halt construction of the ridiculous Mexico border wall. But he should also get going on a less-noted campaign promise: convening the Democracy Summit.
We don’t know what such an event would look like, especially in the age of COVID. But if done right and taken seriously by other world leaders, it could alter history. We may not get the usual full-scale media horde, motorcades, and the cherry-on-top class photo of big-deal international summits. But whatever is decided should be announced boldly, with great pomp and circumstance, and quickly.
For four years, Trump has changed how the world thinks of Americans and what many Americans think of the world. Among other things, the president’s America-First foot-stomping accelerated European leaders’ conversations about building up their own contributions to global security and relying on the U.S. less. Many Americans loved hearing it, having grown tired of the perception that the United States has since 9/11 — or maybe 1941 — carried far too much of the burden. So did many European leaders, who this week welcomed Biden but are reinforcing what they’ve been saying for years: they don’t trust or even necessarily want American protection anymore.
In Asia, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have swung an axe between China and the rest of the world, hoping to cut clean from old thinking that Beijing was a benevolent economic engine and trade partner. Pompeo has tried to convince democratic nations that they are battling Chinese communists for the world’s “soul.” Xi Jinping has helped, now a dictator-for-life, by erasing Hong Kong’s independence, denying the extinction of Uighars in the west, and making China a no-go zone for the world’s free-thinking academics. And yet, Americans still aren’t convinced. Neither are China’s neighbors, who must keep economically close to the red giant, while remaining militarily aligned or allied with the United States. Asian leaders indulged the Trump administration, but weren’t exactly following where Pompeo and Trump’s Pentagon leaders were going. Still, Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington have made clear they hope the beacon that other nations are drawn to in the rest of the 21st century is still the United States.
In the Middle East, Trump tossed out the Obama administration’s historic detente with Iran in favor of bluntly calling out Tehran for its spread of terrorism and hidden moves to develop nuclear weapons, and confronting its proxies on the battlefield in places like Yemen and Syria. If China is public enemy No.1, then Iran is No. 2. But Trump, like American presidents before him, kept close other brutal dictators and illiberal regimes in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies. After all of the blood spilled in the 9/11 wars, America’s short-sighted Faustian bargain for iron-willed stability continues.
If Biden is serious about this Democracy Summit, he will have to prove it. Nobody on earth but the president of the United States has the power or clout to pull it off. He will have to declare loudly and plainly that he will host a summit of world leaders, in the United States if possible, to reset and restate their unified commitment to democracy, freedom, and human rights. (He could simply read what’s listed in the 75-year old United Nations charter.) Just that moment and document alone would be worth the effort, but it would be even more valuable if it started in motion a reimagining, reorganization, and realignment of the liberal international order around modern issues, like climate change, with a modern map. Washington could start by heeding Robert Gates’s advice and undertake a similar exercise internally, redesigning and modernizing the federal government’s entire national security structure.
And if this is truly a Democracy Summit, then Biden should make it clear that government leaders of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and their ilk are not invited. Frankly, neither should Middle East and Asian monarchs and dictators. Turkey? Debatable. Perhaps Biden could invite such nations to send representatives as observers — free to watch and support, but not to participate in any mainstage discussions, decisions, or sign any proclamations about democracy or human rights. This can’t be the UN Human Rights Council where, as Pompeo said Tuesday, “brutal regimes” come to lecture the free world.
Trump is a liar about a lot of things, but he’s often brutally honest when it comes to international relations and the diplomatic sheen of elites that too often hides truth. Some 70 million Americans last week registered their continuing approval. They wanted a different world order. Now Biden is now promising to build one that will focus on benefitting the middle class. But you’re only a world leader if others follow. Outside of the United States, some world leaders responded to Trump’s weight shifting, but too few were following Trump’s lead. By Tuesday, every single NATO member’s head of state or government had congratulated Biden on his Election Day victory and ignored Trump’s fraudulent claims to the Oval Office.
Biden won election by promising a return to truth, and by forging a new path for free nations. He can start with a summit.