If the Biden administration has a foreign policy doctrine, it’s surely the president’s oft-stated vision that democracies are locked in a must-win historic battle with autocracies. “I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake,”Joe Biden intoned in his first news conference as president.
To give substance to that focus, the administration this coming week will convene the first of two planned Summits for Democracy. The virtual gathering of leaders from more than 100 countries is designed, according to a State Department announcement, to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” Implicitly, it is a show against authoritarianism, especially in China.
There are many good reasons to host such a gathering. It’s smart politics, fulfills a campaign commitment and counters the perception, fostered by President Donald Trump, that America is no longer interested in promoting democracy and human rights. But as a geopolitical instrument, drawing lines between democracies and autocracies is not only certain to disappoint — it’s also a deeply flawed organizing principle for America’s approach to the world.