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Joe Biden’s democracy summit risks flattering the enemy

Before the first world war, there were a handful of democratic nations. In December, US president Joe Biden will convene a hundred or so at a virtual summit. Their number has dipped over the past decade, it is true, but from a towering, post-cold war peak that was always going to be a feat to sustain. Even now, after eye-catching lapses and reversals (the US, Turkey), a far larger share of humanity lives under democratic rule than did in 1975.

All of which is to say: don’t do the strongmen’s propaganda work for them. Autocracy tends to live on a sense of historic inevitability as the coming force. An out-of-the-ordinary gathering of free nations, with its air of siege, might inadvertently lend a bogus credence to that idea. Unworried countries don’t meet.

“The liberal state is destined to perish,” said Benito Mussolini in 1932. Some rational people turned to communism or fascism, even anarchism, because they grudgingly believed Il Duce’s teleology, not through active choice. Anything that plays up the momentum of the autocrats is not a merely academic error, then. It can be self-fulfilling. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once said people follow the “strong horse”. That, it should be stressed at all times, is still democracy. It does not just rule the greater part of the world but also the richest. What strongmen have achieved against it since the millennium is tantamount to pulling a goal back after conceding five. They should not be allowed to pose as the in-form team, lest wavering spectators believe them.

This is not the only way in which the summit risks flattering the unfree world. Its premise, that a contest is going on between democracy and its opposite, is right. But the faultline runs mostly through countries, not between them. By calling nations together, and barring Russia, Turkey and China, the event reframes a largely domestic problem as a geopolitical one. It encourages the idea that foreign subversion (which is real enough) is to blame for Donald Trump in the US, the dark vaudeville of Brexit, the numerous flavours of Italian populism and the great mass of anti-liberal votes in France.

No doubt the online bots, state-sponsored news channels and political dark money of hostile regimes all helped to nudge these things along. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, what democrats have to reckon with goes beyond mere misinformation to more tangible menaces. But the civic rot in most backsliding democracies hardly needs external help. There is very little that Russia can do to the US, say, that the US doesn’t do to itself. Even the most ingenious outside force can only ignite the kindling that a country leaves lying around.

The defence of democracy against outside enemies, rather than those within, slightly misses the point, then. It also led to the once-inescapable media coverage of the Trump-Russia dossier, which claimed collusion between the former president and the Kremlin in the 2016 US election. A major source for it was indicted this month for lying to federal investigators. Republicans blame liberal bias for the prominence of the dossier from 2017 onwards. It would be idle to pretend that they are entirely imagining things. But a more innocent force was at work, too. For many, it was comforting to believe that a sort of long-distance coup gave rise to the Trump presidency. After all, malign outsiders can, with effort, be shut out. Endogenous democratic decline is hugely more daunting.

That point threatens to get lost in the very notion of an international democratic gathering. Shoring up democracy is almost entirely domestic work. Nations that excel at it aren’t always the most robust in their foreign policy or the most sheltered from outside pressures. Germany, for instance, is exposed to Russia and Turkey by dint of geography and history. In Poland, Italy and France, Germany has allies and neighbours where illiberal movements flourish. With all this to contend with, German politics remains an almost tedious portrait in moderation. If other democracies are proving frailer, it is hard to see how a common front against foreign authoritarians is meant to help. A show of international solidarity is easier than reckoning with irresponsible politicians and credulous voters at home.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is among those who have rephrased Mussolini’s line for the 21st century. It shows how much autocrats crave a sense of historical momentum. Whether by overstating its crisis, or crediting it to their efforts, the democratic world risks granting this to them at a cheap price. There is a kind of vigilance that is hard to distinguish from its opposite.


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