Edward Luce, a Financial Times columnist who was Larry Summers’ speechwriter and remains a whisperer to top Democrats, has published a peculiar and revealing piece musing about the failure (although Luce won’t use such a direct work) of Biden’s second summit for democracy. The fact that this two day virtual summit has only just started and Luce is already making polite criticisms is an indicator that he has company in believing the entire exercise is misguided.
And before we look at the particulars, one might also wonder why Biden thought this sort of exercise was necessary or desirable on top of the raft of other confabs and NGOs promoting “democracy” and other flavors of US-rules-based-order fandom. The very fact of this addition to the panoply of US attempts looks like an effort to shore up waning US power.
One colleague suggested that the US was trying to lead a group of countries that together had more combined GDP than China and its friendlies. This sort of posturing may come out of accumulating US-unfavorable factoids like the G-7 having a lower combined GDP than the BRICS, measured in PPP terms.
The wee problem is that the US isn’t scoring so hot on the democracy or the role model front these day, although Hollywood is helping with the brand fumes. We’ve had increasing hard censorship (individuals being deplatformed and demonetized; figures in public positions, particularly education, being fired or forced out for non-orthodox views) and soft (biased search rankings and prompts; mainstream media narrative conformity; regular use of “conspiracy theory” to silence questioning). And that’s before getting to rising signs of social breakdown: declining lifespans, world-leading imprisonment rate, high teen births, high childbirth death rate, falling educational attainment, rising gun ownership rates).
To provide some necessary backstory, the Summit for Democracy was launched in December 2021 as a virtual event. Per Wikipedia, “The three themes are defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and advancing respect for human rights.”
And that’s before getting to a second wee problem, that the US has been perfectly fine with supporting authoritarians when it suited our interest and undermining democracies that we say as a threat, with our overthrow of Iran’s Mosaddegh in 1953 because he nationalized the oil industry. Needless to say, when the Saudis went about getting more economic control of their oil reserves in the 1960s, they were more cautious. Oh, and our good Saudi friends (until Mohammed bin Salman) were hardly democracy poster children.
Needless to say, the US definition of who rated as a democracy raised eyebrows in some circles. Again from Wikipedia:
The summit’s guestlist was criticized for inviting participants based on the political interests of the United States, not on its democracy ratings. University of Sydney politics professor John Keane said the guestlist was a “cynically drawn up, bureaucratically crafted, agency-structured invitation list that includes states that by any measure are falling way down the democracy rankings or aren’t democracies at all”.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, accused of crimes against humanity, accepted President Biden’s invitation to join the Summit for Democracy. According to ICHRP Chairperson Peter Murphy, “Duterte’s reign of terror and mass murder, which have provoked an ICC investigation of crimes against humanity, would seem to disqualify him from providing advice on anything except fascist populism, repression and human rights violations.”
Despite several democracy watchdogs calling Brazil a backsliding democracy, Indonesia and Nigeria as other types of democracy, and Pakistan as a banana republic, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari participated in the Summit for Democracy, while former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, though invited, did not.
Most Financial Times readers should have a passing acquaintance with America’s insincere record as a bulwark of democracy, even before getting to the short history of this event. But we are following in the evangelizing footsteps of Britain, which despite its murderous and rapacious ways, justified its conduct in the name of bringing civilization and Christianity to the heathens. The US has taken to promoting its version of human rights, while various commentators have pointed out that Russia’s vision of a multipolar world features more tolerance for different political and social systems.
And that’s before getting to how old Christian schisms are coming to the fore. From former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar in Indian Punchline:
The Ukraine conflict has dimensions ranging from geopolitics to geoeconomics. But the subterranean eddy of animate religious passions eludes the casual non-Christian observer. A remark recently by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic that 85% of his country’s residents will always support Russia, come what may, called attention to the paradigm. But religious cleavages in Christianity, when it overlaps with racial divides particularly, are a highly sensitive matter that is never allowed to climb up from the attic [cellar?] to the living room….
Religious bigotry in the Christian world has caused more bloodshed than any other issue in history. The Euro-Atlantic Christian countries have a gory past. They fought wars for the spread of their religion in faraway lands and also tore each other apart over their sectarian passions — or even for pursuit of carnal pleasures, as in the case of the Anglican Church.
Christianity has turned out to be the most violent religion out of the three Abrahamic religions. The reluctance of Muslim countries and Israel to take sides in the Ukraine conflict is very striking and it is understandable, as Islam and Judaism have immensely suffered from Christian bigotry historically. The ensuing unspeakable sufferings through vast corridors of time up to the modern times are embedded deep in the Muslim and Jewish psyche…racial prejudices come easily to Christian countries, beneath their veneer of modernity….
The feud within Christianity began intensifying in the recent decade or two with Russia’s resurgence under Putin’s leadership, when Russian Orthodox Church entered a golden era of state patronage….
The Euro-Atlantic countries are in a quandary. They are already in panic as the locus of world power shifts inexorably towards the East. They fear that as the Eastern Church and “Holy Russia” surge, they would also become the backwaters of Christianity.
That may seem a bit long-winded, but helps illustrate that the American “democracy” branding signposts a good deal more that is not necessarily attractive to other countries.
Now back to Luce. His article starts out with a remarkable rewrite of history:
If the US has taken to heart one big lesson in the 21st century, it is that democracy is not created at gunpoint. The 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion reminded Americans of that.
Um, just because Saddam was a dictator does not mean that the US regime change project in Iraq had bringing democracy to ordinary Iraqis as a leading objective. Indeed, the “at a gunpoint” implies that democracy can be imposed externally….which means it sure ain’t the will of the people but a political project, and awfully colonial-seeming.
A striking feature of Luce’s article is the way he points out some of the US hypocrisies, like inviting Israel, while blandly repeating some Western media smears against other countries, particularly India.1
And then we get:
Biden’s aims are noble….But the president’s means are open to doubt. According to V-Dem, a Swedish research institute, almost three quarters of the world’s population now live in autocracies against less than half a decade ago. That vertiginous shift justifies the term “democratic recession”.
It is difficult to believe a liberal democratic Russia would have invaded Ukraine. It is equally hard to imagine the people of an autocratic Ukraine fighting as fiercely for their freedom as they are doing now. It is thus reasonable for the US to think that spreading democracy is in its national interest. The problem is that America is not very good at it.
Please have a gander through the V-Dem report. You don’t have to get very far to find eyebrow raisers like:
What Autocrats Attack
• Censorship of the media and repression of CSOs [civil society organizations] increases and academic freedom declines in more than 25 of the autocratizing countries.
• Academic and cultural freedom, and freedom of discussion also rank among the top institutions attacked by autocratiz-ing rulers.
Disinformation, Polarization, and Autocratization
• Disinformation, polarization, and autocratization reinforce each other.
• Topdemocratizersconverselyreducethespreadofdisinfor- mation substantially, and to some extent also polarization.
And how is this not happening in the West, with policing of discourse over Covid and the Ukraine war, and now in the US on social matters like trans correctness? And how about other overtly authoritarian actions, like Macron abusing emergency powers to ram through deeply unpopular pension “reforms,” or German foreign minister Annelina Baerbock saying that supporting Ukraine was more important than German domestic needs and what German voters wanted? Or European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen acting like the Queen of Europe and regularly running roughshod over national leaders?
It is also remarkable that the West refuses to acknowledge that Putin is elected democratically, and until the war in Ukraine cemented national opinion behind him, had to very much worry about the support of the 20-25% middle class, which cared very much about their living standards and not much else. Having them turn against Putin would have made it difficult for him to continue in office. The Russian presidency is admittedly more powerful than similar offices in the West, but my understanding (and readers may correct me) is that concentration of power dates from the Yeltsin era; Putin’s big addition was the admittedly too-cute move of getting a Constitutional change allowing him to serve in office for more than two terms.2
Similarly, the historically-minded will know, as Big Serge covers in detail in his recent post Apocalypse: Operation Barbarossa, that the supposedly demotived-because-authoritarian-system Soviets under Stalin were ferocious Nazi fighters. And what about the Japanese under Emperor Hirohito? The US justification for its nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that the Japanese were so committed, um, brainwashed that a US invasion of Japan would have resulted in high losses on the Allies side.
Back to Luce:
Nowhere has the US expended more guns and butter than in the Middle East. The democratic returns have been almost uniformly negative….
The only unqualified success in US democracy promotion was the Marshall Plan for postwar Europe.
Again, huh? France had bridled under Vichy; the Allies managed to find and promote a resistance leader, Charles de Gaulle, who had the capacity to lead a nation. The US occupied Germany and was actively involved in who took national and even local office and was aggressive about deNazifying. That well predates the Marshall Plan of 1948.
Oh and as for democratic successes, what about Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who was in power until 1975? He’s politely ignored because, as Richard Nixon remarked after his death, “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States.”
The rest of the article pearl-clutches that the US isn’t doing very well with the Global South and notes that “China has pumped more money into the developing world than all the west combined.”
I have to confess to repeating the intellectually lazy “Global South” formulation, since clearly there are many distinctions in that group. I’m hoping more useful characterizations arise. But the US officialdom in trying to win them over should not be falling back on such big generalizations.
In any event, I suspect a large reason the US is not doing very well is bigotry. The US simply can’t take non-white, or even definitionally non-white people as seriously as it should. For instance, the unwarranted US and EU assumption of superiority over Russia was based not just on long-standing, badly dated Soviet stereotypes, but also on negative views of Slavs….despite Russia’s long-standing top performance in mathematics and physics.
We’re likely to see even more unwitting displays of Western attitudes that helped get us in our present decline. One bit of good news here is enough pink paper readers weren’t buying what Luce was trying to sell that it wasn’t until well into the comments on his piece that the first instance of Putin Derangement Syndrome occurred. That means a fair number of readers were actually considering the arguments rather than falling back on their (not always great) reflexes.
1 For instance, “India is in the process of jailing opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on a trumped up defamation ruling.” Indian Financial Times readers complained loudly in comments, pointing out that the judicial process was fair, but Ganhdi’s counsel did an appallingly poor job in court.
2 In the Oliver Stone interview, Putin acknowledged that Russia had a ways to go in the democracy category, but pointed out Russia had had top-down systems until the fall of the USSR, and it takes time for democratic systems to develop. He also cited a number of steps the government had taken to increase citizen input and control. I do not currently have access to the transcript of the interview to see if Stone and Robert Scheer footnoted Putin as accurate on these claims or not.