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Trolling, but for Democracy
Why the most important outcome from President Biden’s Summit for Democracy wasn’t intentional
To the extent they paid any attention to it, Americans could be forgiven for feeling that President Joe Biden’s promised Summit for Democracy was something of a letdown. The virtual meeting produced little in the way of substance, with the unveiling of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal the most notable result of the summit. This initiative dedicates some $424.4 million to support free and independent media, fight corruption, and defend free and fair elections. (By way of comparison, a week earlier NASA signed contracts worth $415.6 million with three companies to begin development of a commercial successor to the International Space Station.)
Other attendees made their own commitments, including the launch of the six-year, €1.5 billion Global Europe Human Rights and Democracy program by the European Union. But it remains unclear at best just how these new initiatives differ in substance from the democracy promotion programs of the previous three decades. Still, the symbolic importance of assembling many of the world’s democracies together shouldn’t be underestimated; indeed, the summit itself amounted to an epic (if unintentional) troll of the Chinese government.
Beijing wildly overreacted to the Summit for Democracy, protesting much too strongly that China’s one-party dictatorship offers true democracy and vociferously attacking the United States for its own democratic failings. In part, that’s probably a knee-jerk reaction to Taiwan’s inclusion in the summit; as governments like Lithuania have discovered, any sort of diplomatic engagement with Taiwan tends to provoke absurdly disproportionate and counterproductive reactions from a deeply insecure Chinese government.
More importantly, however, Beijing’s comical outrage to President Biden’s otherwise anodyne Summit for Democracy revealed two fundamental characteristics that will define and structure geopolitics moving forward.
First, the Chinese government’s reaction to the democratic conclave shows that it very much sees the world through an ideological lens. The Chinese Communist Party views liberal democracy itself as an existential threat, and it looks at its relationship with the United States through this prism as well. Warts and all, the United States remains the world’s most powerful democratic nation and as such presents an acute ideological challenge to Beijing’s ruling clique and its claims to political legitimacy at home.
That doesn’t mean the Chinese government will run amok in East Asia, sending its military abroad to spread the gospel according to Xi Jinping. But Beijing does aim to make the world safe for the Chinese Communist Party, and that entails suppressing dissent overseas and corrupting democracies from the inside out. It’s also why the Chinese government took such exception to a fairly unremarkable and inoffensive Summit for Democracy; in Beijing’s eyes, it’s a dagger aimed directly at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party and its continued rule.
This reality has some strong implications for American foreign policy moving forward as well. It rules out proposals made by some progressives and realists that the United States ought to effectively shut up about human rights and democracy in China to obtain Beijing’s cooperation on issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. These voices tend to project their own priorities onto Beijing and assume that their own political rivals in the United States represent the primary obstacle to much-needed Sino-American cooperation on pressing global questions. While this analysis was never very realistic or convincing – there haven’t been any indications Beijing is interested in real cooperation on these issues – it becomes less so with each passing day.
Second, democracy remains the world’s political lodestar and its primary source of legitimacy. Beijing didn’t just denounce the United States for its democratic hypocrisy or trumpet the superiority of its own system, it asserted that its one-party dictatorship was the superior form of democracy. To put it another way, the Chinese government still feels compelled to justify its own rule in the language and terminology of democracy.
For all the talk of a “post-liberal” world order and Beijing’s attempts to remake the world in its own image, liberal democracy remains the world’s ideology of reference – even among its autocratic detractors and anti-democratic usurpers. There should be little doubt that liberalism and democracy remain on their heels both at home and abroad; each new revelation about President Trump’s attempted coup on January 6 and the long global democratic recession ought to be enough to dispel any Panglossian optimism among liberal democrats. But the fact that the world’s most repressive regime feels the need to justify itself in the language of democracy ought to give us a sliver of hope, no matter how narrow it may be.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. For much of the past century, autocracies from the Soviet Union to Iran’s clerical dictatorship (to say nothing of Libyan tyrant Moammar Qaddafi’s bizarre ideological swill) have had to genuflect in one way or another to the principles of liberal democracy and human rights they had no intention of observing in practice. Like contemporary China, they claimed to possess a superior way to realize these ideals – simultaneously confirming their power while denying their substance. Beijing’s continued rhetorical deference to democracy is noteworthy due in large part to China’s growing global power and perceptions of American relative decline; if even a rising autocracy like China has to pay lip service to democracy, then perhaps the idea isn’t as unpopular or unfashionable worldwide as many pessimists in democratic nations think.
It’s fanciful to imagine that the Biden administration set out to troll the Chinese government in such an epic fashion with its Summit for Democracy. But troll Beijing it did – suggesting that troll power remains a mostly untapped and unconscious source of power for the United States. Most foreign policy thinkers tend to view troll power as an exclusively online phenomenon, a matter of shitposts and other, more noxious behaviors. But it’s certainly possible to troll in real life, formulating and executing otherwise creditable and constructive policies in ways meant to provoke distraction and irritation among geopolitical and ideological rivals.
As China’s reaction to the Summit for Democracy shows, moreover, the United States still has formidable ideological and geopolitical advantages over its autocratic rivals. While the threats to liberal democracy at home and abroad are stronger than they have been in decades, there should be no doubt that liberalism and democracy remain potent ideas that appeal to people around the world. It’s far too early to write their epitaphs.