By convening the 9-10 December virtual summit, Biden’s unstated aim is to counter diplomatic, economic and military dangers posed by the rising authoritarian tide spearheaded by the Chinese and Russian governments.

As you read this, some three billion people in the world, about 40%, are living under autocracy or dictatorship, according to the 2021 edition of the World Population Review. This number depends on how you define the word “dictator”, of course, as they range from the hard “authoritarian” type, such as Stalinist, to the mild “monarchy” type, where power is passed on through family connections. On this broad spectrum, there are 52 countries with a dictator or authoritarian regime in power: three in Latin America; 27 in Asia and the Middle East; and 22 in Africa. Some are long-term dictatorships (North Korea), others have slipped (Venezuela), or are in the process of slipping (Turkey), from a democracy into autocracy over the past few decades. As Anne Applebaum said in her recent seminal essay in the Atlantic, “The Bad Guys are Winning”: “If the 20th century was the story of a slow, uneven struggle, ending with the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.”
Think of dictatorships and the first country that comes to mind is China. China’s Constitution calls its government a “people’s democratic dictatorship”, which is a risible contradiction of terms. Beijing insists that the ruling Communist Party represents and acts on behalf of the people, but preserves and may use powers against reactionary forces. In other words, anyone who disagrees with the Party.
Dictators typically retain their power by silencing any opposition to their rulings and guidelines, often done via questionable means such as intimidation, imprisonment, physical violence, or even assassination. So who next comes to mind? Vladimir Putin of course. The minute he ran into trouble when the 2012 elections were seen by the world to have been rigged, Putin realised that the only way to remain in power was to turn Russia into a dictatorship. Both Xi and Putin have changed their country’s Constitution to allow them to stay in power for life. Both can now sleep well in their beds.
Now add to Xi and Putin, Lukashenko of Belarus, Diaz-Canal of Cuba, Ortega of Nicaragua, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Kim Jong-un of North Korea (the list goes on and on), and you have some idea of the group that Applebaum calls Autocracy Inc. “Today, the most brutal members of Autocracy Inc. don’t much care if their countries are criticized, or by whom”, she said. “They dismiss the statements of foreigners on the grounds that they are imperialists.” Personal survival is paramount, as regime change would inevitably lead to exile, imprisonment or even death. Forget about the welfare of the people. Democratic revolutions must be stamped out as they are contagious, and the best way to do this is to form a system of mutual support. If your fellow dictator is in trouble, go to his (or her) assistance.
Take Venezuela, for example. When President Hugo Chavez died in March 2013, there was hope among the population that the slide into Marxist-Leninism, which had destroyed an oil-based economy that had made Venezuela the world’s 4th wealthiest nation per capita in 1950, could be halted. No such luck. The arrival of the former bus driver, Nicolas Maduro, as President destroyed all such hope, as he and his kleptocratic friends took control of the country. Using the Putin-playbook of jail, torture and murder of opponents, adopted by most of the world’s autocrats, vast numbers fled the country, those remaining becoming apathetic about change. Facing stiff sanctions from America, Venezuela’s economy nose-dived, and without the support from its five key autocratic allies, Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, and more recently Erdogan’s Turkey, the Maduro regime could not have survived.
Recep Erdogan, who shares a strong relationship with Donald Trump, is currently moving Turkey from democracy into autocracy via divisive nationalism and political Islamism. Amnesty International found at least 180 media outlets have been closed since 2016 and more than 120 journalists are now in prison. In 2017, following a heavily imbalanced referendum campaign, Erdogan pushed through a Constitution that dismantled the separation of powers and gutted the independence of the legislature and judiciary. These moves are dangerous warning signs for the future of democracy in Turkey, and although fresh election are due in 2023, there are already indications that Erdogan may seek to defy legitimate defeat with talk of changes to election laws, legal threats against opposition leaders and attacks on the “enemies” of Turkey. Turkey’s 2023 election will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the republic’s foundation, providing an ideal pretext for the kind of militaristic bombast that might help sway or even steal an election.
Venezuela and Turkey are just two of many countries around the world which have turned, or are in the process of turning from democracy to autocracy this century. Why is this happening? Applebaum points to America’s removal of the promotion of democracy in its foreign policy as a prime reason, with autocracies taking its place as sources of influence, funding and ideas. While Donald Trump promoted his “America First” policy, widely interpreted as “America Alone”, the vacuum created by his monumental error was happily filled by Xi Jinping who flooded the world with Chinese cash, gaining power and influence in return. Although the process had been taking place long before the arrival of Trump, the turmoil in the US following his four years in power has led to the growing perception around the world that democracy is second best to autocracy, supporters pointing to a prosperous and stable China.
This is the background to Joe Biden’s upcoming democracy summit, fulfilling the promise made during the 2020 election campaign to convene in the first year of his presidency a “global summit of democracies”. After this year’s tumultuous transition of power, some might question whether the US has the moral authority to sit at the head of the democratic table. But even after four disastrous years of Trump, much of the democratic world still looks to Washington as the “shining city upon the hill”. The images of a mob overrunning the Capitol touched a nerve in many fractured western societies. After all, if it can happen at the heart of Western democracy, it could happen anywhere. Trump certainly gave Xi Jinping a huge present when he gave his speech, encouraging the mob to overturn the democratic election result.
By convening the 9-10 December virtual summit in a demonstration of international resolve, Biden’s unstated aim is to counter diplomatic, economic and military dangers posed by the rising authoritarian tide spearheaded by the Chinese and Russian governments. Neither country has been invited to the summit, involving 111 nations. The inclusion of Taiwan has infuriated Beijing, which kicked back in an unprecedented joint opinion piece by the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the US, published in last Saturday’s National Interest newspaper. The op-ed railed against China’s and Russia’s exclusion as both a failure to recognise what they say is their respective countries’ “unique democratic systems”, as well as a US effort to “stoke up ideological confrontation”.
But with American democracy being in such a dark “post-Trump” space, prospects for the summit are gloomy. This month, for the first time, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a think tank based in Stockholm, added the US to its list of “backsliding democracies”, due in part to Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Observers have noted that Trump’s behaviour against the democratic result has been replicated by losers in countries as diverse as Myanmar, Peru and Israel, hardly the image envisioned by the architects of Biden’s summit next week.
When Biden declares that one of the commitments of the summit will be to “defend free and fair elections”, critics will point to the fact that 19 Republican US states have enacted 33 laws that make it more difficult for citizens to vote, and that a number of states have replaced nonpartisan election administrators with partisan ideologues, with some redrawing electoral maps to effectively disenfranchise minority groups. No wonder Freedom House, a democracy-watchdog group, ranked the state of democracy in the US well below that in Chile, Costa Rica, and Slovakia, citing gerrymandering, the influence of money in politics, and the disenfranchisement of people of colour the reasons for the poor showing. Hardly a moral high-ground from which to hold a summit on democracy.
Although well-intentioned, the virtual summit beginning on Thursday will turn out to be just a talking shop, unlikely to turn back the tide of autocracy sweeping the world. While meant to give democracies a boost and put autocracies on notice, it carries the risk of being counterintuitive, widening disagreements between countries with different systems of government, and injecting unneeded emotionalism into the debate. By not inviting them to the summit, it is likely to solidify a Russian-China strategic relationship that could alter the balance of power to Washington’s disadvantage. The inevitable outcome is that the bad guys will continue to win.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.