Biden’s Democracy Summit Is a South Asian Diplomatic Flub

In many parts of the world, including here in South Asia, the summit is likely to do more harm than good, writes Mihir Sharma.

Biden’s Democracy Summit Is a South Asian Diplomatic Flub
U.S. President Joe Biden (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Supposedly, U.S. President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” — which begins Dec. 9 — would show America was back as leader of the free world. Unfortunately, the Biden administration isn’t big on either thoughtfulness before the fact, or justification after. And in many parts of the world, including here in South Asia, the summit is likely to do more harm than good. India, the world’s largest democracy – albeit one not quite as robust these days as once it was – will naturally be there. But Sri Lanka, which has comparable democratic credentials, is not. 

Most puzzling, perhaps, is the choice to exclude Bangladesh while inviting Pakistan. Neither is a particularly shining example of democracy at the moment. Bangladesh’s last election took place after the principal opposition leader had been jailed for corruption, and was described as “improbably lopsided” by the State Department. Pakistan’s last election, meanwhile, took place after its principal opposition leader had first been disqualified and then, for good measure, sentenced to jail. The election itself was, the State Department noted, marred by “pre-election interference by military and intelligence agencies that created an uneven electoral playing field.”

So why has one flawed democracy been invited, and the other not? If anything, Bangladesh scores better on various objective indicators of institutional strength than Pakistan. It scores 39 out of 100 from Freedom House, while Pakistan gets 37. Bangladesh is ranked 76th in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, just marginally missing out on “flawed democracy” status. Pakistan is much further down the list, at 105th, just below Turkey, a nominal U.S. ally that has not been invited. 

So how should one read this sort of blunder? Perhaps it’s just carelessness, one more post-Afghanistan reminder that Biden’s promises to restore competence to U.S. foreign policy have been unfulfilled.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s deliberate. The U.S. might have determined it still “needs” Pakistan to help manage Afghanistan — and thus cannot officially admit that Prime Minister Imran Khan was effectively selected by the country’s all-powerful military establishment, and not simply elected. Such cynicism somewhat undermines the notion that the summit is about “renewing shared purpose.” Certainly, it will give countries like India the sense that it doesn’t matter whether our own democratic credentials erode over time — the U.S. will still call us a democracy, because they need us. 

So do you prefer to think the Democracy Summit is about incompetence, or about cynicism? Actually, you may not have to choose. Because even if the decision to leave out Bangladesh and Sri Lanka while inviting India and Pakistan was pure realpolitik, it’s still a big error. 

After all, any pragmatic argument for a democracy summit centers on demonstrating to wavering democracies the benefits of keeping Beijing at arm’s length; and, in the process, reminding China’s leaders that their political system is still not the one to which most countries aspire. 

So countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — flawed democracies that are being wooed by the People’s Republic with money and flattery — are precisely the countries you want in the room. These are two crucial swing nations in the geopolitical competition to determine the course of this century, and the Biden administration has decided to tell them they don’t matter. 

The fact is that once you turn a conference invitation into a certificate, then it is the certificate that matters and not the conference. A certificate from the U.S. president plays into national self-image and domestic politics in complicated ways. The Pakistani regime’s position vis-à-vis its embattled liberal dissidents has been strengthened; and Bangladeshi politicians have been given a reason to distrust the U.S. Its foreign minister first said that the conference was for countries “with weak democracies,” and later added that the U.S. “likes to put pressure on countries “in the name of democracy, good governance or terrorism.” He might as well have added that when the Chinese leadership insults a country, it is at least straightforward about it. 

Derek Grossman of Rand Corp. has said the administration “basically blew up [its] Indo-Pacific strategy overnight with the Summit for Democracy.” He’s not wrong. The U.S. strategy for the region, like everybody else’s, makes the case for common democratic principles underpinning alliances to constrain illiberal actors like Beijing. Now, however, when American diplomats — or their European and Indian counterparts — go to Colombo and Dhaka and talk about “shared values,” their hosts can shut them down in seconds. Why should we listen to you blather about values, they will ask. The American president doesn’t even think we’re a democracy. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Swarup Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and head of its Economy and Growth Programme. He is the author of "Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy," and co-editor of "What the Economy Needs Now."

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