“Tactics is what you do when there is something to do. Strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do.”
– Chess Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower.
There is no better example of the futility of so-called strategic thinking than President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to hold a series of international summits on democracy. The first of these summits took place last week, with more than 100 nations conjuring notions of democratic reform. There is a well known and justly admired axiom of diplomacy to the effect that the more signatories to an agreement the less binding it becomes. (A corollary to that axiom could be applied to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: too many members in an alliance weakens the coherence and influence of the organization.)
The summit’s obvious purpose was to align as many nations as possible in support of U.S. efforts to isolate and contain both Russia and China. The summit’s major weakness was the fact that most European and Asian nations do not want to make a binary choice between the United States and Russia or the United States and China.
There is an additional problem in Europe where there is increased reluctance to embrace the global ambitions of the United States and its Cold War propaganda. French President Emmanuel Macron is leading an effort to bolster European strategic autonomy in part to reduce European dependence on the United States. The four years of the Trump presidency and the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan provided an opening for Macron, whose prestige and ambitions have increased with last week’s retirement of former German chancellor Angela Merkel.
The invitation list catered to U.S. strategic interests rather than to the importance of democratic values This provided the first augury of the hypocrisy of Biden’s scheme, particularly the invitation to India. Under the Hindu nationalist government of President Narendra Modi, India has seen a steady degradation of democracy, evident in the treatment of its Moslem minority and its heavy-handed rule in Kashmir. An even better example of the focus on strategic interests was the invitation to Pakistan, which Freedom House assigns the lowest democratic score in South Asia because of the dominant role of the military in this authoritarian nation. (Pakistan, a close ally of China, turned down the invitation.) Sri Lanka, which has made remarkable progress recently in the area of political and civil rights, was not invited.
At a time when the United States should acknowledge and focus on the degradation of its own democracy, the idea of Washington serving as a model of democratic reform is particularly risible. After all, what happened to the democratic guardrails that were supposed to keep a Donald Trump from gaining the nomination to run for the presidency, let alone being elected president? And what about the institutional guardrails of a vast government enterprise that would keep a Trump from carrying out what turned out to be a prediction of “American Carnage?”
The bigotry and illegality of the Muslim travel ban in Trump’s first days in office were an indicator of the damage that our democracy would suffer under four years of his presidency. The Supreme Court ignored the racism of the travel ban; it does nothing about the problems of voter suppression and gerrymandering. Independent law enforcement could have made a difference, but the appointment of William Barr, who believed that Article II of the Constitution gave the president sole and complete authority in the executive branch, blocked the judicial guardrail.
On many levels, the United States is a failed democratic state in which the minority is able to block the will of the majority, and even the right to vote has been compromised. The credibility of the United States and democracy itself have been weakened by the violence of the January insurrection, and the acceptance of false claims that the presidential election of 2020 was “stolen.” Cynicism played a major role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; it is now playing a role in the decline of U.S. democracy and influence in 2021.
The limited international influence of China and Russia renders the idea of a summit designed to contain one or the other of them somewhat gratuitous. Russia and China lack allies, let alone the power and influence that would convince other countries to follow their lead. Does anyone actually believe that Russia and/or China are a threat to our democracy? Meanwhile, we need a diplomatic dialogue with both Moscow and Beijing in order to address climate change, the pandemic, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, and strategic disarmament.
The Summit on Democracy is a reminder of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, a “feel good” exercise to renounce war as an “instrument of national policy” and endorse “pacific means” as the only instrument for resolving disputes or conflicts. During the debate over ratification of the treaty, a senator referred to it as an “international kiss,” noting that it had the “worth of a postage stamp in the direction of accomplishing permanent peace.” Three years after the signing of the pact, the Japanese army occupied all of Manchuria, followed by the full-scale Sino-Japanese War. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and Benito Mussolini threw himself into Hitler’s arms to gain support for his invasion of Ethiopia.
The Congress just approved a record level of defense spending. A more democratic and less partisan United States would recognize that it is wasting scarce resources to modernize nuclear weapons, which have no utilitarian value, and to enhance a phantom defense against strategic missiles. The existential threat we face is neither Russia nor China. It is climate change.
We will not have the credibility or influence to champion democracy abroad until we address the political contaminants to our democracy at home. U.S. democracy isn’t losing to the authoritarians the world over; it is losing at home because of political erosion, social apathy, and cultural cynicism. Walt Kelly’s Pogo said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”