When you lack a foreign policy, why not pretend that you have one by holding an international summit? US President Joe Biden has certified 109 countries as "democracies" by inviting them to a virtual "Summit for Democracy." What does Biden mean by democracy? Biden's invitation excludes at least 20 long-standing allies of the US. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
What do India, Iraq and the Solomon Islands have in a common?
The answer is that US President Joe Biden has certified all three as "democracies" along with 106 other countries, by inviting them to a virtual "Summit for Democracy" on December 9-10, 2021.
Biden's move reminds me of one of my favorite French phrases: Furnishing the emptiness.
In this case, when you lack a foreign policy, why not pretend that you have one by holding an international summit?
And what is the summit going to discuss?
Well, three objectives have been set: Defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting human rights. Something else forgotten -- maybe motherhood and apple pie?
The trouble is that the entire project, a hasty and poorly thought-out public relations gimmick, is built around concepts that are never defined.
To start with, what does Biden mean by democracy?
In the absence of a definition, we must assume that he means democracy is what he says it is. In that case, democracy, which is a system of government that comes in many different forms, is reduced to an ideology that, in turn, makes it anti-democratic.
The exercise reminds us of the creation of the Comintern by Stalin, who pretended that he and he alone could decide who was a "true Socialist."
But if we adopt the non-ideological definition of "democracy" as a system in which people govern themselves or a least have a share in governing themselves through a more or less freely elected legislature, the exclusion of some countries from Biden's list becomes puzzling. For example, how could one exclude Kuwait, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and even Algeria, but include Iraq?
By excluding Turkey and Hungary, two US military allies, Biden weakens NATO's pretension of being "an alliance of democracies."
Excluding Russia is also puzzling.
Vladimir Putin may be a disagreeable fellow, but Russia still has a multi-party system, holds regular elections, is less oppressive, and has fewer political prisoners than the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, whom Biden has invited.
And if authoritarianism is the original sin in this case, why invite so many African "strongmen," not to mention Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil?
Chile is also invited. But just 10 days after Biden's summit, it may well end up with Jose Antonio Cast, a political heir to Augusto Pinochet, as president.
Needless to say, the People's Republic of China is also excluded.
To be sure, by no stretch of the imagination could one regard the one-party state in Beijing as a democracy. However, by our count, at least 20 of the countries invited, including the Solomon Islands mentioned above, are little more than satellites of the People's Republic.
At the other end of the spectrum, Biden's invitation excludes at least 20 long-standing allies of the United States.
Biden's proposed "summit" is a double-barreled gun.
The second barrel is supposed to bring together representatives of civil society and the private sector to help achieve the three objectives set for the summit.
This is puzzling.
If those to be invited come from countries already certified as democracies, it makes little sense to separate them from their democratic governments. If they are to come from excluded countries, however, their inclusion in the Biden scheme would mean transforming them into political opposition groups.
The biggest risk in Biden's plan is that it may lead to the re-ideologization of international relations, something that many thought ended with the end of the Cold War.
After centuries of religious wars, Europe first opted for a rule-based international system through the Westphalian treaties, which led to some three centuries of relative peace and stability.
After the Second World War, it was to de-ideologize international relations that the US led the effort to create a new world order built around the United Nations, its charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That meant equal rights for all member nations regardless of their system of government, religion and dominant ideology.
The rules-based Westphalian system was further developed to become a law-based world order which, though certainly imperfect, ushered in the end of colonialism and prevented the resurgence of ideologies preaching the cult of race, religion or class war.
For decades, US leadership, even when the US itself transgressed, was a key element in sustaining the law-based world order. Biden's scheme may signal a radical shift in the United States' global leadership ambitions -- from leading a law-based world order to heading a hodgepodge of "democracies" certified by Washington. This is why Biden and his team speak of "values", a subjective concept, rather than concrete laws developed over decades thanks to painfully shaped international consensus.
Originally, trying to duplicate the United Nations was part of the program of ultra-conservative groups in the US and Western Europe. Under President Barack Obama it morphed into an undeclared ambition of the ultra-left.
This was why Obama went around the UN and its agencies on a number of issues, including the "nuclear deal" with the mullahs of Tehran, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, and the public-relations hoax known as "saving the planet".
Biden, who casts himself as centrist, may be re-appropriating Obama's strategy by trying to create a doppelganger for the UN. A less audacious version of that was briefly marketed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the form of an alliance of the "Anglosphere" nations.
I have never been a fan of the United Nations as an organization and have written about its deficiencies for decades. However, no one could deny the role it has played and should continue to play in upholding and enforcing the idea of law-based international relations. What is needed is the conservative approach, which means keep what is working and cut what is not through a number of reforms that have been debated for decades to adapt the UN to the exigencies of a changing world. The creation of a pseudo-ideological parallel organ that excludes more than 80 UN member states, including two permanent members of the Security Council; and some 40 percent of humanity, will not do that.
The doppelganger may furnish the emptiness for a few days and furnish a rudderless administration with a few favorable headlines. But it will provide no answer to problems the world faces today, problems that cannot be tackled without the participation of all nations within the framework of a world order based on law, not ideology.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.