Biden’s two types of mulilateralism

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in a virtual Climate Summit with world leaders in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.

In April, U.S. President Joe Biden gathered 40 world leaders for a virtual summit on tackling the climate crisis. They included representatives of major emitting countries, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as heads of states that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Civil-society and business leaders also took part. Biden and many other attendees announced more ambitious climate policies ahead of the United Nations climate change summit (COP26) in November.

On December 9-10, Biden will fulfill a preelection promise by hosting another virtual gathering, dubbed a Summit for Democracy. Although details have yet to be released, the meeting will focus on “defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.” Biden will again invite leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector.

But the objectives of the two summits exemplify sharply different aspects of multilateral cooperation. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to combat climate change is the archetypal global public good (GPG), resulting in benefits that are both nonrival and nonexcludable. Their accrual to one country does not diminish the benefit to others, and no one can be excluded from them once they are provided.

This typically gives rise to a free-rider problem, because every country has an incentive to minimize its own costs for providing the GPG and instead rely on others’ contributions. Recently, new technologies enabling net economic benefits from a green transformation have reduced but not eliminated the problem. Global cooperation is thus still needed to address it.

Democracy and human rights, by contrast, are not GPGs so defined, although they may generate positive externalities because their benefits are enjoyed almost solely by the citizens of the countries practicing them. Achieving the objectives of Biden’s democracy summit will thus depend much more on common values than cooperation to limit climate change does.

Whereas cooperation on GPGs can proceed pragmatically with global participation, cooperation based on values and beliefs involves the challenge of determining which governments may qualify. Putin and Xi presumably will not be invited in December, because they not only practice but also proclaim values different from those of liberal democracies.

Values-based multilateralism is both easier and more difficult than multilateralism based on interests. It is easier because there is likely to be more trust among actors sharing basic values. But it is more difficult because potential material gains may remain out of reach, owing to ideological competition and lack of trust vis-à-vis those not sharing similar values.

The December democracy summit will thus face the key difficulty for liberal values-based multilateralism: who exactly should be present? When Biden announced his firm intention to organize such a gathering earlier this year, Javier Solana eloquently outlined the difficulties, to which I also drew attention in an essay last year.

Keeping the participant list short and including only governments fully committed to and practicing liberal democracy—albeit with some failures to protect human rights, as is the case in the United States itself—would antagonize many borderline cases and offend fewer democratic allies. But if the list is too long and resembles a catalog of U.S. allies or governments that America hopes to enlist in an effort to contain China, then the summit and Biden’s promise to promote democracy will lose their credibility. Hard choices will be unavoidable.

Biden should keep the tent large while emphasizing that the summit’s objective is not to create a new formal alliance of democracies. Instead, the aim should be to discuss with whomever is willing how to contain autocratic tendencies that exist everywhere, how to protect human and minority rights that often are violated even in countries formally committed to upholding them, and how to fight the universal problem of corruption.

Focusing on these three issues, and on individual and common commitments to actions that would be reviewed at a follow-up summit next year, now seems to be the Biden administration’s strategy. If there is plenty of self-criticism at the summit, the presence of illiberal leaders—including those who call themselves democrats but seem committed only to majoritarian, winner-take-all governance—may not be so offensive. The participants, including the U.S., will be encouraged to listen and to learn from experience, not to lecture each other. And the prospect of a second summit could give governments an incentive to make improvements.

A gathering along these lines could strengthen the values-driven part of multilateralism, and the soft power of the world’s democracies. The criticism that it will accentuate the rivalry between leading autocratic and democratic powers is misplaced, because such competition is inevitable in the years ahead. In many areas, including climate action and pandemic control, cooperation can and should prevail. But for believers in values such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, upholding their political-freedom component is as essential as enhancing material welfare. Competition with autocracy is not just unavoidable, but welcome.

The two dimensions of multilateralism projected by Biden’s climate and democracy summits are not contradictory. The first meeting sought to enhance the provision of a crucial GPG, while the second aims to promote values deemed universal.

The West’s failures in Afghanistan and Iraq should remind us that forced regime change and top-down nation-building do not belong on a democracy-promotion agenda. But leading by example, learning from best practice, and peacefully promoting human rights certainly do. Biden’s democracy summit could thus send a powerful message that deeply held values regarding human dignity and freedom have their place alongside economic and security interests in the way democracies approach international affairs.