Nobody likes virtue signaling. Like the 20/20 hindsight of Monday morning quarterbacks and the untrained military counsel of armchair generals, virtue signaling embodies the sneering moral superiority of the lawn-sign wielding, T-shirt wearing, bumper-sticker sporting, do-as-I-say crowd. But the Biden administration has taken virtue signaling to the next level, elevating it as a pillar of its post-Trump “America is back” foreign policy. And the president’s recent Summit for Democracy is only the latest example of a global weltanschauung that is high on messaging and bereft of substance.
First, there should be no argument about the critical importance of democratic governance. It has both intrinsic and strategic value given the escalating battle between the world’s democracies and an increasingly tyrannical and aggressive People’s Republic of China. Second, the wisdom of a coordinating body among democracies—a good guy United Nations—is hard to argue, though clearly difficult to execute. We’ve tried before with the hapless Community of Democracies, and we failed. Nonetheless, the importance of standing with others against the predations of China and its corporate soldiers (think Huawei), the rapaciousness of Vladimir Putin, the menace of Iran, or even the petty threats of Cuba should be obvious. But here’s a spoiler: The Summit of Democracy is not the way forward.
President Biden opened his virtual gathering of 111 nations on last Thursday with stirring words:
We stand at an inflection point in our history, in my view. … Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked? Or will we together have a vision … and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?
To be fair to the oft-criticized Biden, his intentions were not malign. They were simply empty. Let’s start with the invitees to the summit. As my AEI colleague Sadanand Dhume noted in his Wall Street Journal column, many of the “democracies” in attendance were not actually, you know, democracies. Why was Pakistan invited but not Singapore? India but not Hungary? The Philippines but not Turkey? The invited were in some instances notably less democratic than many of the pointedly excluded. From the get-go, the naked politicking and reliance on selection criteria that were clearly about more than just the participants’ democratic bona fides signaled an unseriousness about the global democratic imperative.
Then there was the agenda. Like a Seinfeld episode, there wasn’t one. Rather, the administration used the occasion to announce a series of assistance programs and sanctions designed to tackle democratic backsliding, assaults on the media, and corruption overseas. Those are vital issues, but the initiatives were the meals-ready-to-eat of foreign policy: The United States has already identified the corrosive effects of corruption, but done staggeringly little to fight graft in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East. Billions in aid have flowed to Egypt, Pakistan, and Lebanon (just to name check the Middle East alone), with zero accountability from the U.S. government for the rampant corruption of those governments.
Attacks on independent media have also risen in recent years, with summit guest Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounting regular assaults on newspapers and reporters who have criticized him, his party, and his policies, “intimidat[ing] the press through tax raids, temporary bans on TV channels, and pressure on media magnates to sack recalcitrant journalists.” Likewise Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. His persecution of journalist Maria Ressa earned her this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, but those human rights violations posed no obstacle to his participation in the summit. Apart from mouthing concern on sporadic occasions, the reaction from Washington has been crickets.
Then there are the “get tough” steps Team Biden announced: a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics (that’ll show ‘em!) and sanctions against Iranian, Ugandan, and Syrian officials. Sadly, while Iranian, Ugandan, Syrian officials merit U.S. sanctions–not to speak of officials in Russia, Venezuela, China, North Korea, and elsewhere– the reality of the Biden administration’s commitment to sanctioning foreigners contemptuous of democratic norms is pathetic. Rather, the administration is actually facilitating Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s rehabilitation into the civilized world, sanctioning Russian officials already under Trump administration strictures, begging Iran to rejoin the failed 2015 nuclear deal by offering billions in sanctions relief in return, lifting sanctions on Russia’s critical Nord Stream 2 project that will funnel gas to Europe and bypass Ukraine, and worse.
Human rights officials have voiced cautious optimism about the summit, noting that everything will depend on whether the countries attending keep their commitments to Biden. Because if they don’t, what? No more Mr. Nice Guy with India? No more letting Pakistan off the hook for supporting terrorism? No more helping the Philippines against China? Let’s be serious. The United States can’t manage nanny-statism both at home and abroad. The right choice is to talk less about the beauty of this administration’s belief in democracy and do more for the world’s beleaguered, whether it’s the Afghans that Biden threw to the wolves, the Syrians his former boss Barack Obama dismissed, the Uyghurs that are waiting to see the meaning of “never again,” and millions of others who need American leadership, not American preening.
But doing isn’t this administration’s mantra. Talking about doing is the Biden thing. Like the perfervid announcements about renewed support for NATO (without a single initiative to address NATO’s growing systemic problems); rejoining the Paris climate accords (members’ record of meeting commitments? Zero); revitalizing support for allies (ahem, Afghanistan); respecting America’s friends (except France, because Paris doesn’t really deserve Biden’s loyalty, or something); the hyped-up global democratic renewal will be puffery without action, the equivalent of a sign on the White House lawn announcing, “In this house we believe in democracy.” Virtue without meaning, without seriousness, without action.