The Empty Rhetoric at the Summit for Democracy

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?

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