The Transatlantic Relationship Could Make or Break Biden’s Summit for Democracy

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The Transatlantic Relationship Could Make or Break Biden’s Summit for Democracy

President Biden’s goal of bolstering democracies around the world will need robust U.S.-Europe cooperation to succeed.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy will bring together representatives from 108 countries in a virtual meeting intended to help forge a common agenda to strengthen democratic institutions. Getting the U.S.-European Union (EU) relationship right will be central to global efforts to support democracy, as strengthened transatlantic ties could help embolden democratic allies around the world.

What’s the aim of the Summit for Democracy?

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Set to begin on December 9, the summit is organized around three themes—defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. The Biden administration hopes to use it as an opportunity to convene like-minded leaders and secure commitments in support of democratic values and human rights.

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Biden initially pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign to hold such a summit. Arguing that confidence in democratic systems has declined with the rapid rise of authoritarianism and nationalism, as well as amid global disruptions from climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden presented the summit as a way to “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” It is part of the administration’s broader effort to prove that democratic systems can still deliver for their citizens, a reflection of Biden’s assessment that “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” 

The lead-up has not been free of controversy. Invitations to the summit have been extended to leaders accused of violating democratic norms, including Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Some analysts have suggested that the summit’s goals are too vague and the gathering too big to deliver results.

Perhaps the most controversial issue, however, is the summit’s relationship to growing U.S.-China competition. Although the agenda is not formally about China, Washington’s anxiety about Beijing’s economic and political power and Biden’s calls to build a coalition capable of competing with China are clearly in the background. Some experts have expressed concern that by defining geopolitics as a clash between democratic and authoritarian blocs, the summit could alienate potential allies and undermine the United States’ ability to cooperate with Russia and China in other areas. In a joint op-ed, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the United States criticized the gathering, calling it evidence of Washington’s “Cold-War mentality.”

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Why does the transatlantic trade relationship matter for democracy?

Since the end of World War II, European countries have been among the United States’ most important partners. The transatlantic relationship formed the backbone of the liberal international order with the creation of institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—the precursor to the World Trade Organization. Today, similar cooperation will be required to restore confidence in democracy.

Delivering broad-based economic growth will be crucial to that effort. Doing so means getting the economics right and there is no broader or deeper economic relationship among democracies than that between the United States and the EU.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Brussels in June 2021 to discuss U.S.-EU relations.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Brussels in June 2021 to discuss U.S.-EU relations. Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The sheer size of the transatlantic relationship makes it central to economic growth. The United States and the EU are each other’s largest sources and destinations of foreign direct investment, with nearly $4.5 trillion annually in transatlantic investments supporting millions of jobs. A poorly managed relationship featuring retaliatory tariffs and regulatory squabbles could create economic drag, while a well-coordinated relationship that takes advantage of each partner’s economic heft could offer Europe and the United States the opportunity to shape policy on pressing issues such as climate and global technology standards.

The Biden administration has taken important steps to rebuild this relationship through the resolution of long-standing trade disputes and the establishment of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC), a body intended to address shared concerns such as the semiconductor supply chain and standards for online privacy and emerging technologies. But the Summit for Democracy offers an even greater opportunity to strengthen ties and demonstrate to potential partners what working with Europe and the United States can look like.

What steps can Washington take to strengthen this relationship?

The Biden administration should build on its successes. The recently reached agreement between the United States and EU to resolve a dispute over trade in steel and aluminum could help decarbonize global production of these materials, if properly followed up on. The administration should stay committed to the TTC and other venues that could allow the United States and Europe to coordinate standards on new technologies. In addition to bolstering the transatlantic relationship, recently developed global infrastructure initiatives such as the Group of Seven’s Build Back Better World or the EU’s Global Gateway could highlight the benefits of aligning with democratic states.

It is important, however, that the effort to revitalize the transatlantic relationship not come at the expense of other partners. Cooperation from many democratic nations, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific, will be crucial. Efforts to develop technology standards to promote democratic values and make technological supply chains more resilient, for instance, will have to include Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Follow-through from Japan and South Korea on their commitments to end overseas coal financing will be similarly critical for combating climate change. In all these areas, strong, well-coordinated action from the United States and EU can help embolden democracies around the world.

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