When U.S. President Joe Biden convenes his second Summit for Democracy on March 29, expectations will be modest. A new report from the research institute Varieties of Democracy suggests that 72 percent of the world’s population now lives in autocracies, up from 46 percent in 2012, and Freedom House recently declared 2022 the 17th consecutive year of global democratic decline.

Biden’s first Summit for Democracy, held virtually in December 2021, sought to galvanize democratic countries to work toward advancing democracy within their own borders. But the United States didn’t build an accompanying monitoring mechanism, making it difficult to track countries’ progress on the commitments they made. Nor has the United States made defending democracy abroad a major foreign policy priority, a puzzling decision given that Biden has described the struggle between democracy and autocracy as “the defining challenge of our time.”

As a candidate for president, Biden campaigned on the need to preserve democracy at home and abroad. Since taking office, he has championed voting rights and worked to strengthen democratic institutions within the United States. But his administration’s approach to defending democracy beyond U.S. borders has been much less vigorous. It has centered around organizing summits that bring together countries that are already largely committed to democracy, bolstering democratic reformers, and responding to broad, thematic challenges to democracy, such as the use of technology to limit individual freedoms. None of this requires making hard choices between values and interests when dealing with autocracies or backsliding democracies or confronting individual autocratic leaders.

For the most part, the Biden administration has shied away from those confrontations, favoring security and economic concerns over governance issues. It said little publicly about democratic regression in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland before Russia invaded Ukraine and has said almost nothing about it since. U.S. support for democracy movements in Sudan and Myanmar has been inconsistent under Biden. And when Chadian President Idriss Déby died and his son Mahamat seized power in 2021, clearly contravening the country’s constitutional order, the United States chose not to risk jeopardizing its security relationship with Chad by declaring the move a coup. U.S. defense cooperation with Thailand and Vietnam is increasing, even as those countries disregard basic democratic norms. The Biden administration touts its support for Ukraine as evidence of its commitment to defending democracy, but the fact that it has done so much to assist Kyiv also underscores how little it has done to counter threats to democracy in parts of the world where the United States has fewer interests at stake.

Biden has rightly emphasized humility in foreign policy , given that the health of the United States’ own democracy is not what it once was. But to mount a credible defense of democracy abroad, Washington and its partners would need to challenge authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning governments, not just bolster democratic reformers. Doing so requires a strategy that better aligns U.S. policies and actions with the democratic aspirations of people around the world. The second Summit for Democracy—which the United States is set to host with Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia—gives the Biden administration another chance to match its rhetoric with action. But if this summit, like the first, doesn’t elevate democracy to the status of a core national security interest and lead to country-specific strategies for countering authoritarianism, many champions of democracy will be disheartened and could grow cynical about American intentions.


The Biden administration is aware of the gap between its rhetorical commitment to defending democracy and the reality of its foreign policy and has sought to fill it with programs that support democratic reformers. At the first democracy summit in 2021, Biden unveiled the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, a collection of worthwhile programs that support independent media, marginalized groups, and free and fair elections, among other things. The administration has also launched an effort to support democratic “bright spots,” countries that are undertaking democratic reforms. At a total of just $424 million, however, the administration’s financial commitment to the democratic renewal initiative is modest, the equivalent of what the United States spends in a single year to combat HIV/AIDS in Mozambique.

And such programs can only go so far. They can bolster democratic activists and strengthen civil society organizations, but they can’t impose costs on autocrats for malign behavior. As a result, the Biden administration’s approach to democracy support has plenty of programmatic carrots but few policy sticks. This isn’t a formula for success, since autocrats and reformers alike can see that Washington will commit resources to defend democracy but won’t use its leverage or expend political capital to do so. Moreover, autocrats know how to undercut U.S.-funded initiatives. They can harass dissidents or muzzle the press, for instance, making it all the more essential that the United States provide political cover for reformers by condemning abuses or imposing penalties, among other measures.

The same is true of thematic programs aimed at countering systemic threats to democracy, such as abuses of technology or corruption. These, too, can allow the United States to avoid confronting authoritarian leaders—some of them U.S. allies—who exploit such threats. The Biden administration has developed tools that bite harder, such as export controls and curbs on illicit finance, but they are under the radar; officials should do more to package and explain these to the public as part of its commitment to defending democracy.

Biden’s efforts on this font have been hobbled by the absence of a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, the usual point person for policymaking that prioritizes democracy. Senate Republicans refused to approve Sarah Margon, Biden’s nominee for the post, depriving the State Department of a vital voice for democracy.

But the Biden administration bears responsibility for its broader failure to challenge autocrats—or even to lay out a plan for how it might do so. Although the administration has published strategies on cybersecurity, countering corruption, the Arctic, advanced manufacturing, and many other issues, it has yet to publish one on democracy. Instead, the Biden administration has fallen back on symbolism: its two summits have become the central focus of its democracy agenda, consuming much of the bandwidth of officials responsible for democracy support.


Pageantry is no substitute for policy. What the Biden administration needs is a global democracy strategy to guide bureaucratic decision-making and align its policies and programs with clearly stated priorities. Drawing up such a strategy, as a bipartisan task force led by a group of think tanks recommended early in Biden’s tenure, would both signal the administration’s renewed resolve to defend democracy and serve as a roadmap for doing so.

The strategy should not just lay out the administration’s priorities but also embed them in decision-making structures so they can’t be ignored when they seem inconvenient. To that end, the administration should establish regular processes, such as an annual report tracking strategy implementation and an oversight council, that help keep its priorities in sight. The strategy should also recommend policies that regularize responses to threats to democratic governance. For example, when a foreign leader scraps or extends term limits to remain in office, the United States should automatically suspend some forms of assistance, as it does in response to military coups. Finally, the strategy should make clear which agency or department has overall responsibility for keeping democracy at the heart of foreign policy decision-making.

Calling for a “whole of government” approach will elicit eye rolls from some, but the reason the phrase is invoked so frequently in Washington is that disparate components of the government too often chart their own courses, especially on issues they don’t view as central to their mission. A global democracy strategy must require all parts of the executive branch—including the Department of Defense , the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative—to consider the impact of their decisions on democratic trends. In particular, they should consider the risk that cooperation in the security sector could encourage democratic backsliding or human rights abuses. U.S. economic assistance should also be guided, at least in part, by countries’ commitments to democratic governance.

To promote democracy, the Biden administration has fallen back on symbolism.

But a global strategy for democracy isn’t enough. Any meaningful conversation about defending democracy must also take place at the country level; after all, it is countries that ultimately progress or regress on the path to democracy. Planning on that level forces policymakers to make tradeoffs between competing imperatives and to balance multiple priorities in a way that thematic planning does not.

Unfortunately, officials in the Biden administration have resisted country-level plans—or if such plans exist, they are not being shared with the public, so the opportunity to coordinate with activists in each country is being missed. Biden should direct the White House and the State Department to collaborate on specific support plans (while soliciting input from activists from those countries) for at least a dozen states in which democracy is in flux, including India, Nigeria, Sudan, Thailand, and Tunisia, among others. The plans should have short- and long-term components, since democratic change is a lengthy, uneven process that doesn’t abide by the American electoral calendar. Congress, which has often been out in front of the Biden administration on support for democracy abroad, should consider mandating such country-level democracy plans as part of the appropriations process.

The fact that expectations are so modest for the coming democracy summit gives Biden an opportunity to greatly exceed them. But doing so will require his administration to develop not just a global strategy for democracy but also country-level plans to which it can be held accountable. Washington cannot advance the cause of democracy simply by bolstering those who champion it, as the first two years of the Biden administration have shown. The United States must also confront the authoritarians responsible for democratic decline.

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  • JON TEMIN is Vice President of Policy and Programs at the Truman Center for National Policy. From 2014 to 2017, he served on the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff.
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