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Biden’s democracy conference is about much more than democracy

By :Farah Stockman
Published : Dec 07, 2021 11:05:00 PM | Opinion

While Americans angry about the results of the 2020 election were busy storming their own Capitol and conducting the umpteenth recount in Arizona, threats from outside the country didn’t take a lunch break. To the contrary, they are evolving rapidly.

Imagine a hostile country shutting down New York City’s electrical grid for months at a time using code-breaking quantum computers. Imagine pirates in cyberspace disabling American missile defence systems without warning. Imagine China obtaining the private health data or private phone communications of millions of Americans, including members of Congress.

These aren’t nutty hypotheticals in some distant dystopian future. They are scenarios that keep American national security officials up at night right now.

“We have already reached the point where the behaviours of a limited group of talented actors in cyberspace could completely obliterate systems that we rely on for our day-to-day survival,” Candace Rondeaux, a specialist on the future of warfare at New America, a Washington-based think tank, told me.

The Biden administration’s response has been to counter those threats by gathering a coalition of democracies that will work together to safeguard our economies, our militaries and our technological networks from bad actors in China, Russia and elsewhere. That’s the reason President Joe Biden and European counterparts formed the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, which established working groups to develop new technology and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

It’s the reason Biden met with the heads of state of Australia, India and Japan — world powers on China’s doorstep — to ensure that “the way in which technology is designed, developed, governed and used is shaped by our shared values and respect for universal human rights.” And it’s the reason Biden has called together more than 100 leaders from democratic countries around the world for a virtual Summit for Democracy this Thursday and Friday.

At this week’s summit, there will be plenty of familiar-sounding pledges to root out corruption and defend human rights. There is likely to be hand-wringing about coups that reversed fragile progress in Sudan and Myanmar, and condemnations of leaders who used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on opposition and dissent, including those in El Salvador, Hungary and Uganda.

But at its core, this conference is not just about protecting democracy at home and abroad. It’s also about how open societies will defend themselves in the future against existential technological threats. As countries like China and Russia invest heavily in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and exercise intensive state control over data, the US and its allies need a game plan. What rules should be adopted to govern the use of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and space travel? How do we make sure those technologies aren’t weaponised against us?

The Biden administration is attempting to forge a common front with allies in Europe and Asia across technological, economic and military spheres to prepare for an age of technological competition that will look far different from any geopolitical rivalry that the world has ever seen. Democracy is the common thread stringing the Biden administration’s efforts together. It’s the code word for who’s on our team.

“This is the operating system for the administration’s vision for how it thinks about the world now,” Joshua Meltzer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on trade, told me.

Biden, who has been promising to hold this conference since he was a candidate, couches the new threats in old Cold War terminology — as the “free world” coming together to push back against fascism and authoritarianism.

Of course, there’s plenty of risk in framing the challenge in those terms. First, there’s the awkwardness of acknowledging that many of the countries on Team Democracy have been democratically challenged in recent years, starting with the US itself. Almost no corner of the world has been left unscathed by the erosion of democratic norms. Poland’s ruling party has targeted its independent judiciary and is battling the European Union over what it means to uphold the rule of law.

India, the world’s largest democracy, was downgraded to “partly free” by Freedom House with the continued silencing of dissent and rise of Hindu nationalism and attacks on Muslim citizens. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has targeted journalists who have called out corruption and disinformation. India, Poland and the Philippines are all expected at Biden’s democracy summit. Of course they are. We need them on our team.

Once we acknowledge that no democracy is perfect and that all countries sit somewhere on a spectrum between “free” and “unfree,” the dividing line between “us” and “them” gets muddier. In a rare op-ed essay, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors in Washington argued that the United States has no right to sit in judgment over which nations are democracies and which nations are not. They argued that their countries should be considered democracies too. After all, Chinese citizens can join the Communist Party and participate in some deliberations.

“What China has is an extensive, whole-process socialist democracy,” China’s ambassador, Qin Gang, and Russia’s ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, wrote in The National Interest. “It reflects the people’s will, suits the country’s realities, and enjoys strong support from the people.”

While those arguments are not particularly convincing, they did make a point that rang true. Carving up the world into “us” and “them” could complicate efforts to solve other existential problems facing both the free and unfree: climate change, pandemics and mass migration.

If the world is split between countries with authoritarian governments that exercise absolute control over technology, expression and data, and more open societies that adopt different standards, technology itself could bifurcate. Just as appliances in some parts of the world run on 110 volts while other parts run on 220 volts, emerging technologies could diverge, reshaping the boundary lines of the future in ways that are difficult to predict. That’s already happening. For example, on 5G internet service, much of the world will use Chinese telecom equipment, while countries that want to protect privacy and data will use American equipment.

Some say the world will eventually be divided into countries that fall into China’s orbit — those that have signed up to have their infrastructure built by China’s “Belt and Road” program — and those that fall into the orbit of the United States and Europe, which are scrambling to offer their own plan to fund infrastructure in the developing world under the banner of “Build Back Better World.”

“It won’t be quite as sharp a line as the Iron Curtain was, and we shouldn’t demand that it be,” Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser, told me. He said he believes that countries will form new and overlapping coalitions based on the specific technology in question and that many countries will end up working with both China and the United States.

But the idea of a global split runs against the grain of the current reality of deep interdependence between the Chinese economy and our own. How do you “contain” a country that owns about 14% of our national debt? A country we rely on to supply us with everything from penicillin to iPhones?

The last problem with framing the challenge around the language of democracy versus authoritarianism is that it doesn’t take into account, for instance, the role that American tech companies continue to play in selling capabilities to the Chinese military.

“This is where the democracy summit has challenges conceptually,” Rondeaux told me. “It’s very oriented around the idea that nation-states are the big players. But I don’t think in today’s 21st-century world order that nation-states are the most important or even the most powerful actors.”

Some tech companies are becoming as powerful as governments. It’s worth noting that many states — authoritarian and democratic — have taken steps to rein in the power of Big Tech, even as they increasingly lean on Big Tech to bolster their national security.

In other words, it’s complicated. Most Americans — including me — don’t have the tech background or the vocabulary to do the subject justice. “Democracy” is a word that people can relate to and rally around.

“President Biden is like every other president before him,” Rondeaux told me. “He needs an organizing principle for his foreign policy and he’s picked one.”

Democracy isn’t a perfect fit. But for now, it will do.

This article was originally published in the New York Times.