Does America Have Summit Syndrome?
Many see the Biden administration’s various summit and conference initiatives and their respective budgetary allocations as achieving relatively minimal results for the effort made.
A growing number of high-level U.S. global affairs summits have brought large numbers of world leaders together for dialogue, attempting to foreground discourse over hard-handed political, military, and economic approaches to policy. The recent U.S.-led Summit for Democracy was just one example of this fanfare-promoting approach to American global influence, to lukewarm reviews. While by no means a new tool in global politics, the Biden administration has made a tilt toward summitry a hallmark of its agenda, part of a wider attempt to right size from the Trump administration’s swings against multilateralism.
But do summits work? The problem is: no one knows. Critics warn that high-level meetings lead to minimal results, favor pageantry over policy, or, worse, open the United States up to accusations of hypocrisy, ultimately undermining U.S. leadership. These criticisms are inevitably shaped by controversy over America’s democratic weaknesses in recent years, debates over invite lists, and other internal policy problems. Supporters, meanwhile, find summits can serve as important counterpoints to growing geopolitical threats, helping boost multilateralism and symbolic support for policy priorities.
The reality sits somewhere in between. U.S. leaders require a more refined understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of high-level convening to meet the goals summits aim to achieve.
A Summit for Everything?
Recent high-level meetings, ranging from the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the Summit for Democracy, and the Summit of the Americas, all shared aspirations to help ignite a sea-change around critical dimensions of U.S. foreign policy. As nations emerge from isolation brought on by coronavirus, these meetings combined in-person and virtual connection aiming to “showcase progress” and “organize action” for U.S.-led partnership on global challenges, with sessions addressing everything from conflict in Ukraine to emerging technology for democracy to supporting the status of women around the world.
Scholars have identified some evidence of the symbolic value of high-profile convenings: large international meetings can contribute to improved coherence and coordination in multilateral agenda-setting, can support network building among complementary government and civic actors, and, perhaps above all else, high-level symbolic support for particular issues. These meetings can also launch important policies and commitments, such as the 2021 Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal launched at last year’s Democracy Summit, or the announcement of new partnerships and funds stemming from the recent U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit.
But these initiatives and their respective budgetary allocations have been seen as relatively minimal results for the effort made. The recent high-profile U.S. Summit for Democracy was met with lukewarm reception domestically and abroad. Critics saw the three-day event as everything from awkward, alienating, and a waste of time, and to many, missed the mark in terms of policy-forward solutions to a pressing global tightening on democratic governance. As Jon Temin recently argued, “[i]f this [U.S. Democracy] 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.” For many, these fears were realized as concrete goals were minimally met, while the Summit forced countries into “with us or against us” mentality, playing into adversarial narratives of a polarized world. Many long-anticipated global meetings have led to modest budgetary and policy announcements. For these minimal results, these high-level meetings have received significant attention and administrative resources, making their results even more disappointing.
Although the coronavirus pandemic had halted major global meetings from taking place, it is unclear what, if any, damage was caused by the pause. The reinvigoration of major global meetings in 2022 led to “mild successes” at best. This leaves open the question – what purpose do these meetings serve, and should the United States continue to turn to summitry over other options?
Perhaps even more alarming are the risks. These high-level meetings can open governments up to accusations of hypocrisy, which critics warn can actually impart serious damage. One estimate of the costs of hosting the UN Convention on Climate Change, a convening consistently branded as “disappointing,” suggested the meeting came with a cost of some several hundred million pounds, alongside the awkward issue of air transportation for leaders otherwise promoting greener activities. Even with the use of virtual conferencing, which Biden’s administration deployed substantially in the recent Democracy Summit and experts stress should be balanced skillfully with hybrid in-person approaches, these initiatives can take up substantial time and bandwidth for officials who are otherwise responsible for important tasks.
The particularly concerning dangers of high-profile events like the Democracy Summit are that they may undermine the goals they aim to support. The Biden administration’s extension of invitations to the recent Democracy Summit to India, currently facing heat for the jailing of opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, Israel, which is being criticized for controversial judicial reform, and Mexico, which is accused of shutting down free and fair elections, has raised inevitable critique. Similarly, this winter’s U.S.-Africa Summit convened leaders to discuss, among prominent issues, enhancing gender equality in Africa as a priority issue. But, of the forty-seven U.S. and African leaders depicted in photos of the event, just one was a woman.
Proponents will insist that the pageantry of summits can help expand rhetorical support for democracy, and, in turn, U.S. soft power. The idea is that such efforts are a far better alternative to those pushed by military might and force. Casting a wide net of invitations for pleasantries and rhetorical commitments can help build a sense of global solidarity and can contribute to strength in numbers against the rising tide of ideological adversaries. The semi-regular meeting of the World Conference on Women, for example, first held in 1975 and held periodically since, has helped galvanize attention to a range of global women’s rights issues, and arguably helped accelerate national monitoring and commitments to the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goal 5. Similarly, studies of international legal commitments including my research on the impact of international human rights laws, have found that even when rhetorical commitments are not upheld, they can help contribute to domestic support for issues which can in turn hold governments to account. To some, the recent Democracy Summit’s biggest success was the wide reach of its umbrella, which helped put China “on the back foot” as a perceived foe to a growing democratic club.
The bottom line is that these effects, while well-intentioned, remain largely speculative. It is reasonable to assume that there are both risks and benefits to high-level convenings, and both need to be balanced and considered. Summits should not be seen as policy solutions in themselves but rather as vehicles to bring attention to otherwise developed and consistent policy efforts. The risks of hypocrisy should be evaluated and contribute, where possible, to the design of invite lists, U.S. statements, and policy priorities. The benefits of promoting rhetorical commitment to goals among those least aligned should also play a role.
A China Daily article touting critique of the recent Democracy Summit as “simply for political show” alongside a recent Washington Post article from Zambia’s President reciting the adage “you cannot eat democracy” indicates that the battle for global leadership and influence will not be won with photo opportunities and pleasantries, but rather, with results shown for the strength of democracy everywhere. A careful understanding of the global temperature is needed to direct strategic approaches that meet complex global challenges. The chance to learn from a slate of recent global meetings about the challenges and opportunities for an American-led global future is stronger than ever. Policymakers should seek to understand the diversity of consequences—both negative and positive—of high-level summits to strive for stronger solutions to global challenges.
Rachel George works at the Council on Foreign Relations and serves as a Fellow at Duke University's Department for International Development in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, The National Interest, Human Rights Review, and in chapters in The Routledge History of Human Rights and The Arab Gulf States and the West: Perception and Realities - Opportunities and Perils, among other outlets. She holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics.