What Biden’s Democracy Summit Gets Right

What Biden’s Democracy Summit Gets Right

Biden’s democracy summit will not be helpful as a tool of statecraft. But it will be right in its message that the surest path to prosperity is through greater freedom.


President Joe Biden will hold his second democracy summit in March. Like the previous one, it will not be helpful as a tool of statecraft for the United States or other countries. But it will be right in its message that the surest path to prosperity is through greater freedom.

Biden got together 100 countries for his first democracy summit held in December 2021. The event seemed to be an attempt to unite democracies in support of the Biden Doctrine which argues that the defining issue of our time is the contest between democracies and autocracies.


The Biden Doctrine, however, is not stated precisely enough to be useful. As Biden himself makes clear on page 8 in his National Security Strategy, America’s main strategic challenge comes from powers that are both authoritarian and revisionist. Such powers, he continues, wage and prepare for wars of aggression, undermine other democracies, oppress their peoples, and use economic coercion against democracies. He adds, importantly, that “many non-democracies join the world’s democracies in forswearing these behaviors.”

What is clear in Biden’s National Security Strategy, but not in his other statements on his doctrine, is that not all autocracies are threats to the United States—only the revisionist ones. And that some autocracies are actually on the United States’ side in opposing revisionist autocracies like China and Russia.

The message of the Biden Doctrine has also been implicitly rejected by the Global South in its reaction to the second Russian invasion of Ukraine. A large number of developing countries have refused to condemn Russia the way Western democracies have. These countries, which some have identified as a new non-aligned movement, refuse to pick sides for ideological reasons and want to do business with democracies and autocracies alike.

Where Biden’s Democracy Summit is right is that “strong, rights-respecting democracies are more peaceful, prosperous, and stable.” 

A June 2022 report on the Atlantic Council’s freedom and prosperity indexes shows a high correlation relationship between the economic, political, and legal freedoms of countries and their prosperity level. All countries ranked in the top category of the Atlantic Council’s Freedom Index are also ranked in one of the two top categories of its Prosperity Index. And almost all of the countries in the bottom category of the Freedom Index are in one of the two bottom categories of the Prosperity Index.

The report also explores the causal relationship between freedom and prosperity by looking at the prosperity levels of divided countries with divergent freedom paths. It shows that free West Germany and South Korea became more prosperous than East Germany and North Korea.

A recent essay published by Aspen Institute Romania on freedom and prosperity in Eastern Europe reached the same conclusions. The essay described an analysis of a selected sample of formerly Communist countries with a similar lower-middle income level in 1996. The sample countries also had a similar freedom starting point in 1996: They had all just overcome half a century of Communism during which they had had no political, economic, or legal freedom.

The analysis then looks at the freedom and prosperity paths of these countries over the next three decades by looking at their scores in the 2021 Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Indexes. It finds that countries like the Baltics and Romania that made a clean break with their Communist past and joined the European Union were more prosperous in 2021 than those countries that did not. Not surprisingly, the lowest rankings of the sample group in both freedom and prosperity were Russia and Belarus.

The Democracy Summit is also right when it implies that the authoritarian development model promoted by Communist China (not invited to the summit) is not the best formula for durable prosperity. Data from the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Indexes support this view. Communist China ranks 140 in the Freedom Index and 114 in its Prosperity Index. In contrast, just 100 miles off the coast of China and also with an ethnic Chinese population, democratic Taiwan is much freer and much more prosperous: it ranks 18 and 27, respectively.

Dan Negrea is the Senior Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center of the Atlantic Council. Previously he served at the U.S. Department of State as a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff and as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs.

Joseph Lemoine is the Deputy Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center of the Atlantic Council. Previously he worked at the World Bank as a private sector specialist and as an advisor to governments in developing countries.

Yomna Gaafar is the Assistant Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center of the Atlantic Council. Previously she worked for the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation.

Image: Shutterstock.