President Joe Biden said he would host a "Democracy Summit" in his first year in office to demonstrate that democracies can collectively do something for the world.
But it looks like Biden won't even be able to hold the meeting on time.
According to several U.S. officials, the Biden administration is considering postponing the summit to at least 2022, citing concerns about hosting a large face-to-face meeting of world leaders during a pandemic and the look and feel of such an event. The summit isn't even on the president's calendar, two sources said.
"We haven't announced a date for the Democracy Summit yet, and I have no update to post on this front, but we look forward to meeting in due course," one senior administrator told me.
The summit was one of the President's most specific foreign policy proposals. On his campaign website and in articles, Biden said he wanted the US to host dozens of nations and civil society groups to discuss fighting corruption, curbing authoritarianism and promoting human rights. The event would "renew the spirit and common purpose of the nations of the free world," Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs last year.
Such a summit would lay the foundation for Biden's first year theme of proving American democracy, and the democratic governments of America's allies and partners can do better for the world than autocratic regimes.
It is still possible for Biden and his team to organize the meeting, albeit virtually, as promised by the end of the President's first year. But some people I spoke to said it would be wise to consider a delay. "Better to get it right than to do it hastily," said Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The fact that Biden may even have to consider postponing the summit shows how the coronavirus is complicating Biden's pro-democracy agenda – one he sees as a top priority of his presidency.
Biden wants his presidency to be the presidency of democracy
In his first address to Congress last month, Biden made it clear that the beating heart of his presidency demonstrated the effectiveness of democracy at home and abroad.
“We have to prove that democracy still works. That our government is still working – and can deliver for the people, ”he said. Those who believe that American democracy will not prevail "are wrong and we must prove them wrong."
That's partly why Biden proposed trillions in jobs, infrastructure, and welfare reforms to help boost the US economy. worked to strengthen alliances; Regimes in Myanmar, Russia and China pushed back aggression; and stepping up efforts to contain the coronavirus in trouble spots like India.
These and other efforts are intended to show how Biden and his allies like to say America is back. "We need to restore meaning to the American handshake," said Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a former Obama administration official.
The problem for Biden is that the coronavirus continues to challenge governments around the world – democracies included.
Millions of Americans are still not fully vaccinated, either because they hesitate, are not enthusiastic, lack access, or have other priorities. According to experts, this will not help the US economy recover as soon as possible, which could dampen the perception of America's recovery and global standing.
And growing, devastating coronavirus outbreaks like those in India aren't helping either. As foreign governments focus on overcoming their health crises (and seeking help from the US), they have less time to work with the US to advance a global democratic movement. Indeed, it would be a bad sight for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the leader of the world's largest democracy – to come to Washington for a summit while thousands of its citizens are dying from the virus.
So Biden still has a lot to do to prove that democracies can deliver. Getting a peak in the books may be the least of his worries.