Last week as Joe Biden invited about 110 leaders to a virtual Summit for Democracy, he sounded the alarm over the rising tide of authoritarianism, as well as leading discussion on how to counter democratic backslide. The president admitted the summit was less of a magic bullet than the start of a global conversation on how to stop further democratic rot – an attempt to “seed fertile ground for democracies to bloom around the world”.
Critics dismissed the summit as an ideological (and cynical) ploy to enlist countries in Washington’s strategic competition with China, as well as to appease overseas powers eager to see US leadership on the world stage. Both charges have merit.
But if the US doesn’t convene world democracy, it’s unclear who would. Similar events in the past held by global coalitions, such as the UN and the Community of Democracies, have merely reaffirmed democratic principles without creating momentum for further action. And rarely has there been a moment in which we need a plan to reverse its erosion worldwide.
In the past year, military coups have ousted governments in Sudan and Myanmar. Cuba has launched a violent crackdown on some of its biggest protests in years, and restricted control of the internet. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus refused to accept his election loss, and forced down a plane carrying political dissidents.
Even as leaders gathered for the virtual summit, Russia launched a massive buildup of forces and heavy weaponry across its eastern border with Ukraine, amid growing concern in Washington and Europe about another large-scale military invasion. These are just the most notable examples of democracy in peril.
Last month the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found more than a quarter of the world’s population now lives in countries where democracy is in decline. The pro-democracy organisation Freedom House pointed to 15 straight years of steady democratic backsliding, warning the scales of global freedom are now tipping in favour of authoritarian-leaning populists and would-be dictators, justifying repression in order to expand power and influence.
Implementing the slate of initiatives unveiled at the summit – from combating corruption and disinformation to strengthening election integrity and independent media – won’t be easy. The US has always been better at championing democracy than at supporting it in action. Neither the reaffirmation of democratic principles, nor these proposals, will do much to help democratic activists on the frontlines in countries such as Cuba, Belarus or Ukraine where Washington has instead favoured sanctions against the anti-democratic offenders in power. Or in Afghanistan, where 38 million Afghans have had 20 years of democracy snatched from under them, as the Taliban reimpose their severe form of repressive government. For them democracy represents more than a concept, but a way of life for which they continue to fight.
Biden’s problems start at home. The president knows democracy is the product of a healthy society, in which voting rights, free elections, media and a judiciary are all critical elements. Yet these ingredients are in short supply on home soil. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of Americans believe their political system “needs to be completely reformed” or “needs major changes”, while respondents in more than a dozen countries said a majority of citizens want major change
s or total reform. One might be forgiven for questioning whether the leader of the US has the moral authority to host such a gathering, given his own country’s spotty record – from the 6 January insurrection on Capitol Hill to new laws restricting voters’ access to ballots and stalled voter rights legislation – a victim of political dogfighting.
The need for the US to strengthen its own democracy doesn’t mean it should not try to bolster it abroad, though, by rallying the forces of freedom. Biden is right when he warned the leaders attending the summit that the world is at an “inflection point in history”. Populations are facing rising inequality and a sense of powerlessness, coupled with hardship
s brought on by the global pandemic and faltering world economy. They are now questioning whether authoritarian rule may provide stability. China, uninvited to the summit, published its own briefing document offering one-party rule as an alternative form of governance.
The world’s democracies must rally, if only to stop the world’s dictators and their supporters who, as Anne Applebaum describes in The Atlantic, share a network of security actors, media and financial interests to cement their oppressive rule. And populist champions like former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon are busy organising far-right activists across Europe – some of them funded by Russia. Their beliefs resemble those of 1930s fascist intellectuals and find resonance with the demagogues and authoritarians of today. Given all of these headwinds, it remains to be seen whether the summit can turn rhetoric into action, particularly when many of the leaders who attended – such as those from India, Iraq, Poland, Brazil and the Philippines – have been accused of harbouring authoritarian tendencies themselves.
The democracy summit participants launched a “year of action” in which they dedicated themselves to implementing commitments they made. But the UUS has thus far declined to say how or even whether it planned to hold the participants to account for those pledges. The lack of these benchmarks is why summits get a bad name, criticised for being talk over action. Without them they are highly unlikely to produce meaningful change and reinvigorate democracy. Some suggested that before they are invited to an in-person follow-on summit planned for next year, countries should meet their commitments to take steps toward bolstering independent media, increasing financial transparency, limiting export of technology to authoritarian-run countries and strengthening election integrity and civic capacity – particularly for women and marginalised communities. It is the bare minimum that Biden can do to prove that the Summit for Democracy has teeth.
Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and the founder and CEO of Zivvy Media