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What can be salvaged from Biden’s Democracy Summit

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about threats to democracy on Nov. 2, 2022, at the Columbus Club in Union Station, near the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Democracy has been a constant theme of many of his speeches.

Ask any person working on democracy issues — off the record — about President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, and you get eye rolls followed by a litany of unflattering reviews, including from U.S. government officials.

I too have criticized aspects of the Summit. The organization and decision-making processes have been disorganized, opaque, and not inclusive. Participant selection has been confusing and arbitrary. Nonstate actors — civil society, political parties, media, political opposition — have had a limited role at the main stage events. Democrats — lower case “d” — from non-democracies have been excluded. Country commitments (where they exist) lack innovation and substance. Civil society and allied governments were encouraged by the U.S. to form thematic cohorts after the first Summit, but then were offered no support, resources, or direction. I could go on.

Despite all this, I still believe the Summit adds value and could kick start enhanced international coordination and cooperation at a time of democratic decline.

First, if the Summit were purely a messaging exercise, that’s still a success. It was important for President Biden to signal to the world after the Trump presidency that the U.S. “was back!” — including our commitment to upholding democratic values.

Further, the U.S. approached the first event with the correct degree of humility. For far too long, Americans have fancied themselves on the democracy high horse, preaching to others how things should be done. A country coming out of an attempt by the former president to overturn the results of a free and fair election by setting an insurrectionist mob on the Capitol might want to do more listening and learning than preaching and teaching about democracy.

The Summit’s narrative was, rightly, that we are all in this together in defending and bolstering our democracies — because we are all vulnerable. This is a message the world needed to hear from the United States.

Second, autocrats are organizing and supporting one another, sharing tactics and resources. The Kremlin is providing financial and information operational support to political parties, candidates, and movements around the world. China is exporting technology to governments who want to suppress oppositional forces at home, including through the use of surveillance and tracking devices, personal data collection tools, and security equipment. Strongmen like Hungarian President Viktor Orban have coordinated with far-right Americans to bring together participants at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) and other events to swap effective illiberal, xenophobic practices to build political support. Former Trump operative Steve Bannon reportedly has been working to unite nationalist, far-right movements from Italy, the UK, France, Brazil, and Hungary with a strategy to weaken liberal international institutions and norms.

It is high time those who believe in democracy come together with the same level of organization, enthusiasm, and support for one another to defend a liberal democratic order.

Third, as Ukrainian activist Hanna Hopko and I have written, a global commitment to democracy is not a theoretical exercise, values proposition, or merely a response to Bannon’s strongmen retreats. Violent, autocratic takeovers of democracies are happening.

Participants pledged to defend democracy at the first Democracy Summit in December 2021, and Russia’s war in Ukraine is testing that pledge. A second Summit should be a rallying cry to make good on our commitment and solidify our resolve. There is value in repeated affirmation — and convening the world’s democrats to voice a defense of democracy on-the-record sends a message to autocrats around the world.

From what very little has been shared about the second Summit this week, there are a few minor improvements. It is more decentralized than the first event, with regional events hosted by other countries, and participation at the main event has been, reportedly, modestly expanded to include other voices. It is unlikely the Summit will be a lively, inspirational forum of democratic innovation.

There is no indication yet that the U.S. will hold a third summit, nor should it.

There is a need, however, for sustained global democracy exchanges, not one-off events, to renew and reinforce democratic agency, share innovative tactics, and develop communities of best practice. While there is a plethora of existing organizations and efforts to support democracy, many are focused on countries that receive development aid and they tend to employ a bilateral approach, rather than embracing a truly global framework where democrats from old, new, rich, and poor democracies and states sit and learn together. This work also requires more than annual conferences, but rather sustained, regular incubation labs of in-depth exchange.

These exchanges could be decentralized affairs uniting around a theme, be it information integrity, rethinking representation, trust in elections, civic education, or rule of law. The central players should not be heads of state and bureaucrats, as in the Summit, but youth activists, town clerks, election officials, local legislators, and others in the grassroots defending democracy.

From my 25 years living in struggling democracies and hybrid regimes, I know first-hand that democratic creativity, experimentation, and innovation comes from below.

The objective of these exchanges would be to focus on the frontier: What are the new, upcoming challenges and threats, and how can we get ahead of them? We, democrats, need to share successful tools, structures, and processes for possible replication, rethink old governance practices that are no longer fit for purpose, and include democrats from difficult regimes, who tend to be the most innovative of all.

Countries, foundations, and philanthropists could contribute to a pooled global democracy exchange investment fund that could support organizations to host these exchanges, perhaps using an existing independent platform or body. Pooling resources would remove attribution, micromanaging, or diplomatic concerns, allowing risk-taking. The U.S. could even take the lead during the Summit to put forward this idea and commit to investing in it.

The second and last U.S. Summit has the chance to be the start, rather than the end, of something.

Instead of ticking the box of “phew, we got through it,” the mission must continue. Our adversaries are building momentum and winning hearts and minds. Democracy must make its case and go on offense, and no one can do it alone. Democrats everywhere must stick together. 

Laura L. Thornton is Senior Vice President, Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.

Tags authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism autocrats biden administration China democracy promotion Democracy promotion by the United States Democracy summit Far-right politics Joe Biden Russia Steve Bannon Summit for Democracy Viktor Orban

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