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A ‘summit of democracy’ is a great opportunity

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The biggest battle of our time is democracy versus authoritarianism. In the 1930s, democracy lost; but during the Cold War, democracy won. Today, the free world is standing against China and Russia. According to Freedom House, the authoritarians have been gaining ground over democracies since 2005. It is high time for the democrats to go on the offensive.

Fortunately, President Biden has decided to do exactly that, as he put it in his great foreign policy speech on Feb. 4: “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity,” he said. Biden committed to “host the summit of democracy early in my administration to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back the authoritarianism’s advance.”

Biden draws on an important democratic tradition. As newly-elected president in 1976, Jimmy Carter made human rights a keystone of his foreign policy. In 1979, he was much maligned because of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and the simultaneous Iranian occupation of the U.S. embassy in Teheran, but words matter. His declaration initiated what the famous political scientist Samuel Huntington named the Third Wave of democratization, which lasted from 1976 until 2005. In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright established the Community of Democracies, but it faded after her departure.

Biden’s announcement of a democracy summit has aroused a broad discussion. “Realists” advise him against antagonizing the authoritarians for the sake of security policy. Some supporters of democracy worry that everybody will be invited but commit themselves to nothing. They argue that Biden should demand prior commitments to elementary democratic principles and the rule of law. Whoever does not make credible commitments would not be invited.

Many countries linger in a gray zone. Freedom House labels 83 countries free, 59 countries partly free and 54 unfree. Countries in the gray zone include Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India. The United States should not antagonize but incentivize them. Ideally, Washington should give clear guidelines for participation now so that they can adjust. If they do not, they should not be invited.

The world has excellent institutions for the management of the global economy in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, but no such organizations exist for democracy or the rule of law. President Biden should fill the vacuum by initiating the building of such international institutions.

First of all, the admitted participants should adopt a new declaration committing them to democracy and the rule of law. It should receive the same status as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. That was a strong statement, but it offered no commitment to democracy. Nor did it design any agency for its enforcement.

Second, the summit should establish a new international organization of democracy building. It should not be universal: only bona fide democracies should be admitted. Like the IMF, it should become a substantial organization with plenty of financing and highly qualified staff that could provide both rules and technical assistance for governments that are actually interested in developing democracy. Often, good rulers simply don’t know what is the right thing to do.

Third, the democracy summit should establish a new international organization for the development of the rule of law. This should also be a strong organization with substantial financing and high competence that could provide both rules and technical assistance for governments that are interested in developing the rule of law.

Fourth, neither the rule or law nor democracy are possible without transparency of political and judicial financing. Both the European Union and the United States have adopted great laws on transparency to clean up money laundering. They need to enforce these laws.

Finally, in order to be credible, the United States needs to lead in practice. How can the United States claim to be a democracy when it accepts gerrymandering, which makes the representation disproportionate from the votes? How can the United States appeal to the international rule of law unless it joins the International Criminal Court? The United States has some work to do.

Biden’s proposal about a summit of democracy was great, but in order to be effective he should focus on quality. Countries would have to pre-commit to decent democratic, legal and money-laundering standards to participate. Otherwise, they should not be welcome. And the summit should aim to build new international organizations so that it does not fade like Albright’s Community of Democracies. 

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. His latest book was “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market economy to Kleptocracy.”

Tags Democracy Democracy promotion by the United States Democratization freedom house international monetary fund Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Madeleine Albright Types of democracy World Bank

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