Biden’s democracy summit must cast a wide, inclusive net
The Summit for Democracy promised by President Biden during his campaign is now scheduled for Dec. 9 and 10. Deciding which countries to attend this virtual event has always been a challenge and the Biden administration has seemingly made a decision to err on the side of inclusiveness.
Several countries that have been undermining democratic institutions in recent years (Poland, the Philippines, India) have found themselves on the invitation list. Some speculate that geostrategic considerations overtook democratic standards in the decision process. These nations play a role in countering Russian and Chinese efforts to expand their influence.
It strikes me, however, that inclusiveness is the right approach to take in compiling this guest list. Democratization is a process that evolves over time, often with significant setbacks. There is truth in the old saying that democracy is a journey, not a destination.
The yardstick for democracy is somewhat different from the yardstick for human rights. Sadly, as we have seen in our own country, abuses of human and civil rights can occur in a functioning democracy. The correctives are political debate, a free press and strong legal institutions that hold violators accountable.
For example, 55 out of the 57 member countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) consider the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of human rights. In 2014, I attended the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting conference in Warsaw, Poland. As the leader of the U.S. delegation, I had to address this issue. I made my personal opposition known. Nonetheless, I couldn’t say that the United States was no longer a democracy because many states had yet to abolish the death penalty. That is hopefully a work in progress.
Democracy isn’t easily defined, yet there are minimal standards: Periodic free and fair elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, protected speech, the right to assemble and freedom of religion (and ideally a separation of church and state). There is a surfeit of evidence that governments that are accountable to the people are enduring and more effective. That evidence is compiled very nicely in the book “Why Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.
So why is now the right moment in history to revive the democratic spirit globally? Clearly, the democratic movement has waned in the past decade. I would argue that it is vital that the United States, once called a “shining city on a hill,” offer a corrective to the past four years of an administration that disrespected democratic institutions. The Trump administration gave a green light to authoritarian rulers to undermine a free press, treat parliamentary bodies with disrespect, flout the law and challenge free and fair elections. Viktor Orban of Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are just two of the more conspicuous followers of Trump’s anti-democratic playbook.
Some will argue that the United States has even lost its right to host a summit on democracy. I disagree. U.S. institutions held together despite Trump’s antics. We are struggling with a polarized society as are many democracies, but we never pretended to be perfect. That is why we are even more credible as we battle disinformation, attacks on democratic institutions and efforts to suppress the vote. Sometimes it is easier to make the case for democracy when our own vulnerabilities are glaringly obvious. Self-criticism is a disarming tactic.
As the U.S. government and its closest democratic allies finalize the list of invitees, we might also consider the ramifications of leaving a country off the list when all democratic pretense hasn’t yet been completely lost. In a country like Turkey, for example, despite a gross overreaction to a coup attempt a few years ago, the democratic opposition to President Erdogan is organizing to compete against him in the next election. If Turkey is no longer considered a democracy for the purposes of this conclave, what impact does this have on democrats struggling to overcome Erdogan’s autocratic rule? Something to contemplate.
The effort to promote democracy in another country is tricky business; it takes finesse, diplomacy and full transparency. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has done this well over the years. Funded largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, NDI has taken its cue from democrats on the ground who, in many cases, have sacrificed their freedom — sometimes their lives — to pursue change in their society.
In some cases, NDI has maintained arms-length, diplomatic relationships with authoritarian governments and/or ruling political parties. This has facilitated exploiting even the smallest openings for democratic change.
This approach has become more difficult over time, and NDI has been expelled from a few fast-closing authoritarian governments. But democracy is best promoted in the open air. Sharing the nuts and bolts of democratic practice and its value principles should not be done in the dark.
The agenda for the democracy summit has become self-evident as we have observed the attacks of the past few years. Social media and disinformation may be at the top of the list. Narrowing the opportunity to vote and participate should be as well. Attacks on the free press are attacks on the peoples’ right to know and should be a priority. Too many journalists are being killed in the line of duty. The rule of law and the preservation of independent judiciaries should also be at the top of the agenda.
These should not be controversial issues for legitimate democracies. However, some of these invited governments are living on the edge and need to be pulled back. The United States has lost some credibility over the past few years but it is not without considerable influence.
When it is all said and done, the Summit for Democracy may not define the destination to everyone’s satisfaction, but it can help put the global democracy movement back on the right track. It has the potential to be an important part of the journey.
J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was president of the National Democratic Institute from 1985 to 1993, and administrator of USAID from 1993 to 1999.
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