Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ needs to be democratized

President Biden is seen during a billing signing ceremony for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, November 15, 2021.
Greg Nash

President Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” begins tomorrow with the laudable aim to reenergize global commitment to democracy during a dangerous period of backsliding and rising authoritarianism. Yet the process — organization, content design, and participant selection — has been, ironically, less than democratic. The agenda, selection of participants, and drafting of commitments mostly took place behind closed doors and would have benefitted from co-creation with civil society.

The event this week, however, is only the beginning of a process and presents an opportunity for the administration to take a more transparent and inclusive approach going forward.

Allowing a broad range of organizations and experts on the Summit’s key themes review draft agendas would create a more dynamic program. While too many “cooks in the kitchen” is not ideal in conference organization — or, authoritarians would argue, in governing — one on democracy should tolerate the messiness of inclusion. More decentralized decision-making would also help broaden accountability. Even members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to the White House saying they had received little information about the event and felt that as actual democratically-elected representatives, they might have something to offer.

Rather than have a summit of democrats — activists and innovators from anywhere across the globe — organizers adopted a state-based approach by inviting country leaders. Therefore Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has eroded checks and balances, gleefully engaged in extrajudicial killings, created a deadly environment for journalists, and encouraged a culture of misogyny, will represent Philippine democracy.

The criteria used for selecting countries are also not clear. When the list was finally released, it was evident that independent democratic assessments, like that of International IDEA, were not followed. The authoritarian regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was invited, while Bolivia, a mid-performing democracy, was not. Zambia, Niger, and Angola were also invited though they perform no better than Sri Lanka, Tunisia, or Sierra Leone, who were not. These inconsistences could all have been avoided by moving away from a state-based model.

Having a summit of country leaders also leaves out democrats from civil society, opposition parties, and other sectors who are unluckily living in the uninvited countries but who so desperately need alliances and global solidarity to strengthen their efforts.

While certainly it would be laughable to have Prime Minister Hun Sen speak about Cambodian democracy, brave Cambodian activists and politicians who have been fighting at great personal risk for democracy could serve as delegates. They would benefit greatly from connecting with groups around the world, hearing best practices and sharing lessons. Just this week, I met with a representative from the political opposition in Hungary — a country not invited — who regretted that the Hungarian opposition was not included.

Invited countries also drafted commitments. While it is unclear how they relate to the existing treaties, conventions, and commitments out there, such as the sustainable development goals (SDGs), Open Government Partnership, and other UN conventions, they could serve to renew and reinforce democratic agency. While in some countries, it appears leaders consulted with outside stakeholders when drafting their democracy roadmap, in others, the ruling party executive moved ahead without any input from the opposition, civil society, or even legislatures.

Having worked with parties and NGOs around the world, I was inundated with emails and calls pleading for advice as to how they could influence their own country’s democracy plan.

The summit will launch a “year of action” and a follow up summit in 2022, presenting the opportunity to shake things up. Follow-on events should be inspirational, promote innovation, and renew connections among the world’s democrats.

First, the 2022 summit should not be one of heads of state but of democrats — a decentralized affair where community organizers, youth leaders, town clerks, LGBTQ activists, election experts, and the diversity of people working to defend their democracies and build democratic resilience come together. Share what’s worked and what hasn’t. As a democracy practitioner of 25 years, I know the most effective and innovative strategies are created this way, rarely by the executive.

Second, the administration could outsource agenda development to a wide range of players, perhaps creating “summits” in each region of the world. The organizers could build an interactive online platform where democrats could organize their own panels, upload videos, stream podcasts on a multitude of themes. The summit could be more of an experience than a conference, leveraging technology to bring in as many voices as possible.

Third, the commitments could be live documents. As parliaments have done in many parts of the globe with draft legislation, each country’s commitments could be fully accessible, allowing citizens to comment, suggest changes, and develop benchmarks to measure progress.

Going forward, Biden’s team can democratize the “Summit for Democracy” to engender meaningful action.

Keep in mind, autocrats are having summits of their own, sharing tactics and technologies to suppress democracy. We need new, fresh ideas and a commitment to work together across borders to defend democracy. Going it alone is not an option.

Laura L. Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.

Tags authoritarian regimes Bolivia Civil society Democracy Democratic Republic of the Congo Democratization Diplomatic Relations Joe Biden Philippines Presidency of Joe Biden Summit for Democracy Types of democracy

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