Biden’s Democracy Summit
Democracy today is going through a bad time all around the world. The ghost of the Arab Spring still haunts us. Authoritarianism and dictatorships have emerged within various structures in different countries around the world. By taking away the freedom of expression and the right to elect people’s representatives, dictators have muzzled their respective citizenries. The cries of the oppressed people can be heard in the streets. At such a time, the Summit for Democracy was hosted by the United States “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad”.
In an attempt to tackle the rising tide of authoritarianism, US President Joe Biden invited more than 100 world leaders to the first (virtual) edition of ‘The Summit for Democracy’ on 9-10 December 2021. The summit aimed to strengthen democracy globally and to bring together leaders from government, civil society and the private sector to “solicit bold, practicable ideas around three key themes: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; promoting respect for human rights.”
During the summit, President Biden warned that democratic erosion is ‘the defining challenge of our time’. In fact, for the fifth year in a row, the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism exceeds the number of countries progressing towards democracy.
Biden’s presidential campaign promised ‘The Summit for Democracy’ in his first year in office. The rationale for organising the summit was to “reinvigorate our own democracy and strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us.” This promise and the rest of the text showcase Biden’s interest in course correction and cooperation.
The need for course correction arose as the US’ democratic core weakened and faced heightened criticism during President Trump’s era. Biden’s campaign manifesto highlighted this by calling out Trump’s “erratic policies and failure to uphold basic democratic principles,” which arguably weakened US’ position and alliances in the world. The manifesto included the terms “reinvigorate,” “restore,” and “renew” in the context of democracy and American leadership, further emphasising a future Biden administration’s acceptance of and will for course correction. While domestic course correction in the US is a work in progress, the administration has moved towards international cooperation on democracy through this summit.
The Summit had three broad themes:
1. Strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism;
2. fighting corruption; and
3. promoting respect for human rights.
The summit agenda focused on strengthening democratic institutions and solidarity amongst democracies globally in three areas: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights.
According to the US State Department, the summit was to solicit “bold, practicable ideas” on the themes of “defending against authoritarianism,” “fighting corruption,” and “promoting respect for human rights.”
The US Department of State released the full list of 110 participants on 24 November 2021. The choice of invitees was, according to some analysts, inevitably controversial from the start. Among the most notable countries absent on the list were China, Russia and Turkey. Taiwan’s participation was another contentious issue. It is also to be noted here that more than 30 percent of the 110 invited countries are classified by US-based non-profit Freedom House as only “partly free.” Three are “not free” at all — Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq. More than a dozen are classified by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute as “electoral autocracies” including the Philippines, India and Kenya. Pakistan decided to skip the summit despite the fact that it was invited by Biden administration.
Initially, it was thought Pakistan would attend the summit as Prime Minister Imran Khan, while congratulating President Biden on his election victory, welcomed his initiative of the summit on democracy. But, at the last moment, Pakistan decided to stay away from the summit. The announcement was made by the Foreign Office on December 08 after days of in-house consultations. The press release stated:
“We are thankful to the United States for inviting Pakistan for participation in the Summit for Democracy, being held virtually on 9-10 December 2021.
Pakistan is a large functional democracy with an independent judiciary, vibrant civil society, and a free media. We remain deeply committed to further deepening democracy, fighting corruption, and protecting and promoting human rights of all citizens. In recent years, Pakistan has instituted wide-ranging reforms aimed at advancing these goals. These reforms have yielded positive results.
We value our partnership with the U.S. which we wish to expand both bilaterally as well as in terms of regional and international cooperation. We remain in contact with the U.S. on a range of issues and believe that we can engage on this subject at an opportune time in the future.
Pakistan will, meanwhile, continue to support all efforts aimed towards strengthening dialogue, constructive engagement, and international cooperation for the advancement of our shared goals.”
Although no reason was cited in the official handout of virtually snubbing the US invite, it is believed that there are a variety of reasons behind this decision.
One of the reasons is the exclusion of China from the summit. The overall state of relations between the two countries is another major factor, compelling Islamabad to stay away from the summit.
It is believed that President Biden’s move to continue to ignore Prime Minister Imran Khan also made it difficult for Islamabad to attend the summit on democracy.
President Biden has yet to speak to Prime Minister Imran Khan directly since taking over the White House in January 2021. But his invitation to Pakistan was seen as ice-breaker.
1. US President Joe Biden
At the start of the virtual Summit for Democracy, the US President warned that democracy around the world was in danger. He called it the “defining challenge of our time.” He warned of a global slide in democracy, saying international trends were “largely pointing in the wrong direction.” He called it a critical moment for fellow leaders to redouble their efforts to bolster democracies to “determine the direction our world will take in the next decade.”
Biden said, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident and we have to renew it with each generation.” He said it was a chance to “lock arms and reaffirm our shared commitment to make our democracies better, to share ideas and learn from each other, and to make concrete commitments of how to strength our own democracies.
2. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that democratic values were under threat the world over. “In the face of rising nationalism and right-wing populism, as well as disinformation campaigns and hate speech, we must strengthen our own democratic institutions, both internally and externally,” Scholz said. He added that democracies needed to show that they were “more effective and sustainable in serving people’s needs and rights”
3. Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen warned the threat was not only coming from nation states: “New technologies and large tech companies are increasingly setting the stage for the democratic dialogue, sometimes with more emphasis on reach than on freedom of speech.”
On 9 December 2021, the US Department of State announced a Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal to provide financial assistance of US$424.4 million to support free and independent media, fight corruption, advance technological solutions for democracy, foster democratic reforms and defend free and fair electoral processes. The USA, Australia, Denmark and Norway signed the Export Controls and a Human Rights Initiative, while Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom expressed their support. The initiative aims to curb the misuse of dual-use, cyber- and surveillance technologies – increasingly used by authoritarian regimes – and will involve drafting a voluntary written code of conduct. Participating countries committed to measures to improve democracy both internally and externally, such as increased funding for United Nations bodies dealing with human rights (Belgium, Canada), initiatives to bolster technology’s role in democracy (Denmark), and the fight against corruption (Japan), amongst other proposed initiatives. Under the umbrella of actionable commitments, a global follow-up, in-person summit of democracies is expected to take place in late 2022.
Marred from the outset by an almost complete absence of clear thought, the virtual gathering was a wasted opportunity. After recently abandoning Afghanistan to an Islamist autocracy and famine, and finalising a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden thought it would be a fine idea to hold a two-day virtual gathering on democracy, where some of its worst offenders could pose as responsible upholders of freedom and dispense homilies on how to save the world from those like themselves. Some of the omissions from the participant list were as puzzling as the inclusions. It’s not clear, for example, why strongmen like India’s Modi, the Philippines’ Duterte and Brazil’s Bolsonaro made the cut, but Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t, when all of them have been wrecking democratic institutions in their respective countries with equal vigor.
India’s descent into authoritarianism has intensified in recent years under Narendra Modi. The Modi government, to quote Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2021” report, caused a “dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers” through a “ham-fisted lockdown” during the pandemic, and “encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs.”
Moreover, there is no logic as to why an invitation was denied to Singapore, which may be a de facto one-party state, but it holds clean elections and offers a quality of life and security to its people that many invitees at the summit would kill for. That is why public trust in politicians in Singapore is far higher than in the countries participating in the summit — higher, even, than in the host country itself.
Although the Summit for Democracy participants made commitments to extremely important causes, such as protecting human rights, the event will be remembered more for its symbolic value than for its results. Proof of this is Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan, which will have done little to de-escalate tensions with China.
On the other hand, the need for effective global governance is more urgent than ever in today’s unpredictable and dangerous world. In addition to the nuclear threat that emerged in the last century, we must now contend with challenges such as cyberattacks, the weaponization of migration, the growing investment in military technology, and the malign potential of artificial intelligence.
The writer is a member of staff.