On Dec. 9 and 10, U.S. President Joe Biden will host what the White House calls the Summit for Democracy — or, in other words, a meeting focused on democracy.
According to the Biden administration, the two-day virtual meeting, to which more than 100 countries were invited, is designed to help renew democracy around the world and will be followed by an in-person democracy summit next year.
The summit, the administration claims, will “focus on challenges and opportunities facing democracies and will provide a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.” It will presumably end with bold pronouncements by leaders about reforms they intend to make both internationally and at home.
Certainly, the summit comes at a challenging time for democracy. The global monitoring organization Freedom House (for which I consult on several Southeast Asia reports) called this year’s report on the state of global freedom “Democracy Under Siege.” It noted that the global balance had shifted in favor of authoritarianism, and that the organization also has recorded 15 straight years of declines in global freedom. Even military coups, once thought near-extinct relics of the Cold War, are making a comeback, with coups this year in Myanmar, Sudan and Guinea, among other places.
But the Summit for Democracy is unlikely to have much of a lasting impact. To be sure, it is unreasonable to expect a two-day virtual summit to make major inroads into a phenomenon — global democratic regression — 15 years in the making and due to numerous causes, ranging from public dissatisfaction with democratic leaders’ handling of major issues to the growing strength of the most powerful autocratic countries, China and Russia. A study by University of Cambridge researchers found that international dissatisfaction with democracy as a form of government has reached its highest level in more than two decades, with a vast range of factors underpinning this shift.
A two-day summit is not going to just turn those attitudes around. And in some countries where it once seemed like democracy was making real headway, like Turkey and Russia, the slide toward autocracy has been so great, it is hard to imagine a turnaround anytime in the near future — if at all.
But the Biden administration has hamstrung its own summit in several ways. It invited more than 100 countries, including many states that do not fit the definition of democracy — Pakistan, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, the Philippines, and others. In other words, they do not hold freely and fairly contested elections, and do not allow substantial civil liberties. As Steven Feldstein of the Carnegie Endowment notes, more than 30% of the invitees are countries that are either not free or are only partly free, according to rankings by Freedom House in its 2021 Freedom in the World report.
Inviting such a broad swath of countries dilutes the summit’s focus and clarity, costing the meeting, in some ways, the moral high ground. Inviting such a large number of participants also potentially allows leaders of repressive states to hijack conversations and water down proposals.
Indeed, is it really possible to have a robust discussion of democracy, and how to bolster democracy globally, when the leaders around the (virtual) table include those from the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has cracked down on the press and overseen widespread extrajudicial killings, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Pakistan, where the militaries there exercise massive control from behind the scenes over a broad range of domestic issues? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Freedom House notes, “Citizens are unable to freely exercise basic civil liberties and corruption is endemic. Physical security is tenuous due to violence and human rights abuses committed by government forces.” In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan is widely viewed as the armed forces’ front man.
These leaders are unlikely to support statements coming out of the summit that express support for defenders of human rights and democracy in their countries — precisely because these leaders are not actually democrats.
In addition, the invitation of so many states that are not truly free raises questions about why these countries were invited. In many cases, as with the Philippines and Iraq, they were probably invited for strategic reasons rather than because they are democracies. After all, the Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally in one of the most volatile regions in the world, and Iraq is a key U.S. partner in the Middle East. But while the Biden administration may have wanted not to alienate strategic partners, including them makes it look like the summitis about more than democracy.
What’s more, though the administration promises that the democracy summit will include representatives from civil society and the private sector, it seems heavily focused on foreign leaders. And yet, any vibrant democracy requires a strong, flourishing civil society, including journalists, nongovernmental organizations, trade associations and other groups.
As Jeffrey Smith notes in Foreign Policy, the summit should have invited a broad range of civil society activists, including ones from democracies and those who are opposition leaders, fighting for democracy from within authoritarian states.
Indeed, the summit should include democracy activists from many countries that were not even invited to the summit because they are so repressive: places like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Belarus and others. This would make the summit much more inclusive — less of a talking shop for top leaders alone — and would shine a light on advocates of democracy in these repressive countries.
And finally, the summit will have to grapple with the giant elephant in the room. Even though the U.S. president is convening the summit, the image of U.S. democracy around the world has taken a horrible beating in recent years. (To be fair, Biden repeatedly says that part of his job in office is to renew U.S. democracy itself, and the summit’s statement mentions the president’s desire to renew American democracy.)
In a recent Pew Research Center poll of people in 17 different countries, a median of 17% of respondents said that American democracy offered a good example for other countries. (In Japan, 14% of people said the United States offered a good example of democracy to follow.) Some 57%, meanwhile, said that U.S. democracy has not been a good example in recent years.
This poll is hardly surprising. On social media, satellite and cable television and old-fashioned newsprint, people from around the world watch the United States. And they have witnessed the country have a presidential election that ended with a riot at the U.S. Capitol; they have seen American politicians use gerrymandering and other anti-democratic tools to keep themselves in power; and they have watched American politicians squabble so much they nearly default on the United States’ debt, a move that would send shockwaves through the global economy.
Although Biden enjoyed more confidence among people around the world than his predecessor in the poll, the dire global view of U.S. democracy will undermine the U.S. president and his administration throughout the summit. It will hinder Biden’s ability to take the lead on issues, including convincing participants to issue a real, united statement of how, specifically, they plan to reverse global democratic regression. And without such a clear purpose, the summit may wind up as just another talk shop.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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