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Democracy is in retreat, attacked by forces from outside and, more worrying, from within.

Those sustained and alarming challenges prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to last week host the Summit of Democracies, a virtual gathering where world leaders assessed those dangers and discussed collaborative and collective responses to them.

A meeting of democracies is a worthy concept, but delivering on its promise will be difficult. Follow-up is key. Democracy is very much about procedure, the way that decisions are made. But just as important is the ability of those decisions to improve the lives of ordinary citizens — and to prove that they have done so.

According to Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that tracks freedom, political and civil rights around the world have been in decline for 15 years. Its 2021 report noted that “less than 20% of the world’s population lives in a free country, the smallest proportion since 1995.” The report warns that “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) reached similar conclusions in its annual report. It found that 20 countries have moved toward authoritarianism from 2016 through 2021, nearly triple the number that moved toward democracy during that time. It too concluded that “Democracy is at risk,” its survival “endangered by a perfect storm of threats, both from within and from a rising tide of authoritarianism.”

Biden made active support for democracy a centerpiece of his 2020 presidential campaign, arguing that Donald Trump’s indifference undermined the U.S. role and leadership in the world. He promised to convene a summit of democracies to reinvigorate the struggle for human rights and human dignity and to reassert his country’s leading role in that fight, a pledge he honored last week.

Over 100 countries were invited, and 89 showed up “to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” In opening remarks, Biden pointed to the Freedom House study and the risk of a “backward slide” in democracy. He urged participants to rise to “the defining challenge of our time” and produce “a vision … and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward.”

The effort is not unprecedented. In 2000, the Community of Democracies (CoD), an intergovernmental coalition of states, was established to unite governments, civil society and the private sector to support democratic rule, expand political participation, advance and protect democratic freedoms, and strengthen democratic norms and institutions. Some 106 nations signed the Warsaw Declaration that agreed “to respect and uphold core democratic principles and practices” such as free and fair elections, freedom of speech and expression, equal access to education, rule of law and freedom of peaceful assembly. I’d never heard of the CoD until I started working on this column, which hints at the problems ahead.

Biden’s summit was greeted by protests. The ambassadors of China and Russia wrote a joint essay complaining that the U.S. was promoting a “Cold War mentality” that would again partition the world along ideological lines. They countered that “Democracy is not a prerogative of a certain country or a group of countries, but a universal right of all peoples.” After all, even North Korea’s official name is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Questions about the invitation list are valid. It’s hard to explain who was and wasn’t invited. The Philippines was present, but Hungary wasn’t. Malaysia was invited, Singapore wasn’t. Pakistan and Poland made the list, Turkey and Egypt did not. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki attempted to make sense of it all, saying that “Inclusion or an invitation is not a stamp of approval on their approach to democracy — nor is exclusion a stamp of the opposite of that, of disapproval.” Rather, the point is “to have a diverse range of voices and faces and representatives at the discussion.”

A second complaint focuses on the U.S. and its credentials to host such an exercise. In the Freedom House report, the U.S. received a score of 83, an 11-point decline over a decade. IDEA classified the U.S. as a “backsliding democracy,” putting it in the group of countries experiencing a “severe and deliberate” decline in democratic quality. Biden acknowledged as much at the summit, pointing to the wave of voting restrictions in the U.S. and noting that “we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort.”

Last week’s summit is supposed to mark the beginning of a process. Attendees are supposed to meet in person next year to show the efforts and the progress they have made.

Ash Jain of the Atlantic Council, Matt Kroenig of Georgetown University and Jonas Perello Plesner of the Alliances for Democracy Foundation have marked out the maximalist position with their call for creation of an alliance of democracies. It makes sense. The leading democracies possess roughly three-quarters of global wealth; the U.S. and its closest allies collectively spend more than six times on defense annually than do Russia and China combined the trans-Atlantic community provides nearly 80% of official development aid, and the top 20 highest scoring countries in terms of soft power are all democracies.

They argue that this group should “bolster political cooperation among democracies to address shared challenges to the rules-based democratic order” and formally commit to deploying those resources in its defense. They should provide aid to countries subject to economic coercion, issue joint statements against democratic backsliding in member states and promise collective action against members that are threatened.

Admirable as the proposal is, I’m not holding my breath. Many governments aren’t ready to make a commitment, especially when they fear that the coalition will be responding to actions by Beijing or Moscow. That looks like taking sides — which it is.

More compelling is the suggestion of Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University, who urged the U.S. and like-minded countries to support the efforts of younger generations “by speaking up for persecuted dissidents and opponents of repressive regimes, providing programmatic support and channels for youth movements to rise up for a better future, including the Milk Tea Alliance across Asian societies and three-finger political symbolism in Myanmar, Thailand and elsewhere.”

Selling the next generation on democracy will be the key. It’s an increasingly difficult pitch, however. Democracy is slow and deliberative, process oriented and, as a result, capable of manipulation by special interests that exploit information asymmetries. Dictators move fast and with determination. They focus on results and aren’t distracted by formalities or seemingly empty rituals. Autocrats argue that those outcomes — and the improvements they offer — are worth the sacrifice of a few inchoate, invisible and largely unexercised rights.

Democracies have to prove otherwise. They must show that those rights are important and that the democratic process offers better outcomes. It’s remarkable that those things are no longer taken as given, but that’s the world we live in. And advocates of democracy have done a lousy job of proving the superiority of their system. The real problem may well be that democrats no longer believe in the superiority of their system or the need to protect those rights. It will take more than a summit of democracies to re-instill that faith and that commitment.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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