Later this week, U.S. President Joe Biden will convene leaders from over one hundred countries spanning the world’s regions to discuss the decline of global democracy—and announce commitments for renewing democracy domestically and internationally. But each participant faces its own democratic challenges, including, as Biden notes, the United States. What do different countries and regions make of the summit? And what would it take for the summit to succeed?
Zainab Usman: The Summit for Democracy comes at a crucial moment for Africa. The continent is reeling from the socioeconomic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and has limited access to vaccines—less than 8 percent of the continent is fully vaccinated—undermining efforts to kick-start its post-pandemic economic recovery. This immediate challenge is compounded by long-running issues around conflict in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa amid rising geopolitical tensions among rival global powers. Seventeen African countries out of fifty-four—just under one-third—have been invited to the summit.
Among those seventeen countries invited, the success of this summit may be defined by at least two metrics. First, the stated broad objectives of the summit—defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting human rights—must address the pressing socioeconomic needs of these seventeen African participants. Take the Sahel, for example, where existential governance challenges confronting countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali are compounded by violent extremism, the flow of weapons from an unstable Libya, and the absence of public services in remote villages. Or take South Africa, one of Africa’s most-industrialized countries, which is undergoing persistent political and economic decline and risks becoming a lower-middle-income economy by 2028, according to forecasts. Will the summit be contextualized to these everyday realities of African countries?
A second metric of success is how well the summit strengthens the structural economic enablers of democracy. At a domestic level within these countries, democracy is sustained by the material prosperity of citizens in terms of good jobs, rising incomes, and overall well-being. Well-paid bureaucrats like those in Singapore are less likely to siphon public funds. Young people with good job prospects living in secure communities with decent roads, hospitals, and health services are less likely to heed the siren songs of violent insurgencies and criminal gangs. A prosperous and informed citizenry is better placed to hold local and national governments accountable. Therefore, the extent to which the Summit for Democracy helps to strengthen these structural economic enablers of democracy in Africa by increasing material prosperity in Africa will be crucial to the definition of success.
The United States can demonstrate leadership in expanding global access to COVID-19 vaccine production and access. As 2021 comes to a close, it is unfortunate that developing countries, especially those in Africa, still lag on COVID-19 vaccinations. To give the world a chance of emerging out of this pandemic, Biden has a unique opportunity to mobilize the United States’ financial and technological muscle to vaccinate the world, as urged by members of the U.S. Congress back in June. Another step forward would be to rally global action to combat illicit financial flows, including by some corrupt African elites and tax-evading multinational companies. These illicit flows drain close to $90 billion from Africa annually—money that could otherwise be used to invest in needed public services on the continent.
Erin Jones and Elisa Lledó: In Europe, there is a degree of reluctance about embracing the return of U.S. global leadership. The popular European catchphrase “strategic autonomy” illustrates the EU’s desire to free itself from the binary choice of leadership by Washington or Beijing. Some in Europe fear that the narrative undergirding Biden’s democracy summit—dividing the world into democracies fit for engagement and nondemocracies to avoid engaging—does not account for today’s complex world. A summit based on this worldview may comfort those participating, but it lacks broader applicability. In the context of the climate crisis and a global pandemic, which both require coordination among democracies and nondemocracies alike, many European leaders are skeptical of a U.S.-led summit that splits the world along these lines.
Others have reacted with enthusiasm to Biden’s summit. For example, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell encouraged Europe to “positively engage with [Biden’s] proposal to host a global Summit for Democracy.” Such supporters in Europe see the summit as an opportunity to facilitate international cooperation, rather than an exercise to divide the world. In particular, if the summit can focus on actions rather than words, democracy can prove that it is a unifier and an engine for positive change.
At a time when so many other major issues crowd the political agenda, the summit has taken somewhat of a back seat in European circles. For one, the ongoing, citizen-centric Conference for the Future of Europe may eclipse the democracy summit. Furthermore, the urgency of democratic crises—both externally in countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Sudan, as well as ones internal to Europe like Poland and Hungary—fuels skepticism about the summit’s ability to adequately address the problems at hand.
A willingness by the United States to acknowledge and improve its own democratic shortcomings may help rebuild trust across the Atlantic. Europe shares the goal of reviving global democracy, but it does not trust the United States alone to lead. By coming across not as didactic but rather as flawed and equal, the United States may attract greater European engagement.
Maiko Ichihara: Over Japan’s past three administrations, the government has demonstrated its commitment to the values of liberal democracy by embracing the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). It thus welcomes the Biden administration’s initiative to hold the Summit for Democracy.
Nevertheless, one sensitive issue for the country has been the invitation list. Tokyo advocated for an inclusive approach and requested that most Southeast Asian countries be invited, even if some are not democracies, so as to help the country continue to have friendly and cooperative relations with them. For Japan, security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and their support for the FOIP vision are both key for preventing China from overtaking disputed territories—as well as in maintaining freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas.
Given that some Asian countries did not make the list—including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam—Japan will likely take extra care to avoid causing a division among regional countries. In particular, Japan will likely try to bridge relations with Vietnam, whose security cooperation Japan values; Thailand, which hosts a large number of Japanese companies; and Singapore, a developed country in the region.
Two measures would help to make the summit useful for Japan. First, to enable Japan to reach out to nondemocracies in the region, the summit should facilitate satellite meetings that include noninvited countries. Such satellite meetings, held between summit gatherings, could deal with the issues taken up at the summit, especially how to combat corruption and promote respect for human rights.
Second, the summit should create forums for discussion among regional countries to foster multilateral approaches to democratic defense. In Asia, the principle of noninterference in internal affairs is particularly deeply rooted—and this principle presents a barrier for the regional countries to address highly political issues, such as violations of civil liberties and democratic governance abroad, in bilateral dialogues. Nor does each individual country make critical statements about such issues. Through regional dialogues, Japan should explore regional solutions, such as the launching of an Asian version of the European Endowment for Democracy, to overcome the limitation posed by the noninterference principle.
Oliver Stuenkel: As numerous countries across Latin America experience democratic backsliding, it is a welcome development to step up the international focus on strengthening democracy. Biden’s upcoming democracy summit is an opportunity to recast the globally dominant narrative that democracy is on the defensive and that autocrats are slowly gaining the upper hand.
Paradoxically, the current crisis of U.S. democracy, symbolized by the invasion of the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021, may help Washington become a more effective host of such a global debate. After all, the past decades have shown that a more inclusive environment that allows for discussing joint challenges and best practices is much more helpful than a unidirectional process where stable democracies try to teach unstable ones. This is especially true for challenges that affect many democracies around the world, such as polarization and the spread of fake news.
While the rise of authoritarian regimes, such as the one in China, may also play a role in the global crisis of democracy, prioritizing this trend will likely make Latin American governments more hesitant about the entire democracy promotion effort. If the summit overemphasizes concerns about growing Chinese or Russian influence around the world, the summit’s skeptics in the region will quickly depict the gathering as little more than an effort to strengthen the U.S.-led alliance against Beijing and Moscow. No Latin American leader, not even Brazil’s fervently pro–United States president, would be able to join, given the region’s strong economic ties to China. Rather than allowing geopolitics to frame the discussion as a fight between democracies and autocracies, Latin American leaders would much rather focus on the domestic drivers of democratic erosion.
After all, the democratic malaise currently experienced in the region is a result of domestic factors, most importantly growing inequality and low-quality public services in most countries. Furthermore, growing polarization has been so visible in recent elections in Chile, but also in day-to-day politics in countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia. Put differently, for too many Latin Americans over the past decades, democracy has failed to deliver, and promoting a debate about how to address these shortcomings is a step in the right direction.
Aqil Shah: Despite the Biden administration’s hopes of rallying a broad coalition of democratic governments against the resurgent tides of authoritarianism and backsliding democracies, many in South Asia are deeply skeptical.
First, critics argue that the United States needs to fix its democratic deficits before preaching democratic values to India and other nations. South Asian countries have watched U.S. democracy backslide in recent years. Freedom House scores for the United States now fall below those of new democracies like Mongolia due to a sharp decline in U.S. civil liberties and political rights. Regional governments are less inclined to follow Washington’s lead on democracy when it does not have its own act together.
Second, while the Biden administration has claimed that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock of the India-U.S. bilateral relationship, it has remained silent on the steady degradation of Indian democracy under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which Washington sees as a crucial democratic partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy to balance China. India has dropped from “free” to “partly free” in Freedom House’s rankings because of the Modi government’s discriminatory policies affecting the country’s sizeable Muslim minority, a crackdown on peaceful protests, and the assault on civil liberties in the media and civil society. The United States’ strategic interests in Asia make it highly unlikely that the administration would “honestly confront” India on its democratic backsliding at the summit.
Third, while all the other South Asian countries are rated “partly free” by Freedom House, strategic interests rather than democratic values also seem to explain who is in and who is out of the summit. Apart from India, the administration has invited the Maldives, presumably on account of its democratic renewal marked by the opposition’s victory in the 2018 presidential election, as well as Nepal, which abolished the monarchy and has held multiple competitive elections since the end of the Maoist-led civil war in 2006. It has excluded Bangladesh, which has undergone serious democratic erosion since 2009, but also Sri Lanka, which has seen an improvement in its political and civil rights since 2015 (although its poor record on transitional justice following the country’s decades-long civil war may be responsible for its exclusion).
Despite excluding these countries, the Biden administration has invited Pakistan, a country with the lowest democracy scores in the region and one that is de facto ruled by its authoritarian military. This invitation is presumably for strategic reasons—the United States has relied on Pakistan for counterterrorism cooperation in the region. But this strategic invite compromises the stated intent of the summit to bring together democratic allies to fight authoritarianism—in the eyes of many in South Asia and beyond.
If the Biden administration is serious about democratic revival in South Asia, it should confront India on its deteriorating democratic character and poor human rights record, especially in Kashmir. Administration officials should include Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in future democracy-related events to pressure and encourage their leaders to credibly commit to democratic reforms. Keeping these two backsliding democracies in the tent is also strategically smart, especially if the United States seeks to build a broader coalition of Indo-Pacific democracies to counter China, even as Beijing has sought to increase its geopolitical influence in South Asia. Finally, short of disinviting Pakistan, Biden should read it the riot act: restore genuine democracy through a free and fair election or risk being shunned by the United States and its democratic allies.
Ashley Quarcoo: The upcoming Summit for Democracy is an opportunity for the United States to help galvanize commitments to democratic values in many countries where democracy is struggling. Equally important, the summit could allow the United States to demonstrate its own commitment to democracy after the norm-breaking presidency of Donald Trump and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
However, the Biden administration has not been able to stem the emergence of antidemocratic forces in the United States. In the backdrop of this week’s summit, the country faces a continuing assault on its own democratic institutions. Nineteen states have passed laws that will make it more difficult for Americans to vote. Other efforts abound to subvert election results through partisan election administration. One October 2021 poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe that U.S. democracy is under “major threat.” Can the summit help to build Americans’ confidence in the durability and resilience of U.S. democracy?
Unfortunately, Biden’s major global summit faces an uphill battle—it has not yet resulted in a meaningful domestic conversation about a democracy-strengthening agenda at home. Like most participating governments, the United States did not preview its summit commitments with civil society, and it has not engaged domestic actors in consultation about the content of those commitments.
In order to maximize the value of the summit and the ensuing “year of action,” the Biden administration should engage, in the aftermath of the summit, in consultations with a range of U.S. civil society groups on its announced commitments. This may serve as a model to other governments who likewise have not engaged in a consultative process.
Second, in the absence of a clear focal point for democracy policy within the government, the Biden administration should stand up a permanent coordinating mechanism—that includes representatives from relevant domestic agencies—to help monitor and advocate for the implementation of the country’s summit commitments. This would be an important contribution to building a more sustainable infrastructure for democracy beyond the year of action.
Finally, the Biden administration should use the year of action not only as an opportunity to implement its summit commitments but also to build a longer-term policy agenda for strengthening democracy at home.
Keeping Democracy Momentum Going Forward
Frances Z. Brown: For Biden’s administration, this week’s Summit for Democracy offers an opportunity to generate excitement and catalyze action toward the goal of renewing global democracy. But whether the summit will ultimately live up to its worthy mission largely will depend upon the forthcoming “year of action.”
The summit’s theory of success rests in large part on the requirement that each participating government make concrete commitments to bolster democracy at home and abroad—and then execute them over the course of 2022. For these commitments to enable the summit to make good on its overall mission, a few factors will be crucial.
First, participant commitments must be specific and tangible. At risk of stating the obvious, yet necessary—they should also be meaningful.
Second, civil society will have a key role to play in monitoring governments’ progress on meeting commitments. For civil society to do this, governments will need to be transparent on their pledges, and, in some cases, civil society will need support to add tracking commitments to their own organizational missions. Summit planners will also need to clearly lay out the mechanisms by which civil society can report their findings, as well as the enforcement mechanisms flowing from these channels—a tall order when 110 countries are involved. The strategy to “let a thousand flowers bloom” is not a recipe for meaningful monitoring.
Third, if the summit’s success is a priority to Biden, following up on other countries’ commitments should be central to the U.S. government’s own work, as well. U.S. officials will need to articulate how they, too, will be monitoring country commitments and responding to noncompliance. They may find applicable lessons to draw on from prior efforts at tracking benchmarks toward “mutual accountability” in development assistance. (Of course, U.S. officials should also follow up on U.S. domestic reform commitments, the subject of a different piece in this collection, with equal levels of focus.)
More broadly, in the coming year, the Biden administration will need to shift from a focus on the tactics of summit planning to a strategy of global democracy reinforcement. Holding a summit is not an end goal in itself—but supporters of democracy everywhere hope that it succeeds in jump-starting progress toward broader democratic renewal.