In an attempt to reinstate American global leadership, US President Joe Biden is convening a “Summit for Democracy” on December 9 and 10. The two-day virtual summit is expected to have the participation of more than 100 countries, at Mr Biden’s invitation. The premise is that America is the leader of the “free world”, inviting “like-minded” countries to support the ideals of democracy. The reality is that the US is facing serious challenges to its leadership role globally – and the summit itself is facing challenges, from organisational issues to questions about its long-term significance. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread, the summit was moved from the original plan of an in-person meeting to a virtual event with a number of panels, announcements and interactive virtual sessions. Mr Biden would not be expected to sit through most of the sessions, and with time zones creating difficulties for leaders from 100 countries to attend at the same time, the level of interaction between attendees will be limited.
The US expects countries to announce “individual and collective commitments to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad”. How those commitments will be measured, and how their implementation will be secured, is unknown. However, the summit has identified three principle priorities: "defending against authoritarianism", "addressing and fighting corruption", and "promoting respect for human rights". All three priorities are important not only for democracies but for all prosperous states. However, how they are implemented and who can claim to have the moral authority on these matters is an important issue to consider. The democracy summit comes at a time when questions are being asked about systems of government in many countries, particularly the one relating to the US itself. In the aftermath of the January 6 assault on Congress, the refusal of former president Donald Trump to accept the 2020 election result, and the manner in which Washington dealt with its withdrawal from Afghanistan, mean that a little humility from the US may be in order. And that is just counting the last two years. With the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay, questions about America’s legal system and systematic racism, in addition to cases of major human rights violations by the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the list gets much longer. And while no country or system of government can claim to be perfect, the problem with the summit is that it insinuates a higher moral authority that cannot be claimed.
However, it seems that there is some recognition by Washington of that reality. The US State Department declared in a statement that “for the United States, the summit will offer an opportunity to listen, learn, and engage with a diverse range of actors whose support and commitment is critical for global democratic renewal”. So while a declaration from the US that it will be listening and learning is welcome, setting a task of “global democratic renewal” is ambitious, and largely vague. American democratic renewal may be a more specific and achievable goal.
One of the least represented regions at the summit is the Middle East and North Africa. Only Iraq and Israel have been invited. The yardstick for including the two countries is likely to be that of the transfer of power through the ballot box. However, both countries have serious challenges that raise questions about their eligibility. Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and Iraq’s problematic militia forces that continue to attack domestic and foreign interests are both anathemas to the values of democracy. Equally, nascent democracies such as Tunisia and Sudan are facing difficult times but deserved to be included as they try to consolidate democratic ideals about popular revolutions. From Bangladesh to Turkey, Mr Biden’s summit has excluded a number of countries that would be considered democracies, even if they are currently going through troubled times.
Seeing as democracies do not rely only on government, rather rely on pluralism that includes civil society, independent judiciaries and the private sector, the summit is set to have representatives from civil society and the private sector. The role of the latter will be particularly interesting to watch, as a rampant capitalist system that prioritises profit over equal opportunity has been advocated by the US and led to unprecedented levels of wealth disparity. While the final invitation list has yet to be declared, how actors from the private sector and civil society were chosen to attend and why they were not declared in advance also raise questions about transparency.
The days of the US claiming moral authority to dictate the best form of governance may not be over, but they are certainly numbered. If this virtual meeting is to achieve anything for America’s standing in the world, the position of the United States should be clear in acknowledging its own shortfalls and how it plans to tackle them. The Summit for Democracy will have to present a convincing case of democracies that are facing challenges relating to competence, pluralism and how to tackle polarisation and extremism. For longer-term improvements in governance, a more constructive approach would be to acknowledge that good governance, respecting differences and giving fair opportunity to all are key to the prosperity and stability of any nation.