Summit for Democracy Showed the Challenges to Democracy

Early last month the administration of U.S. President Joseph R. Biden hosted the two-day online Summit for Democracy. The summit was attended by representatives from 110 countries and regions, representing just less than 60% of the world’s population and 70% of global GDP.

However, the summit fell woefully short of demonstrating unity among democratic nations against authoritarian regimes of any kind of strategic consensus for dealing with China. First, the criteria used to invite participants were unclear. Among the countries taking part were Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and other nations that can hardly be said to be democracies. Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained that the invite list aimed to include a “diverse range of voices,” so “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.” In other words, it is a “Summit for Democracy” not a “Summit of Democracies.” However, if that were the purpose of the meeting, it surely would have made sense to invite NATO member countries that are committed to authoritarianism such as Hungary and Turkey, to help attract them back into the democracy camp.

Biden may have avoided mentioning specific countries at the Summit, but it was clear that he had China in mind when he declared the goal to be to “push back on authoritarianism.” But the strategic value of the Summit in this respect was also questionable. The problem was Southeast Asia. Of the 11 countries in the region, only Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and East Timor were invited. This selective approach is in stark contrast to China’s open arms. At the ASEAN-China Special Summit held prior to the Summit for Democracy, the relationship between China and ASEAN was upgraded from a “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” By choosing to invite some and not others, the U.S. has created a rift among the countries of Southeast Asia.

As the massive military crackdown on human rights in Myanmar drags on, the challenge for U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia is how to advance human rights with countries that are unable to present a clear vision for shared values of democracy and human rights. While the image of non-interference is inexorably linked to ASEAN, respect for democracy and human rights is inscribed in the ASEAN Charter. The U.S. could have advocated for the wording of the ASEAN Charter by inviting a wide range of ASEAN countries to the Summit, using the event to prepare a united front against the Myanmar humanitarian crisis.

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Another worrying trend is also emerging in Latin America. Nicaragua, which was not invited to the Summit, announced on December 9 the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. Nicaragua’s Ortega administration had become increasingly dictatorial, blocking a powerful opponent from standing in the presidential election held in November, an action that Biden condemned. China will not fail to notice the cracks in the relationship. The Summit was preceded by a China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) ministerial meeting, attended by foreign ministers from 32 countries. Latin American countries are also fortifying their “Active Non-Alignment” stance, using stronger relations with China as leverage to achieve relative state autonomy from the U.S. and to extract benefits from both the U.S. and China.

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Excluded from the Summit for Democracy, China has embarked on its own vigorous diplomatic offensive, proclaiming the instability of U.S. democracy to be undermining its credentials as an advocate of the Summit. A video titled “U.S. Democracy: A reality check” produced by China Global Television Network (CGTN) rejects the notion that the prevailing political and economic situation in the United States makes it a beacon for the world, listing rampant gun violence and racial discrimination, extreme economic disparity, and the worst record of COVID-19 deaths globally.

This criticism of the United States cannot be dismissed as mere anti-American propaganda. According to a survey conducted in July 2021 by the Pew Research Center on Canada, Italy, Greece, Spain, UK, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, an average of 57% of people responded that “it [democracy in the U.S.] used to be a good example but has not been in recent years.” People around the world do not necessarily view the United States as an example of democracy. Moreover, in the “Global State of Democracy Report 2021” released by the Stockholm-based IDEA in November, the United States was classified as a “backsliding democracy” for the first time. The main reason was the refusal by former President Donald J. Trump to accept his defeat in the U.S. presidential election 2020, claiming that the election was rigged. The Report also expresses concern about the voter suppression efforts underway in many states. Recent years have seen an accelerating trend in the United States toward enacting state laws that raise the bar for voting, such as requiring voters to present proof of identity, especially in states governed by Republicans or states in which Republicans hold a majority in the state legislature. These state laws are nominally intended to prevent rigged elections but in fact tend to make it harder for minorities and poor voters, who face challenges getting to the polls because of their work commitments or places of residence.

The danger of a drift towards authoritarianism comes not only from external sources such as China and Russia but from within the United States itself. Is the crisis engulfing his country’s own democracy apparent to Biden? Does he have a solution for it? And how will the United States approach less democratic nations when it comes to soliciting their cooperation in any future confrontations with China and Russia? The Summit has certainly not dispelled the uncertainty that surrounds these questions.