WASHINGTON, DC – US President Joe Biden hosted his virtual Summit for Democracy on Thursday and Friday. It consisted of representatives from governments, NGOS, and the private sector around the world.
“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Biden said in his opening remarks. “We have to renew it with each generation… In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time.” He added that democracy was resilient, capable of both self-correction and self-improvement.
Democracy is critical to the health of the United States, and democracy does require care and attention. But that isn’t done by talking about how important it is. The problem at the centre of the summit was this: you can’t talk your way to a better democracy.
There were other issues with the summit. For one thing, some argue that the United States should just deal in geopolitics, working with whomever will work with it. For another, those who do believe that the United States should be working first and foremost with democracies will note that this convening’s guest list wasn’t all that democratic. Countries like Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are marked as “Not Free” in the latest assessment by the think tank Freedom House of political rights around the world, were invited. So was the Philippines, which is ranked “partly free” by Freedom House and whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, brags about the killings he once carried out while waging his war on drugs.
But the larger issue, to my mind, is that the summit confuses talking about doing something with actually doing something. It is all well and good for Biden to say that he cherishes democracy, but the reality is that he has clashed with voting rights groups for not doing enough to push Congress to pass national voting rights legislation while state legislatures across the country make it more difficult for people to vote.
It’s nice that Biden says democracy is important, but, according to a CNN poll from this past September, over half of Americans believe an elected official will overturn the results of a future election if their party doesn’t win. It’s fine for Biden to say that the summit was about democracies fortifying themselves in the face of authoritarianism, but the Biden administration is pushing through an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Nor did the Biden administration take action against the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, though US intelligence believes he was personally responsible for the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
There was one significant moment from the first day of the summit, however. This week, the US Treasury Department established a new rule that shell companies will need to share the names of those controlling them, which should help crack down on corruption in America. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “There’s a good argument that, right now, the best place to hide and launder ill-gotten gains is actually the United States.” If the United States and world are to pull through for democracy, it will be with that kind of combination of humility and willingness to enact change.