It is easy to point out all the problems with the US-led Summit for Democracy taking place this week (28-30 March). For a start, several participants are in the process of dismantling their democracies.
Israel has been plunged into crisis by Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the country’s independent judiciary. Allies of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, have expelled the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi from parliament, and he could well be jailed before next year’s elections. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, is pushing through legislative reforms that will undermine electoral oversight and could threaten the country’s already fragile democratic system.
Then, there are all the countries that that simply don’t view the world according to the Biden administration’s neat dichotomy of autocracies versus democracies. This is particularly salient in the Global South, where the tangible benefits of trade and infrastructure deals with authoritarian states like China must be weighed against the appeal of admission to a symbolic coalition of democracies. Many countries simply do not want to be forced to choose between the US and China. Pakistan, for instance, which is a US ally but increasingly dependent on trade with China, politely declined to take part in the summit this year, as it did the inaugural summit in 2021.
Equally, the stance or lack thereof taken by major democracies such as Brazil, India, and South Africa when it comes to the war in Ukraine – as they have continued to buy up Russian oil and weaponry – demonstrates the limits of democratic principles as a binding factor in global affairs.
Yet there are crucial issues at stake. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, was expected to address the summit from Kyiv, where the battle to defend his country’s democracy against an imperialist autocrat is all too real. The Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, is en-route to the US – technically in transit to Guatemala and Belize – to rally support for the self-ruling democracy as it comes under intense pressure from China.
“Since the last summit for democracy two years ago, the world has changed dramatically,” Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands and one of the summit’s co-hosts, said in his opening remarks. “For decades, the idea of war in Europe seemed unthinkable. But we were wrong as Russia’s brutalisation of Ukraine has shown we cannot assume that democracy, freedom and security are givens, that they are eternal.”
It is laudable that the Biden administration is at least trying to focus attention on the global challenge to democracy and the real threat posed by the advance of authoritarianism. Similarly, it represents progress that the US is co-hosting this year’s summit with Costa Rica, Zambia, South Korea and the Netherlands. This helps to dispel the image of the event as merely a Western-dominated club whose membership is decided in Washington. Yet the limits of what can be achieved by what is, at its heart, a very large and complex Zoom call should be clear.
The global challenge to democracy is urgent but the response must begin at home. The most effective way to push back against authoritarian states such as China (which issued a white paper to coincide with the 2021 summit titled “China: Democracy that Works”) is to show that real democracy, underpinned by individual freedoms and the rule of law, works better.
The most powerful action the US could undertake would be to strengthen its own democratic resilience. Joe Biden’s major pledge at the opening of the summit, for instance, in which he promised to invest $690m in programmes to bolster democracy around the world, glossed over the fact that his predecessor, Donald Trump, cut such spending, and would probably do so again if he returns to the White House in 2025.
Biden promised during his inauguration speech in January 2021, days after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, that the US would once again lead “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example”. There is still a long way to go.
[See also: Who counts? Voting rights under Joe Biden]