President Biden’s Summit for Democracy: A Big Question Mark?

From the very first day in office, President Joe Biden stressed the need to recommence democracy in the United States (US) and all across the world to meet the unprecedented challenges the world faces today. He has long emphasised that democracy does not happen by accident, and needs to be defended, fought for and nenewed. However, today, democracy whether in transition or established for decades is under severe threat around the world because of public distrust and the failure of governments to deliver equitable and sustainable economic systems. 

Corruption, inequality, and venality are significant contributors to the weakening of democracy across the world. Likewise, the military coups have made a significant comeback with the recent cases observed in Myanmar, Sudan, and Guinea. Therefore, to counter such challenges, the Biden administration has scheduled a virtual “Summit for Democracy” on 9 – 10 December 2021 that will provide an opportunity for the world leaders to listen, share successes, propel international cooperation, and discuss honestly the trials faced by democracy for its renewal.  The aim is to bring leaders from across the world to set forth an assenting agenda for democratic restitution and contest major threats through collective actions. This flagship initiative by the US showcases its commitments to strengthen the values of democracy and human rights by providing a platform to listen, learn, speak and implement.  

For the US, the summit will open a window of opportunity to engage with the world leaders whose support and commitments are critical for renewing democracy in the world. It will encourage allegiance for internal reforms to counter authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights. The summit will invite heads of state, civil society members, philanthropists, and people from the private sector and allow them to bring change in the society. It is high time for states to stand together in defending against threats from autocracies and to show joint commitment towards addressing this pressing crisis of the present era. 

Although the US is committed to keeping the summit as inclusive as possible, yet it has invited only 110 countries to the summit, many of whom have troubling records of democracy and are often accused of harbouring authoritarian tendencies.

It is time to rethink and build a plan to overcome the fault lines that could provide sound foundations for the renewal of global democratic values. With an aim to build a broader community of leaders committed to such a change, the summit will open avenues of opportunity for states to learn and innovate together. Issues of accountability, governance, human rights, free and fair elections, civil and political rights, etc., will be discussed at the summit. And to embark on a year of action, another meeting on democracy which is most likely to be in-person, will be held a year later to follow up and advance the summit goals agreed on this December.

However, a major concern regarding the summit, as raised by the key officials, is its invitation criteria for the countries. Although the US is committed to keeping the summit as inclusive as possible, yet it has invited only 110 countries to the summit, many of whom have troubling records of democracy and are often accused of harbouring authoritarian tendencies. On one side, we have Sweden and France as well-established democracies, and on the other hand, there are the Philippines and Poland with distressing democratic history. Likewise, in Asia,  key US allies like Thailand and Vietnam are not invited, while some allies like Japan and South Korea are on the invitations list.

As for the Middle East, where the US has long stressed the need to spread democratic values, only two countries, Egypt and Iraq, are invited while Iran and key NATO player Turkey are missing. Much like this, in South Asia, Pakistan and India with “partly free” democracies are invited while Sri-Lanka, with a  good history of democracy, is not. Correspondingly, Bangladesh is found missing on the invitation list despite its score per Freedom House being 39 compared to Pakistan who scores only 37.  Not just this, Bangladesh is ranked 76th in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, while Pakistan is at 105th. Apart from this, another controversy regarding the invitation is that the US administration has invited Taiwan for the summit and not China. 

Similarly, Biden invited Brazil despite the criticism directed towards its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, for his authoritarian bent. Then Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has stated that he does not “care about human rights”, will discuss the ways to flourish democracy globally with the Biden administration. Henceforth, the list of 110 countries invited to the summit for democracy is a big question mark on Biden’s administration. Nonetheless, the US has stated that it has placed no condition on the invite of the summit since the idea is never to prescribe rather ensure that countries come up with assertions about the reforms they intend to make.

The official from the state department stated that “We’re not seeking to define who is a democracy who is not a democracy. We’re seeking a really inclusive, big-tent approach [sic]”. This shows that the US is committed to bring all the states, democratic or not, towards the idea of democracy by providing them with an opportunity to engage in discussion with the well-established democracies of the world to learn and bring about a transformation. However, several countries are still criticising such a move by the Biden administration. Recently, Hungary has blocked the European Union (EU) from participating in the summit as it is the only country in the EU that has not been invited to the summit by the US. The minister leading the PM’s office, Gergely Gulyás stated that in the absence of Hungary, a common EU position could not be reached given the unanimity rule for the EU treaties on foreign relations matters. “Hungary does not have the same serious democratic problems as the United States,” he said. Not just Hungary, but Russia and China also reject the US’ idea of holding a summit for Democracy. Tian Peiyan, deputy director of the Policy Research Office of the Communist Party’s central committee in a press conference, stated that the summit “is only aimed at suppressing and containing countries with a different development model. It is set to become a joke and will not be popular”, Peiyan stated. 

Therefore, keeping in view the concerns of the states, this summit will be a major test for Biden’s administration. Its success or failure will open up a new debate regarding the future of the democratic system and the freedom to have a flexible model of governance. Whether the democratic values prevail or the ability of states to learn, innovate and implement these changes depends on time and the success of the summit.

Ayesha Zafar

Ayesha Zafar is pursuing her Bachelors in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include Middle Eastern politics, the geopolitics of Central Asia, and Indo-Pacific region.

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