Biden’s pre-election promise to “… bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions…” is materializing as the Democracy Summit hosted by the United States in December 2021 gets underway. But the credibility of the invited heads of state of more than 100 countries to the virtual summit is questioned by rights advocacy groups, as many authoritarian governments with dubious human rights records are invited. Democracy has been in decline every year since 2006, says Freedom House, a NPO that monitors democracy around the world. USAID Administrator Samantha Power declared that the United States will “incentivize countries to issue commitments and launch initiatives to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights, democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism.”
But Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Pakistan are hardly exemplars of democracies. India has been invited but the increasing influence of religion under the Modi government has provoked anti-Muslim sentiments and religious dissension. Allegations of corruption in government projects have increased. In Iraq the offices of four media networks were raided, and journalists working in the Kurdish region were subjected to harassment and legal action. In Bulgaria rights activists have questioned the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and media freedom. In Mexico and the Philippines there is increasingly an undermining of the principles of democracy and increasing authoritarianism by the governments. Hungary was not invited, largely assumed to be a result of its democratic backsliding and close relations with Russia and China; Obama had declared Poland and Hungary as authoritarian regimes.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020/2021 has been a litmus test for upholding democratic principles around the world. Some invitees such as Nigeria and Kenya have deployed police and the military to enforce curfews and restrictions. In South Africa in 2020, allegations of corruption were brought against senior government officials in the Ramaphosa government, for fraudulent purchases in coronavirus pandemic relief packages.
Biden’s attempt to assure Americans of a robust foreign policy during the Biden/Harris Administration is a way of disconnecting from the previous Trump Administration of pandering to Russia. While the Democracy Summit may send a symbolic message to Russia and China that there remains a strong force that is willing to “build a shared foundation for global democratic renewal” – the objective of the conference – how is this initiative different from the existing multilateral framework of the United Nations with universal membership? Javier Solana, former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, recalls the Community of Democracies (CoD) established in 2000 by the United States and Poland, which gradually lost prominence and visibility as a multilateral organization. There is skepticism as to how meaningful reforms declared at the Democracy Summit will be monitored. And how will it be different from the pledges made by all countries at the United Nations international conferences?
China has become the target of this summit; Biden called China “our most serious competitor.” Members of the EU at the G7 conference in 2021 have expressed concern that this any new grouping will be perceived as a coalition representing an anti-Chinese alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Others are skeptical that the summit will influence the world’s emerging superpowers, Russia and China. As Europe is determined to manage its own China policy, the EU may resist any policies that may decrease EU power. Investments deal between the EU and China have already been negotiated.
Among the non-papers being circulated by White House officials and identified by Politico, an international alliance to promote Internet freedom, is a document called “The Alliance for the Future of the Internet,” which proposes an alternative option to the Internet as an instrument controlled by the state as promoted by authoritarian governments such as China and Russia.
Any commitment to democracy, anti-corruption and the promotion of human rights will be rendered meaningless unless material welfare, economic and social rights, is promoted. Democratic mechanisms such as independent electoral bodies make vital contributions towards an inclusive society and good governance. But if the assumptions are that democracy is a magic wand that will somehow eliminate the need for equality, social progress and social justice, then the problems of the poor and marginalized remain unresolved.