As a passionate believer in democracy, I feel compelled to comment on the recent democracy summit called to order by President Biden. Cynicism about the summit is thick on the ground. Not least because democracy in Biden’s own country has become so corrupted by wealth, gerrymandering and a flawed constitution that it’s an act of generosity calling it democracy.
Nonetheless, the cynicism is seriously misguided. Democracy around the world is suffering from a certain malaise, and that very fact makes this an appropriate time for the democracies of the world to take stock. If anything, it is overdue..
And while the U.S. may be considerably less than a democratic paragon, it remains perhaps the world’s freest country, and that alone makes it worthy of taking a leadership role in the democratic community.
Biden has made defending and promoting democracy a focal point of his foreign policy at a time when democracy is threatened externally by autocratic regimes such as China and Russia and internally by authoritarian populism. His initiative is to be welcomed by democrats everywhere.
There were, as might be expected, quarrels about who should have been invited. This will always be a challenge given that no democracy is perfect and countries range on a spectrum from highly democratic to autocratic. Drawing a line will always be a challenge in itself.
The three-day affair began by taking the first step in dealing with a problem: recognizing that there is a problem. A prominent theme was that the autocracies were growing in power and free societies are often divided. It wasn’t a conference meant for bragging or smugness. As one moderator put it, this was a place where everybody could admit their failings and help each other improve.
Biden summed up the challenges, “In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time. Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation. And this is an urgent matter on all our parts in my view.” Amen to that, Joe.
And he put his money where his mouth is. He plans to work with Congress to spend about $424 million to support independent news media overseas, fight corruption, aid activists, defend fair elections and combat “digital authoritarianism.”
The parties will convene again in a year to provide updates on their progress.
All the nations of the world must work together on global problems, starting with climate change. We are all deeply interdependent and comprehensive co-operation is essential. Nonetheless, democracy, freedom and human rights must remain high on the agenda and Biden, and the parties that joined the summit, have taken a first and critical step in ensuring that they do.