Written by Ionel Zamfir with Linda Tothova.
The Summit for Democracy, a pledge of US President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral campaign, came to fruition on 9‑10 December 2021. The first-ever global summit dedicated to harnessing international support for democratic renewal launched the 2022 ‘year of action’, aimed at fostering resilient democracies worldwide.
On 9-10 December 2021, United States President Joe Biden hosted a virtual two-day Summit for Democracy, bringing together heads of state, civil society, and the private sector. During the summit, President Biden warned that democratic erosion is ‘the defining challenge of our time’. In fact, for the fifth year in a row, the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism exceeds the number of countries progressing towards democracy. The summit agenda focused on strengthening democratic institutions and solidarity amongst democracies globally in three areas: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights. The summit organisers – the White House, the US Department of State and USAID – created three civil society working groups within the three pillars, which held consultations leading up to the summit. The stated purpose was not to create a permanent secretariat or a new organisation, but to launch a ‘year of action’ in the three core areas.
|Attempts to build coalitions of democracies are nothing new|
The idea of an alliance of democratic states has deep historical conceptual roots. Democracies are considered more likely to cooperate and are more peaceful and inherently respectful of norms. There have been prior attempts to bring democratic alliances to life, but to date these remain limited either in membership or objectives. Established in 2000, the Community of Democracies (CoD) is a global intergovernmental coalition of 106 states that adhere to common democratic values and standards. With an ambitious strategic plan for 2018-2023, it aims to respond to democratic backsliding and shrinking civic space both within and outside its membership. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) works to advance democracy worldwide, by providing assistance and advice on democratic processes and elections. The G7 is an informal group of democracies, albeit limited to the world’s seven largest liberal democratic economies, with a significant influence on major global issues. Experts have suggested transforming the G7 into a D10 global steering group, including Australia, South Korea, and possibly India (all invited as guests to the most recent G7 Summit). The need for democracies to cooperate and coordinate globally is increasingly recognised, to impose human rights and economic sanctions, in international forums and to uphold multilateral rules, and on strategic and security issues.
The US Department of State released the full list of 110 participants on 24 November 2021. Although most invitees (69 %) are from fully ‘free’ countries according to the Freedom House classification, ‘partly free’ (28 %) and ‘not free’ (3 %) countries also received invitations. The choice of invitees was, according to some analysts, inevitably controversial from the start. Moreover, Taiwan’s participation was another contentious issue, while China was not invited (even though the USA is officially committed to a one-China policy), risking the creation of an additional rift between Washington and Beijing. Despite international divisions regarding formal recognition, Kosovo also attended. The Philippines, India and Brazil were invited, despite constituting some of the most prominent cases of democratic backsliding in the world. The invitation of Angola, Iraq and Democratic Republic of Congo, all ‘not free’ countries, also puzzled commentators. A possible explanation is that Biden’s administration perceived regional diversity and potential for democratic progress as being more important than a sterling record of democratic practices. The invitation of countries such as Serbia, Ukraine and Pakistan also reflects US geostrategic considerations. The exclusion of Hungary – the sole EU country not to receive an invitation could reflect genuine US concerns over negative developments in Hungary, but also over Viktor Orbán’s government’s ties to illiberal groups in the USA.
Some countries reacted to their exclusion with anger. On 1 December 2021, the Hungarian Ambassador to the EU indicated that Hungary would not support a common EU position at the summit. China’s reaction was fiercely critical, with the government taking the opportunity to tout its system as the better democracy model – ‘more extensive and genuine’ than that of the USA. Ahead of the summit, Chinese officials released a 30‑page white paper elaborating on China’s respect for democratic institutions and ‘development of people’s democracy’. An opinion piece by the Russian and Chinese Ambassadors to the USA calls on countries to ‘stop using “value-based diplomacy” to provoke division and confrontation’. Although invited, Pakistan surprisingly skipped the summit, possibly to protect its strategic alliance with China.
On 9 December 2021, the US Department of State announced a Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal to provide financial assistance of US$424.4 million to support free and independent media, fight corruption, advance technological solutions for democracy, foster democratic reforms and defend free and fair electoral processes. The USA, Australia, Denmark and Norway signed the Export Controls and a Human Rights Initiative, while Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom expressed their support. The initiative aims to curb the misuse of dual-use, cyber- and surveillance technologies – increasingly used by authoritarian regimes – and will involve drafting a voluntary written code of conduct. Participating countries committed to measures to improve democracy both internally and externally, such as increased funding for United Nations bodies dealing with human rights (Belgium, Canada), initiatives to bolster technology’s role in democracy (Denmark), and the fight against corruption (Japan), amongst other proposed initiatives. Under the umbrella of actionable commitments, a global follow-up, in-person summit of democracies is expected to take place in late 2022.
Commentators emphasised that the outcome did not always match initial promises, but that the summit’s success should be judged based on its capacity to deliver. The possibility that the summit positions could remain empty rhetoric was a frequent concern. The summit allowed the USA to showcase its democracy agenda at a time when democracies are under stress worldwide, but questions remain over the credibility of American democracy itself. Some commentators expressed concern that the summit would strengthen authoritarian regimes’ resolve and coordination, particularly Russia and China, or that it would deepen global rifts, endangering much-needed collective action to tackle global problems. China’s fierce reaction, as well as Russia’s criticism of the summit, show that both countries consider it a potentially effective initiative. Transparency International welcomed the initiatives to fight corruption, but warns that several countries directly linked to cross-border corruption did not pledge new measures and that authoritarian invitees are unlikely to make significant progress. Brookings notes that the summit will allow civil society to push through some of the ambitious pledges at the national level. Human Rights Watch suggests the USA should disinvite countries from next year’s planned summit, should they fail to deliver on commitments.
European Union position
Article 21 TEU commits the EU to ‘advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights’ and to ‘develop partnerships with third countries … which share the[se] principles’. During the EU-US summit in June 2021, the two parties reaffirmed their intention to ‘partner in the Summit for Democracy’ and ‘to lead by example at home’. In November 2021, the EU launched the Team Europe Democracy Initiative to bolster coordination actions amongst the Member States in support of democracy. Coinciding with the summit, the EU launched the Human Rights and Democracy programme under the Global Europe instrument, with a total budget of €1.5 billion available to 2027. European Council President Charles Michel’s intervention at the summit focused on the opportunities and challenges digital technologies present for democracy; an issue equally emphasised by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her speech.
|In a resolution of 7 July 2021, the European Parliament expressed support for President Biden’s decision to hold the global summit. On 6 October 2021, Parliament noted the summit will serve as a way to advance value-based multilateralism and strengthen solidarity amongst democracies.|
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Summit for Democracy‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
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