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Will the US summit on democracy deliver?

To reestablish itself as a stalwart democracy, the United States is hosting a virtual summit to counter authoritarianism, fight corruption and promote human rights. What, if anything, can we expect?

By: Deutsche Welle |
Updated: December 9, 2021 7:51:36 pm
The Biden administration has a steep hill to climb and lots to learn considering the recent challenges to democracy at home. (Reuters/File Photo)

In the wake of a turbulent Donald Trump administration where conspiracy theories were promoted and authoritarian leadership style admired, President Joe Biden is reestablishing its commitments to democracy by holding a summit to defend it.

The United States will have to reassess its traditional role of being a lecturer of democratic values at the Summit for Democracy which will take place on December 9 and 10. The State Department has hinted that it might be genuine in taking on a new role by stating that it has to take the “opportunity to listen, learn, and speak about the challenges facing democracy within the United States.”

The Biden administration has a steep hill to climb and lots to learn considering the recent challenges to democracy at home.

The Capitol insurrection in January; the coordinated efforts of the Republican Party to stifle voter turnout by restricting early and mail-in voting, or the fact that only a third of Republicans believe that elections are fair according to a recent NPR poll are clear signs that American democracy is wavering.

Given the bleak state of democratic values at home and abroad there are plenty of questions about what to expect from this summit.

Best case scenario

The consensus appears to be that summits like these are put together primarily to address problems, as opposed to solving them.

“It doesn’t seem likely that any concrete or important concrete measures will come from it,” said Erik Voeten, professor of geopolitics and justice at Georgetown University. He sees the event as a symbolic exercise signaling US foreign policy priorities, promoting democracy being one of them.

James Lamond, director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), says he will be asking two questions to assess the outcome of the summit: Will countries and participants come up with specific commitments? And are these commitments meaningful?

A global problem

Nearly 70% of countries recorded a decline in their overall democracy score in 2020, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index — the lowest rate since the index was launched in 2006.

The summit encapsulates the gravity of the democratic backsliding in the past decade. It will include 110 countries, several private enterprises and NGOs. But most notably, those not invited by the Biden administration, are countries like Russia, China, and Hungary. At the same time countries like the Philippines and the Congo, which both rank lower than Hungary on democracy indexes, will be attending.

While the aim of creating an exclusive list might purely be political, Lamond sees the list as forcing a conversation or creating an incentive for people to want to be at the table.

“There is absolutely no way to identify a list of democracies that is going to be beyond dispute. This is always going to be a subjective exercise,” said Voeten

It remains to be seen whether or not the US will actually implement any strategies that other countries use to defend or strengthen their democracies.

“I think the answer is no,” Voeten said. “The US is typically resistant to learning from other countries. The US likes to think that it’s a shining beacon for other countries.”

Key summit strategy

The reputation of the US as being the standard bearer for democracy has taken a beating. After four years under a Trump administration where democratic principles took a back seat to his policy goals, China and Russia were quick to address the hypocrisy in response to the non-invitation.

In looking to counter China and Russia, the Biden administration has created the summit in the context of a greater power struggle, said Voeten. The differences in how Europe and the US perceive these great power struggles is “something to keep an eye on,” he added.

The summit is a significant shift from the Trump years and the fact that the US is addressing its own flaws is one of the key parts to preserving a functioning democracy. Beyond that, it is a signal that it is trying to reestablish itself on the global stage as an actor against corruption and authoritarianism and a promoter of human rights and freedoms.

“[The summit] speaks to the need that democracy is a constant project that always needs to be worked on as it can potentially always be at risk,” said Lamond.

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