The Future of Biden’s Democracy Agenda
The Summit for Democracy must be a starting point, not the finish line.
Democracy has taken a beating in recent years. Specialists describe a “third wave of autocratization” washing over the world, encompassing 25 countries and 2.6 billion people who are experiencing diminishing political freedoms and civil liberties. Both established democracies, like the United States, and newer ones, such as Hungary and Brazil, suffer from worrisome democratic backsliding.
Amid this global crisis of governance, Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail that he would organize a “Summit for Democracy” intended to “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” That summit, which includes leaders from over 100 countries, comes to a close today.
Months ago, experts cautioned that holding a summit was not the same as advancing a democracy strategy, and that convening heads of state can’t be a substitute for real policy change. Encouragingly, the Biden administration seems to recognize this challenge, casting the summit as the prelude to a “year of action” that will culminate in a follow-up meeting in 2022.
The coming year will largely determine whether the summits are successful drivers of change or mostly symbolic pageantry. So what can Biden’s team do over the next twelve months to challenge authoritarian trends, reverse the global deterioration of human rights, and fight back against endemic corruption? Here are three suggestions.
1/ Publicly and transparently hold countries to account for their democracy pledges. At the summit, leaders presented individual democracy “commitments” that they plan to fulfill in the year ahead, in areas such as fighting corruption, protecting media freedom, and strengthening civic capacity. It’s one thing for leaders to say nice words about protecting democracy, but it’s quite another for them to take real action to tamp down corruption, protect journalists from harassment, or ensure opposition parties have a fair shot at competing in elections. So how can Biden incentivize action?
To begin, the president’s team must provide resources and infrastructure to help citizens monitor and track countries’ summit commitments. Summit organizers could borrow a page from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign aid agency that uses third-party public data to evaluate governments’ policy and governance commitments and compile global country scorecards. By establishing a similar procedure, Biden could make it easy for both domestic constituents and global citizens to appraise which countries are delivering on their summit pledges and which ones are lagging. In fact, Biden’s team could build upon the MCC’s tracking process by publishing monthly country commitment scorecards on a public website.
This would help address one of the big criticisms of the summit—that Biden invited too many countries which barely qualify as democratic. The hodgepodge of invitees demonstrates the failure of the White House to lay out clear criteria for inclusion, with liberal democracies invited alongside a contingent of weaker democratic states led by populist leaders (Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte come to mind). It will be challenging for Biden’s team to overcome this mixed message. As a result, it is even more important that the summit proves its worth by galvanizing meaningful democratic progress.
In fact, the Biden administration should make an invite to next year’s summit contingent on meeting two conditions. First, all participating countries, including the United States, should make a good faith effort to fulfill their democratic commitments. There should be a price to pay for governments that shirk their pledges. A natural check-in point is the June 2022 Copenhagen Democracy Summit. Though not organized by Biden’s administration, the Copenhagen gathering promises to be a “civil society stocktaking of the commitments made at the governmental Summit.” The second condition for participation in Biden’s 2022 summit should be to exclude any countries that experience significant democratic backsliding. This would guard against rewarding countries that hold rigged elections or experience major political reversals (such as Tunisia’s alleged constitutional coup in 2021).
Both of these conditions are clear, transparent, and fair. After all, if governments cannot summon the requisite political will to fulfill them, they likely don’t belong in a global gathering of democratic states.
2/ Don’t stop at country commitments—tackle big cross-cutting democracy issues. One of the drawbacks of relying on country-level commitments to shape the coming year of action is that it gives countries wide leeway in what action they pledge to take. While some governments will set ambitious goals, other leaders will shoot for de minimis targets. It’s unrealistic to expect that countries like Serbia or Iraq will take it upon themselves to make ambitious promises when it comes to key issues like protecting political rights or guaranteeing journalists’ safety.
As the scope of countries’ commitments becomes clearer in the coming weeks, Biden’s team should independently lay out a set of cross-cutting democracy targets linked to core summit themes. These targets would supplement country-specific goals and would represent priority areas of democratic need. For example, Biden’s team has signaled that countering digital authoritarianism and safeguarding digital rights are major concerns. Why not specify three or four concrete outcomes it expects summit participants to accomplish in this area, using a mix of incentives to spur action?
Biden should use the $400 million Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal that was announced on Day 1 of the summit as a carrot for countries who otherwise might not take action. The administration could also supplement carrots with sticks, such as cutting U.S. foreign aid allocations or investment financing to countries that implement internet controls.
3/ Take America’s own democracy challenges seriously. Undoubtedly, the United States is suffering from a credibility gap. As Laura Thornton from the German Marshall Fund points out, if the type of election rigging proposed in states like Wisconsin occurred in countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance, they would “immediately be called out as a threat to democracy.” Thus, the United States must approach the summit with a dose of humility. This can be an asset.
As a U.S. democracy official under President Obama, I was repeatedly challenged by foreign governments and even ordinary citizens about America’s own record on human rights and democracy. I remember appearing on a popular call-in radio show in Botswana during an overseas trip. One of the callers inquired how a country responsible for Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq and drone strikes in Somalia, which had killed scores of civilians, was in any position to lecture countries about democracy. He had a point. America has repeatedly failed to live up to the democratic principles it espouses both at home and abroad. Biden would be wise to acknowledge the work needed to address America’s polarization and democratic dysfunction—and he should pledge to tackle them in his own summit commitments. Casting the work of protecting democracy as part of an effort that begins at home offers the Biden administration an opportunity to strive alongside summit participants rather than lecture to them.
When the summit wraps up, people will be quick to judge the impact of the gathering and make broader pronouncements about what it means for global democracy. But evaluating the vitality of Biden’s democracy agenda based on this single summit would be premature. Instead, democracy advocates should focus on holding countries accountable for their commitments and ensuring that the coming months mark the start of a new era for global democracy.
Steven Feldstein is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.