On December 9-10, United States (US) President Joe Biden convened the first Summit for Democracy virtually. Roughly 100 leaders participated in the summit. The main goal for this forum was to bolster democracy worldwide at a time when it has retreated in many countries, including in the US. The summit had three major themes: Fighting authoritarianism, tackling corruption, and promoting human rights.
Why did the Biden administration convene this event? What necessitated it? The first reason is to address the decline of democracies in the 21st century. The second is to confront the emergence of the growing international power and influence of autocracies such as Russia and China.
Nowhere has the decline of democracy been more evident than in the US. One of the overarching missions of the nearly 11-month-old Biden administration has been to undo the damage done to American democracy by Donald Trump as president. During his tenure, Trump warmed up to dictators, such as Kim Jong-II of North Korea and Vladimir Putin of Russia. For all practical purposes, he provided legitimacy and cover for dictators worldwide.
At the same time, he showed little concern or interest in collaborating with democratic nations which had traditionally been partners with the US. In the US, Trump also elevated the power of the executive branch over that of the other two equal branches of the federal government – the legislative and judicial. And, following his decisive defeat at the ballot box in his bid for re-election, Trump’s failure to concede and to support the peaceful transfer of power and continuing resistance has put American democracy into a tailspin.
The drastic erosion of democracy is not just occurring in the US. The think-tank, Freedom House, reported that 2020 was the 15th straight year freedom retreated globally.
Corruption and inequality are increasing in many nations. Democratic institutions are being undermined. This is happening in Hungary, Turkey and Myanmar. And to a greater or lesser extent in almost all democracies.
That brings me to the second reason for the convening of the summit, which was to put a spotlight on China and Russia. Over the past two decades, China has been positioning itself to become more influential internationally in much the same way that the erstwhile Soviet Union did after World War II. Beijing is being helped by Russia in this endeavour.
Biden recognises China’s emergence, and he has been on a mission to restrain it. He has formed a major alliance defence, AUKUS, joining hands with the United Kingdom and Australia, and strengthened Quad, the four-nation partnership that also includes, besides the US, the three most prominent democracies of the region, Australia, India, and Japan.
In summary, the reasons for holding the first Summit for Democracy were compelling.
Before the summit began, there was a fair amount of criticism because of invitations extended to some leaders and nations that were less than democratic in their orientation and invites not given to more democratic ones.
The summit itself went off well with a number of informative discussion sessions and substantive policy presentations. In spite of this, the reactions following the summit were mixed, with many saying that little specific was achieved or accomplished. There was general agreement, on the other hand, that this first summit was a good first step and that the second summit (2022) would be the one in which progress must be made. And, it must because there is an absolute need for a turnaround of the state of democracies worldwide.
As the two largest democracies in the world, the US and India must be leaders in that renewal process by demonstrating what they are doing within their countries to strengthen democracy and serve as examples for the rest of the world. If they can begin to do that before the 2022 edition, they will ensure that the first step was a giant one for democracy worldwide and provide the footprints for others to follow.