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Biden’s Democracy Summit

Article by Alex Folkes

December 7, 2020

Biden’s Democracy Summit

Democracy is not exactly seen as a sexy topic for world discussion. Every year, at least in normal times, there are economic summits and climate change summits and occasionally there will be arms control summits too. But rarely are the building blocks of what makes our society function discussed on the world stage. Incoming US President Joe Biden seeks to address this void by including in his manifesto a commitment to holding a democracy summit within his first year, perhaps within the first few months. And, as Kevin Baron of Defense One notes: “Nobody on earth but the President of the United States has the power or clout to pull it off.”[1]

 

To someone who works in the field of elections around the world, this is a significant proposal, but it comes with the risk of promoting countries whose democracies are troubling and of offending those who we should be looking up to. So what is Biden’s plan and what can it hope to achieve?

 

Biden’s promise recognises that America is in need of democratic renewal herself. As Richard Luce in the FT has pointed out, America has proved in recent months that it might not be the perfect example to follow and two of their last six Presidential elections have resulted in ‘wrong winner’ scenarios. Luce also points out that Biden’s predecessor, George W Bush, advocated his war on Iraq on the basis that he was bringing democracy to the Middle East – and look how that has turned out. US democracy is clearly not as bad as President Trump would have us believe and the recent election was conducted – according to international observers and US law enforcement – without significant fraud, but it is still a system which needs improvement. Areas such as restoration of the Voting Rights Act, transparency in campaign finance, and the use of cyber and other resources to protect the voting systems are all covered in Biden’s plan, as is the need to restore America’s moral leadership in the world.[2]

 

Biden says his summit will involve the world’s democracies and the aim will be “to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values,” looking at areas including fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, improving election security, and advancing human rights. And he goes on to say that civil society organisations, technology corporations and social media giants will also be invited and will be asked to make their own commitments.[3]

 

That Biden does not see elections as the be all and end all of democracy is very encouraging, as the conversation needs to be about the rule of law, freedom of speech and equality in addition to the mechanics of elections themselves.

 

But to suggest that Biden is new to this debate would be wrong. He has long been an advocate for greater world wide democracy and in 2018 he gave a major speech on the subject at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit where he talked about the threat and reasons behind populism. Then he named Hungary, Poland and Romania as countries which were seeking to dismantle the checks and balances of the rule of law. He also listed Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as nations which needed the support from more established democracies. In the case of Ukraine, he said the decision to send a new missile system to support the country’s fight against Russian-backed insurgents was right “but Javelins will neither win the war nor help Ukraine become a democracy.”[4]

 

Some have suggested that there ought to be some sort of D10 – a club for the leading democratic nations including the countries of the G7 plus India, South Korea and Australia. But that would, I think, be a massive mistake for two reasons. First because of those it excludes. The G7 is created on the basis of economic size and power. Using this as the basis of some assessment of the best democracies will exclude many smaller countries who have far stronger, fairer and frankly better systems of governance. New Zealand, Sweden and Uruguay spring to mind. And this leads to the second point. By setting themselves up as the D10, these countries are giving the impression they think their democratic systems and structures are beyond reproach. Geopolitical need means that the US cannot afford to offend countries such as India and so creating a small clique would inevitably mean giving a complete thumbs up to countries which have shown worrying signs of degrading the human rights of some of their citizens.

 

The second idea being floated is that this is somehow going to be used to target China. The Christian Science Monitor specifically calls for the summit to be used to take China to task for what is happening in Hong Kong.[5]

 

It is certainly the case that China is an authoritarian state which abuses large numbers of its population and the tearing apart of the semi-democratic structures of Hong Kong is very concerning. But they are not unique in this regard and it is perhaps a wasted opportunity to use such a summit to make a point to one country which will not be listening. It is difficult to be on the democratic moral high ground if you ignore what is happening in many gulf states and treat those countries as your close allies whilst castigating China.

 

A more humble approach, and one which would have far more chance of succeeding, would be for Biden to be as inclusive as possible. Freedom House suggests that 2019 was the 14th year of democratic decline in the world. Biden readily admits that the US system is not perfect. And if that is the case, then others can come together on the basis that their countries have their own degrees of democratic imperfection too.[6]

 

This summit should be a United Nations of those countries which aspire to call themselves democracies. A seat at the table should be available to any nation that aspires to a better system of democracy and human rights than they currently have.

 

So what might it achieve? I think there are five key outcomes.

 

First, it may focus the minds of Americans on the flaws within their own country. There has not been a better time to get both Democrats and Republicans on board for the need to overhaul the system. It may be a bit of a stretch to imagine that they will agree on a constitutional amendment to remove the Electoral College. But if they can reach a consensus that having different systems and rules for each state, and often for each county, is a recipe for voter confusion and bureaucratic collapse, then that will be a massive step forward. For too long, the US has operated on the basis of winners justice. Whoever controls the levers of power seeks to address the biases that favour their opponents whilst ignoring, or exacerbating, their own advantages. Bi-partisanship is a tricky thing to pull off in the febrile atmosphere of American politics, but it is needed now more than ever.

 

Second, it puts democracy, human rights and the rule of law at the top of the agenda. Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union has the world really thought about why democracy matters. And even in the 90s the focus was more on dragging the new countries over to western economic values rather than democratic ones. Moreover, the lack of focus means that autocrats can convince their populations that the electoral charade in their country is much the same as the fully fledged democratic exercise taking place elsewhere. Call it an election and no one will know how flawed it is. More publicity means an increased chance of populations demanding better. The rate of backsliding, even in the west, is concerning and even members of the EU have seen their regimes start to denigrate the concept of liberal democracy. As Sophie in’t Veld points out, there is a concern even among MEPs that they need help to reverse the rise of illiberalism and the Biden summit could provide that.[7]

 

Third, it gives encouragement to those states which are far from perfect democracies to carry on improving. Those countries such as Uzbekistan which are responding positively, if partially, to the recommendations made to them by international election observers need encouragement as well as admonishment. Getting a seat at the table of this summit is a viable reward for a commitment to continue improving, whilst also acknowledging that there is still much to do.

 

Fourth, this should be a summit not just for nations but for those groups who help to advance electoral and democratic ideals. This would include international groups such as OSCE, the Commonwealth, and African Union. But also the NGOs such as our own Westminster Foundation for Democracy. And there should be recognition of the work that domestic observer groups do both during the electoral period and between elections. For the bigger groups, there is the chance to discuss and refresh their methodologies to understand the particular problems facing elections at the present time. For the smaller groups, there is the chance to raise funding and learn from others so that they can be stronger advocates for human rights in their own country.

 

However, as Biden himself points out, there are many private companies which have a significant effect on elections. And so the likes of Facebook and Twitter need a seat at the table to discuss what they are doing to respond to the needs of each country holding elections and how they can improve and uphold democratic ideals.

 

Finally, it does indeed exclude some states. Kevin Baron, of Defense One takes a relatively absolutist position: “Biden should make it clear that government leaders of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and their ilk are not invited. Frankly, neither should Middle East and Asian monarchs and dictators. Turkey? Debatable. Perhaps Biden could invite such nations to send representatives as observers — free to watch and support, but not to participate in any mainstage discussions, decisions, or sign any proclamations about democracy or human rights. This can’t be the UN Human Rights Council where, as Pompeo said, “brutal regimes” come to lecture the free world.”[8]

 

And whilst he is clearly right about the majority of countries he lists, if this programme is to be more than a gesture then it needs to keep the semi-democracies involved and encourage them to move forwards.

 

It may seem odd to argue that Russia should have a seat at the table – if they want to come – whilst excluding China and others. But whilst Russian elections are deeply flawed, they take place on a regular basis and there is a recognised path to improvement. Putin will not be around forever and there must be a hope that we can persuade whoever comes next to make more of a commitment to democratic ideals. In China there is no such thing. Keeping them out – as well as nations who show no commitment to progress – is the best means of persuading those where backsliding has taken place that a renewed effort is needed.

 

Alex Folkes has been an International Election Observer working for OSCE/ODIHR, the EU and other organisations since 1998. 

 

Image by Gage Skidmore under (CC).

 

[1] Kevin Baron, Give Us That Democracy Summit, President Biden, Defense One, November 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/11/give-us-democracy-summit-president-biden/169967/

[2] Edward Luce, Biden’s dilemma on global democracy, Financial Times, November 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/3c6f033d-6469-4e2e-bbf8-52a3f66fba1b

[3] Joe Biden, Why America Must Lead Again, Biden Harris campaign website, July 2019, https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/#

[4] Speech by Joe Biden, Democracy in an Age of Authoritarianism, Alliance of Democracies, June 2018, https://www.allianceofdemocracies.org/speech-by-joe-biden/

[5] Monitor’s Editorial Board, A focal point for Biden’s democracy sumit, The Christian Science Monitor, November 2020, https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/the-monitors-view/2020/1120/A-focal-point-for-Biden-s-democracy-summit

[6] Sarah Repucci, Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy – Democracy and pluralism are under assault, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy

[7] Sophie in’t Veld, How MEPs can help Biden’s ‘Global Democracy Summit’, EU Observer, November 2020, https://euobserver.com/opinion/150115

[8] Adam Shaw, Pompeo says US critics at UN Human Rights Council ‘have the most to hide’, Fox News, November 2010, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/pompeo-us-critics-un-human-rights-council

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