30th Nov 2021


Biden's 'democracy summit' is a risky venture

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US president Joe Biden's upcoming "summit of democracies" may excite those invited but it is a risky venture.

The online gathering is unlikely to help heal democracies' deep and largely self-inflicted wounds.

Read and decide

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  • We all know by now that holding elections is not enough to morph into a true democracy. Much is about what happens after the polls

More damagingly, it could endanger much-needed collective action to tackle global challenges and make the world an even more fiercely contested place. The diagnosis of democracies' ailments is correct. Around the world, democracies are in bad shape and democrats need to clean up their act.

If the summit could trigger a much-needed global democratic revival - in new democracies and in old ones – it would be worth the risk.

However, that would require detailed country-specific commitments to action, not vague expressions of noble intentions.

In geopolitics, symbolism is important. But three questions need answers.

Will the gathering of self-styled global democrats really make their authoritarian rivals quake in fear? Will citizens in these non-democracies be tempted to throw off their shackles and clamour for freedom? And will grand-standing by iffy leaders really showcase democracies' credentials and resilience?

Aware of these pitfalls, Biden has quite rightly asked his guests to engage in some much-needed self-criticism. Invitees have been told to reflect on their performance in upholding human rights, fighting corruption and standing up to authoritarian regimes.

For America, this means international scrutiny of an increasingly polarised domestic political environment.

For the EU it means moving beyond formulaic condemnation of Hungary and Poland and taking a closer look at other members' hardline stance on migration, race and Islam.

Several dangers lurk.

First, the democracy summit, with its simplistic 'us-and-them' narrative, is out of sync with the reality of today's complex, complicated and interdependent world. Splitting the world into good and bad countries may reassure and comfort but such a distinction is complete fiction.

One quick recent example: at COP26 in Glasgow this month, it was democratic India that watered down language on "phasing out" to merely "phasing down" coal - a move which was then backed by autocratic China.

Second, sometimes it is just about getting the right results.

As global responses – including tough police action against last weekend's anti-lockdown demonstrations across Europe – have shown, democracies do not always do things better.

Third, collective action is needed to tackle pandemics, climate change and to eliminate poverty. And this means reaching out to those who are like-minded but also those who are not.

Cooperation with non-democracies

Once again at COP26, the US and China unveiled a joint declaration that would see close cooperation on emissions cuts that scientists say are needed in the next 10 years to stay within 1.5C.

And that is why EU do-gooders are working with Rwanda to develop COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing capacity, despite criticism by the US International Development Agency which says president Paul Kagame's government does not meet the standards of liberal democracy.

Similarly, while the Taliban may not get the diplomatic recognition they crave, most countries including the US will have to engage with the militant group in order to ease Afghanistan's terrible humanitarian crisis.

Fourth, "America is back" may have soothed souls in the past but today's world is a 'mix and match' one where nations don't want a binary choice between aligning with the US or becoming part of Beijing's orbit.

Instead, depending on the issue at stake, countries are picking and choosing their partners and forming big and small networks to tackle regional and global challenges.

As such while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is right that 21st Century competition is about setting standards for tech and trade, it is unlikely that any one country or system will be able to really "rule the world".

Similarly, while EU policymakers may play it down to preserve transatlantic bonhomie, Europe's quest for a strategic compass and strategic autonomy are just two examples of the bloc's attempts to counter Russia and China but also to step out of the US' shadow.

Finally, physician heal thyself.

Waxing lyrical about democratic values and commitment to human rights sounds hollow after America's shambolic retreat from Afghanistan.

The trilateral AUKUS military alliance between Australia, the UK and the US is a potent illustration of how democracies can engage in unfair competition.

And while lashing out against Turkey's Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus may be the norm, unsavoury deals with dictators are the cruel reality of EU's migration policy.

We all know by now that holding elections is not enough to morph into a true democracy. Much is about what happens after the polls.

Democracies across the world are engaged in discrimination of ethnic minorities, are failing to uphold a free press, and are leaning on judges to do their bidding.

For all the talk about women's rights and gender equality, women's political and economic participation remains fragile worldwide.

Promises made at the upcoming summit should therefore come with deadlines, benchmarks and a detailed schedule for implementation.

Diagnosing democracies' fragilities is the easy part. Those aspiring to 'global leadership' should also focus on bridging differences among countries and people, not accentuating them.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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