Biden’s Summit for Democracy, a good idea hurt by compromise and geopolitics

It’s progress that needs to be defended.

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In the hope of bringing together allies and articulating some of its more optimistic foreign policy goals, the Biden Administration held a virtual “Summit for Democracy” on December 9th and 10th with leaders from over 100 countries, as well as representatives from civil society groups and private sector companies. The U.S. president opened the summit last Thursday by promising $424 million to be used in countries around the world to fight corruption, promote election integrity and support independent media.

In his speech, President Biden asked, “Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked? Or will we together… together have a vision … and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?” 

Despite the summit being an obvious public relations exercise, with the worrying rise in authoritarianism in the United States and much of the world and an ongoing pandemic as a backdrop, having a global conversation about the prospects of and dangers to representative government was not a bad idea, even if the execution was flawed.

In terms of fighting corruption, which was highlighted throughout the summit, Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, made an interesting point in an opinion piece on Middle East Eye, arguing if western countries are going to truly fight corruption they might want to stop creating tax havens that practically ensure it. 

Further, while corruption may be more visible in a petty sense in poorer countries where authorities extract bribes in place of paperwork, warnings or charges, in Mexico it is called a “mordida” or bite, if we look at a country like the UK where Boris Johnson’s Conservative government routinely hands out no bid contracts worth millions for things like PPE to donors and other well connected people,  an argument can be made that corruption is at least as much of a problem in richer countries as it is in the global south, it’s just less spread around and better concealed.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Summit for Democracy was which countries made it onto the guest list and which ones were excluded.

That great powers the People’s Republic of China and Russian Federation were not invited was to be expected, as the idea of these kinds of summits is usually to separate allies from rivals. However, the inclusion of countries that are at odds with these powers, especially Taiwan in the case of the People’s Republic, which has long viewed the island as its territory, provoked a predictably angry response from Beijing, including a white paper called “China: a Democracy that Works” and a second criticizing the American system of government. 

While China’s self-described “whole process people’s democracy” isn’t very convincing coming from a one party state which now has a president for life, the critique made about American (and western) democracy in general being deeply unequal and controlled by money is one that the progressive left has been making for decades.

Making things worse, as reported at the time by Reuters, Tawainese minister Audrey Tang had her live feed cut off after showing a map that portrayed the island as the only ‘open’ society in the region, with all other east Asian countries described on the map as “closed”, “repressed”, “narrowed” or “obstructed”, insulting many American allies also taking part in the summit.

Other invitees were more troubling in terms of their actual records. India, which has long billed itself as the world’s largest democracy, but whose government under the leadership of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi continues to engage in human rights violations in disputed Kashmir and denies basic rights to huge swaths of its population, including Muslims, low ‘caste’ Dalits and indigenous people was on the list. Modi, who spoke at the summit last Friday, was joined by the leaders of other countries like Poland that are led by illiberal rightwing populists pushing their countries away from democratic norms.

Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, only recently accused of plotting a coup or at least a dry run for one along the lines of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. capitol, which failed to attract enough Brazilians to go forward, has long called for his country’s military to overthrow Brazilian democracy but his government received an invitation anyway. He gave a three minute speech with a focus on the fight against corruption, claiming to have had no allegations against him during his time as president despite ongoing investigations of his own children and his government’s procurement of Covid 19 vaccines.

It’s also interesting to note that Viktor Orban of Hungary, a favorite of Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the far right in the United States was the only European leader not invited to the summit.

Reacting to the slight, Gergely Gulyás, Orbán’s chief of staff, took a cutting approach, telling journalists, “In Hungary, we are not at the point where close to one-third of voters think that democratic elections were rigged.” 

As we might expect considering recent history, Instead of using the summit as an opportunity to start a dialogue with less powerful governments opposed by western nations like Venezuela, an invitation to the summit was only extended to Juan Guaido who has been encouraged by th U.S. and its allies to portray himself as the country’s true leader despite not being elected to hold the office. Some have even recognized him as such despite the clear will of the majority of Venezuelans expressed in election after election monitored by international observers.  A shocking example of how hypocritical so many of the champions of ‘democracy’, including the corporate press, are.

Despite the exclusions, it’s important to have these kinds of dialogues between countries and offers a good example of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy, which has been a mixed bag so far. While we’ve seen increased saber rattling targeting powerful rivals at the same time as a pull back on things like drone strikes, the numbers of which are now much lower than they were under the last two administrations.

One important failure of the summit was a missed opportunity by all the leaders of richer nations to use the occasion to show solidarity with poorer nations in terms of Covid 19 vaccines as the powerful hoard supplies, shooting themselves in the foot in the process.

What is so often called democracy, especially in the Latin American context, is more oligarchy mixed with corporatism, a dangerous mix with elements close to fascism that is now becoming popular on the right in countries like the United States, UK and Canada who once chuckled about ‘banana republics’. I am sometimes told by a few of my American friends that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy. It is true that one looks in vain for the word in the country’s constitution and many of the country’s founders, wealthy land owners many of whom had slaves, abhorred the very idea of it, fearing the “tyranny of the majority”.

It was not these interests and later centers of economic power that shaped what became American democracy but rather ordinary working people who organized labor unions, demanded equal rights and expanded these rights over two and a half centuries, inspiring many other countries in the process. It’s progress that needs to be defended.

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