President Joe Biden’s ill-conceived virtual “Summit for Democracy” on December 9-10 is really a public relations extravaganza that’s likely to backfire on the United States, because democracy is not a commodity, nor is it a Kalashnikov to be aimed at geopolitical rivals. President Biden is using an obsolete playbook, and his advisers should have told him that the stunt will convince only those who already believe in the myth of U.S. democracy. It will not gain the U.S. any new friends.
According to the U.S. Department of State website, the Biden administration has proclaimed that renewing democracy in the U.S. and around the world is essential to meeting the challenges of our time. That sounds good, but what does it mean concretely? We can agree with President Biden in recognizing that, “No democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final. Every gain made, every barrier broken, is the result of determined, unceasing work,” but we should start with the reconstruction of our own democracy before pretending to dictate to other states how they should practice it.
Biden will host not one but two Summits for Democracy, with the participation (and targeted exclusion) of leaders from government, civil society and the private sector. The announced goal is “to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” The summit is supposed to launch a “year of action” in preparation for a follow-up summit in 2022.
There is a certain symbolism to the chosen dates. Seventy-three years ago on December 9, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention. December 9 is also International Anti-Corruption Day. Seventy-three years ago on December 10, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is interesting to see who is invited and who isn’t. According to the State Department website, 110 countries were invited, among them notorious “democracies” such as: Brazil, known for its undemocratic land-grabbing and ongoing destruction of its Indigenous population under Jair Bolsonaro, a Trump-like autocrat; Colombia, where paramilitaries continue to kill Indigenous and social leaders with impunity; India, guilty of ongoing genocide in Kashmir and highly undemocratic traditions throughout the territory; Indonesia, that continues to deny self-determination to West-Papuans; Israel, whose apartheid policies against Palestinians have been condemned worldwide by human rights advocates; Spain, guilty of jailing human rights defenders and Catalan advocates of free speech and self-determination. It is particularly amusing that the U.S. invited the undemocratic, unpopular and auto-proclaimed “interim president” of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, while the UN-recognized government is excluded.
What credibility can Biden’s summit have when it excludes millions of people from participation? Biden’s team opted for what the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls a “big-tent approach,” which inevitably means catering to geopolitical allies, favoritism, double standards, inexplicable distinctions, and accepting the adverse diplomatic pushback by those nations and peoples excluded.
Further, what exactly does Biden understand under the word “democracy”? Just periodic elections? Is it not more important to test the reality, whether the elections offer real choices? Whether they can bring about change in domestic and international policies? Whether the electorate has a meaningful opportunity to influence the selection of candidates? Whether the populations are proactively informed by governments and regularly consulted on their needs? Whether there is real correlation between the will of the people and the governmental policies that affect them?
It is the participation by all stakeholders that makes democracy work. Similarly, it is the participation of all states that would give legitimacy to the summit. It is a misnomer, an oxymoron, to pretend that this exclusionary event can be considered democratic.
A true “democracy summit” can and should be convened by the UN and be all-inclusive, based on multilateralism and sovereign equality. In the light of repeated North Atlantic Treaty Organization provocations against Belarus, China and Russia, what the international community urgently needs is cool heads and detente. No one needs a divisive summit launched by a host who systematically ignores decisions of the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council, and frustrates action in the UN Security Council by vetoing more than 80 resolutions, mostly to shield Israel from criticism or sanctions.
A truly inclusive summit took place at the UN in 2005 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the entry into force of the UN Charter. The UN World Summit ended with its “outcome document” unanimously adopted as General Assembly Resolution 60/1, which reaffirms “that democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.” Most importantly, contrary to the U.S. claim to hold a patent on democracy, the international community agreed that, “while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy, that it does not belong to any country or region,” and reaffirmed the necessity of due respect for the sovereignty of states and the right of self-determination of peoples.
A Democracy Fund at the UN was established in 2005. Here is where the U.S. could make a significant contribution, rather than going outside the UN system and proposing an “exclusive club” of “good guys” to confront the “bad guys.” This is an obsolete Cold War mentality.
International democracy means ensuring equitable participation by all and respecting the sovereign equality of states and their right to see things differently than we do. Domestic democracy means respecting a plurality of views, which entails access to information, not homologated corporate news and social control through censorship by government and its echo chambers.
When will the U.S., United Kingdom and European Union understand that “democracy” means people power, pro-actively consulting the public, conducting referendums, achieving social justice?
“Value-based” diplomacy as supposedly practiced by the U.S., U.K. and EU would have some validity if it were truly based on values such as peace and human rights, if it were objective and not arbitrary, if it would not apply double standards. Alas, it is a scam.
Biden’s “America Is Back” reminds us unpleasantly of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” — both slogans suggesting that the U.S. persists in its imperial arrogance and will continue ordering people around.
This counterproductive “summit” will be forgotten by most as soon as it has ended. History will judge it as a PR stunt — a phony exercise in self-praise and a provocation against other cultures, including the Chinese, Hungarian and Russian.
It is easy to make the U.S. respected again. It suffices to practice the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which then-President of the UN Commission on Human Rights Eleanor Roosevelt advanced so successfully in 1948.