Sanjay Ruparelia holds the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Ryerson University.
During his bid for the United States presidency, Joe Biden proposed a gathering of democracies to combat growing autocratic threats. That initiative has come to pass, and his virtual Summit for Democracy will now take place next week (Dec. 9 and 10). Three key themes orient the agenda: confronting authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights. What are its prospects of success?
The summit organizers correctly diagnose the deficits of many democracies. Rising inequality and political corruption fuel public distrust and social polarization. Democratically elected populists, who concentrate executive power in the name of the people defined in ethno-majoritarian terms, undermine civil liberties, political rights and the rule of law. Authoritarian states – targeting scholars, journalists and activists at home and weaponizing digital technology to sow disinformation abroad – exacerbate these fault lines.
But skeptics have reasons to hold their breath. The guest list includes more than 100 political leaders, whose regimes range from social democracies to competitive autocracies. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are not invited. Neither are Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban, who respectively rule Turkey and Hungary with an autocratic grip. Yet executive aggrandizement in India under Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party has jailed social activists, censored media outlets and fomented growing violence toward religious minorities, draws many comparisons with Mr. Erdogan. Systematic attacks on judicial independence and the rule of law in Poland resemble developments in Hungary. Many other attendees, from Brazil and Israel to the Philippines, have witnessed serious backsliding over the past decade. Geostrategic imperatives overshadow democratic credentials.
Yet underlying this political compromise is a necessary acknowledgment. As Mr. Biden stated last year, “No democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final. Every gain made, every barrier broken, is the result of determined, unceasing work.” The United States, which survived a partisan insurrection to overturn a presidential election, is Exhibit A. The Republican Party continues to suppress voting rights, court white supremacists and rig electoral rules. Indeed, the degree of backsliding in the U.S. and among its allies was twice the rate of other regimes over the past decade. Strict entry requirements are hard to impose if you cannot pass them yourself.
The second concern is the summit’s plan of action. Heads of state are “to listen to one another and their citizens, share successes, drive international collaboration, and speak honestly about the challenges facing democracy.” To galvanize commitments, each leader is to announce steps they will take domestically and internationally to further these goals. A follow-up summit, scheduled for December, 2022, will take stock. Mutual accountability is the key mechanism.
The incentive for leaders to make grand statements but offer low-hanging fruit will be strong. Civil society organizations, increasingly targeted in many regimes, are key actors for mobilizing citizens and holding governments accountable. Yet they have been marginalized from the main proceedings. Public scrutiny following the summit will be crucial.
Nonetheless, the focus on mutual learning is right. We need to explore democratic innovations regarding civic participation, political representation and government accountability, and how to support critical independent media. The principle of “inside-out diplomacy,” asking countries to chair working groups where they enjoy a global reputation for best practice, is good to follow in a destabilizing multipolar world. The traditional assumption of democracy promotion in the past, of rich northern democracies schooling emerging democracies how to govern themselves, was always presumptuous. Western support for autocratic leaders and military coups during the Cold War belied such claims. The “freedom agenda” of the Bush administration post-9/11 – which Mr. Biden supported – unleashed war, destruction and state collapse in the Middle East. Such hubris is impossible to maintain today.
Finally, promoting respect for human rights and tackling authoritarian corruption are crucial imperatives. Co-ordinating targeted sanctions against autocratic regimes that undermine electoral integrity, steal public funds and commit rights violations are important steps. But we must address our complicity. Shell companies, financial secrecy practices and investment opportunities in many Western democracies enable such activities. And defending human rights requires a more expansive conception. Economic austerity and rising inequality fuelled social polarization and populist backlash over the past decade.
Our democracies need to reinvest in health, education and job training, and to expand social protection and labour rights. Progressive taxation and corporate governance reforms can reduce wealth disparities and spur productive competition. And we must address the structural inequalities of the global political economy. The severe disparities in income support measures and access to vaccines during the pandemic reflect the deeper asymmetries that constrain development possibilities in the south, which has seen a massive increase in absolute poverty and public debt. Democracies struggle to maintain their legitimacy when they cannot ensure human dignity for their citizens.
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