Why a Summit for Democracy Is a Good Idea—and Why It Should Be Inclusive

December 03, 2021
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President Biden will host a virtual Summit for Democracy on December 9–10 (coinciding with International Human Rights Day on December 10).

On the agenda are three main areas of focus: addressing and fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. A follow-up summit is set to take place a year later, with heads of state participating in person.

Like any political initiative, this one has been met with some criticism. First, there is the issue of the requirements for participation in the summit: should it be restricted to “full” democracies, or should not-so-perfect ones also be included? One could argue that such an initiative makes sense to help reinforce weaker democracies, not to create a club of Western and like-minded countries. Still, there is the danger that a too-flexible definition of the democratic credentials necessary for participation decreases the credibility of the process, whereas a too-narrow one would alienate those allies and partners who are excluded because they are not considered fully democratic.

A possible way out of this dilemma: using a gradualist approach that focuses on solving deficiencies and builds on existing realities, which often depart from ideal models. For instance, one area where marginal improvements can reap immediate benefits is the reinforcement of the rule of law, arguably a precondition to any functioning democracy. Something else to consider: the willingness of governments to participate in such a process—and to accept its consequences. Let governments deal with the fallout of willingly staying outside the community of democracies.

The second criticism is the accusation, mainly from authoritarian quarters, that a democracy promotion initiative like this summit is a new, refined brand of Western political and cultural dominance, insofar as the benchmarks for democracy conform to Western standards, and that non-Western countries should be entitled to depart from that model for cultural or developmental reasons.

This argument is more insidious, as it constitutes an element of a wider strategy at play, for instance in the Human Rights Council, where China, in successive years, has presented amendments and resolutions containing a relativistic approach to human rights, which unfortunately have sometimes been supported by a number of democracies in the global south. Such a strategy should be resisted, as it has the potential to undermine the achievements made since the end of World War II in consolidating the principle of universality of human rights as part of international law.

To do so, one needs to analyze why it appeals to some countries in the global south. Certainly, the idea that human rights and the respect of democratic rules are not merely internal affairs, but rather that the international community has the right—and, indeed, the duty—to react to systematic violations of fundamental rights or to forceful attacks against democracy is vexing to those ready to invoke cultural or political specificities to justify such actions.

But, beyond those self-interested attitudes, we should acknowledge that arguments against “Western imposition” strike a chord in the populations of countries where the memory of Western decolonization and Western interventionism is alive and well. For this reason, among others, regional organizations—more so than Western countries—now play a decisive role in addressing attacks against democracy; for example, the role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in relation to Mali and Guinea. Other examples include actions taken by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), not to mention the African Union in Africa as a whole. The same can be said of other regional organizations across the world, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) in the western hemisphere: they are knowledgeable about local realities and sensitivities and are not perceived as imposing solutions from the outside and should therefore be associated with any global agenda for democracy. In the same vein, supporting democracy worldwide is in the DNA of the European Union in particular, but one should not forget the role played in the European space by an organization specifically dedicated to the protection of human rights and democracy, such as the Council of Europe.

In order to avoid democracy promotion being seen as an exercise in vertical north-south agenda-setting, it also needs to be driven by the democracies of the south. Western countries should therefore be willing to share leadership and political space with countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in a cross-regional coalition. And, as civil society is an essential element of any democratic society, it makes sense for nongovernmental organizations from southern countries to be part of the process alongside their northern counterparts.

A global agenda for democracy can therefore create an opportunity to discuss how to perfect democratic mechanisms, updating institutions to contemporary realities quite different from those that prevailed when classic democratic constitutionalism was born. 

The system of the United Nations has played and continues to play a crucial role in furthering the agenda of protecting and promoting human rights and democracy. It is true that some key institutions of the UN have been disappointing in this respect: for example, the Security Council, too often prevented from making decisions in these areas by vetoes from Russia and China in the name of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, as in, for instance, the case of Myanmar. It is also true that the principle of universality inherent to the United Nations—in other words, the participation of all, including countries with a poor record in human rights—gives rise to difficult debates, paradoxical situations, and sometimes setbacks. But let us not forget the wealth of international agreements on the matter reached in its framework, from the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights to an impressive number of treaties and protocols, and the experience amassed by UN organs, agencies, and mechanisms such as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council (previously the Commission on Human Rights), the Special Procedures within this council, and the leadership of the Secretary-General of the UN in this area. Ultimately, the West’s commitment to multilateralism implies that, at some point, any initiative in the fields of human rights and democracy needs to add to the debate in the relevant UN arenas in order to have a more global impact and a wider international legitimacy.

Equally, in the spirit of avoiding the initiative being perceived as a one-way pursuit, Western countries should be willing to acknowledge and explore ways to remedy the flaws and pitfalls of their own democratic systems, particularly their increasing polarization in the context of rising internal inequalities, identity politics, and technological change. A global agenda for democracy can therefore create an opportunity to discuss how to perfect democratic mechanisms, updating institutions to contemporary realities quite different from those that prevailed when classic democratic constitutionalism was born. 

A final criticism of initiatives such as this summit is that they can be portrayed as merely one element of a broader containment strategy against China and Russia. Indeed, the conceptualization of world politics as a new competition between great powers is undoubtedly gaining traction in the United States, but it is also a staple idea in China and Russia and risks becoming, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, absent this democracy initiative, the potential for confrontation would still exist and an agenda for reinforcing democracy and human rights among the countries that want to adhere to these values should not be confused with a strategy of regime change directed at those who do not. Taken to its ultimate consequences, dismissing democracy promotion as a tool directed at China and Russia would lead to the absurd conclusion that democracies should not try to reinforce their own values because that would antagonize those who do not share them.

To conclude, under the surface of the great-power competition paradigm lurks a worldview reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s ominous “clash of civilizations” theory, in which different cultures are inherently incapable of sharing common values. Asian values versus Western values are back, but so is a widening suspicion between the West and the Muslim world, fueled by terrorism and fear of migration, a tendency in Africa to reject aspects of the human rights agenda in the name of tradition and cultural specificities, and so on. If only for the purpose of countering this dangerous worldview, an inclusive agenda for the advancement of democracy and human rights shared by countries from different cultural and developmental backgrounds is more welcome than ever.