By Owen Lippert
In a signature investment of political capital, President Biden convened the recent Summit for Democracy on December 9 and 10 bringing together countries and institutions to discuss the increasing threats to democracy. Biden’s goal was a commitment to stem the erosion of human, political and civil rights by pressure from the state above, and from populism below. The whole program of speeches and events was virtual: democracy junkies like me spent three days and nights figuring out event schedules, time zones, and Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. Media reports were mostly positive. But was the event necessary and did it succeed?
As an event, it met the expectations of a good show. The only serious technical glitch was cutting off the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Whoops. Among the American speakers were the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Samantha Power the USAID director, and Carl Gershman the outgoing chairperson of the National Endowment for Democracy. Global leaders such as Jacinda Ardern the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Prime Minister Trudeau were joined by prominent activists such as Nathan Law the Hong Kong student protest leader turned legislator turned exile.
Participants actually discussed the challenges facing democracy in their countries with candour and insight. Many outlined the effort needed to counteract digital abuses, whether that be the dissemination of hate speech as witnessed in Myanmar against the Rohingya or the suppression of free media, the violation of privacy and physical safety by authoritarian state security forces. Others called for renewed energy to fight corruption by political actors and civil servants who deplete fragile states of needed resources. The third principal theme covered the partnerships states and civil society must build to strengthen human rights and democratic freedoms.
As with any good party, most critics were those not invited. Russia dismissed the affair as old-fashioned cold war rhetoric. The Chinese Communist Party tried to save face by claiming that China is a more genuine democracy than the U.S. No one took them seriously.
But there was no escaping the observation that democracy has been under strain in the U.S. As Leonard Cohen sang about democracy and the USA,
The cradle of the best and the worst
It is here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it is here they got the spiritual thirst
What role should the promotion of democracy play in its foreign policy? John Quincy Adams, fifth president of the United States, warned against foreign entanglements saying America “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 defined an alternate approach. Ronald Reagan, who created the NED galvanized postwar democracy promotion by uttering the challenge “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” as he joined West German democrats in Berlin. If Biden seeks a legacy as a protector of democracy, the summit, particularly efforts against digital threats, offers a chance of at least a footnote in the future history of America abroad.
Some hold a higher bar. It is tempting to oversell democracy as necessary for social stability, economic equity, and personal emancipation. Democracy, in truth, is not instrumental to a particular outcome good or bad. It is a way simply to engage the most people possible and thus confer legitimacy on the solutions that emerge. A Princeton political scientist, Jan Werner-Muller wrote recently, “Democracy is not just instrumentally valuable — if that were the case, we might give it up for systems that deliver more. It is valuable in itself.”
Was the summit necessary? Democracy can provide in the words of Adam Przeworski, “a regime in which incumbents lose elections and leave office if they do.” That simple rule has taken centuries to evolve into a near-universal belief, even in autocratic states. Campaigns and elections face threats ranging from ballot box stuffing to race-based gerrymandering. Throw in nationalism and populism on top of old-style “money and muscle” and it is clear the health of democracy requires constant attention. So, yes, the summit was necessary.
Was it successful? The ongoing summit process might help restore the promise of digital communications as a forum for freedom rather than a tool of surveillance repression. The summit can generate stronger light and fiercer heat on the malignancy of corruption — the evil in the absence of good governance. Civil society has a key role in measuring and advancing fundamental rights. So too does political competition and the fear of losing. The interplay between governing and opposition parties keeps elected leaders on a straightening path. Bringing all these actors together in support of democracy itself is an accomplishment in itself.
Should Canada have taken are higher profile? Not really. First, Canada did have a significant role. The Canadian embassy joined the NED in sponsoring the annual Seymour Martin Lipsett lecture. Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, gave a keynote address on the dangers to democracy in the digital age. It set the tone for the conference.
In his statement of contributions, Prime Minister Trudeau committed Canada to strengthening its international democratic programming, including through a new Canadian Centre for Global Democracy. He committed new efforts to counter disinformation, and reiterated a promise to create an effective ownership registry to expose corruption.
Canadian civil society was present as well. The Canadian Parliamentary Centre, headed by Tom Cormier, will serve as a coordination partner with the NED and other international democratic agencies, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The body will conduct events and initiatives over the next year leading to the second and final summit.
The last word about the Summit goes to Joe Biden from 2010 when, caught off-camera, said “It’s a big f…ing deal!” Initiative equates with success in democracy, whatever the final result.