Opinion | Biden is preparing for his democracy summit. He should begin at home. – The Washington Post
President Biden promised during his 2020 campaign that he would convene a summit to bolster democratic forces that have been under attack from foreign illiberal regimes and domestic anti-democratic movements. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the Afghanistan withdrawal (which consumed the administration for weeks), Biden insisted on going forward with the democracy summit on Dec. 9 and 10, albeit virtually.
Critics have reasonably questioned what can be accomplished in two days. Richard Fontaine and Jared Cohen wrote for Foreign Policy magazine: “A tentative list of invited countries came out only recently. The agenda — defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote human rights — is laudable but abstract.”
Some human rights groups want the administration to focus on threats from illiberal regimes while others think this is an opportunity to fight online disinformation. The White House took a different approach: Require each country to bring a to-do list.
Politico recently reported, “In brainstorming ideas for the summit, administration officials came up with an ‘Illustrative Menu of Options’ for commitments the U.S. could seek from the various countries invited to the gathering.” According to the report, countries would bring pledges to take domestic action on three general topics: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights.
This may be an approach born of necessity, given the time frame and the desire not to leave the summit empty-handed. Freedom House’s Michael Abramowitz in a written statement urges invitees to “take this unique opportunity to commit to bold, specific, and measurable actions toward advancing democracy in their own countries and around the world.”
It might seem like a cop-out for regimes, especially those that been criticized for backsliding on human rights such as India, to make up their own pledges. But having nations show up and present themselves as democracies is an achievement in and of itself. A gathering of a broad, impressive array of 100 or so countries would provide a contrast with the smaller clutch of illiberal regimes that seek to undermine democratic values and institutions. The event will put pressure on regimes to address domestic critics and reform advocates. And in any event, international commitments that do not have domestic political support would likely be toothless anyway.
This raises an interesting question about what pledges the United States might make. It could pledge to reform Senate rules to pass comprehensive voting reform. It could promise to push for the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, a small step forward to apply finance disclosure rules to online political advertising. The administration could commit to moving forward on the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which contains a batch of reforms seeking to prevent executive branch abuse.
Sadly, however, even if Biden pledged to champion these bills, he faces an opposition party that has taken a frightful turn away from commitments to the peaceful transition of power, the sanctity of elections and the rule of law. If, for example, Biden came with a pledge to ensure that the will of voters is respected in U.S. elections, would Republicans (many of whom rejected electoral votes and the will of millions of voters) cry foul? It is a sad commentary on the state of the GOP that it can no longer be counted on to support such cornerstones of democracy.
Perhaps what the administration needs in the lead up to the international summit is a White House democracy summit with members of both parties. If only the president could extract basic pledges from Republicans (e.g., install standardized and professional election audits, decline to question the legitimacy of our electoral system, respect duly authorized subpoenas, seal off the Justice Department from political interference), we might have some credibility to demand more of summit invitees.
So long as one of America’s major parties jettisons commitment to democracy to favor itself, the United States will not be in a particularly strong position to demand initiatives from other countries. Perhaps the result of the democracy summit will be to heighten U.S. politicians’ devotion to democracy. If so, the summit would prove beneficial.
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