Experts React: The 2021 Summit for Democracy

Moving from Buy-in to Action

Marti Flacks
Director and Senior Fellow, Human Rights Initiative

The Biden administration achieved at least two of its goals at the Summit for Democracy: it sounded the alarm on the state of global democracy, which has suffered precipitous declines over the last 15 years, and it signaled that there is a global audience interested in discussing strategies to tackle this decline. The summit hashtags had over 1 billion impressions on social media, with significant engagement in Uganda, India, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as in the United States and Europe. Perhaps equally as important, the summit demonstrated that countries are still willing to engage when the United States issues an invitation. Despite concerns about the guest list and complaints about hypocrisy and finger-wagging, more than 100 of the 110 summit invitees showed up (South Africa and Pakistan being notable exceptions). The unexpectedly strong reaction by Russia and China to the summit only reinforced the significance of the large guest list.

But attending a summit and taking real action to address the root causes of democratic decline are not the same thing. Even if most summit participants appeared to have bought into President Biden’s diagnosis of the problem—that democracies are failing to deliver concrete benefits for their people, therefore leaving themselves vulnerable to both internal and external authoritarian threats—it is less clear that there is a global consensus on the treatment. Only the United States announced significant new policy initiatives and funding streams at the summit, with most other participants reserving any potential announcements for the upcoming “year of action.”

For the summit process to be a success, the year of action must be more multilateral and involve more stakeholders. The United States should encourage other participating governments to take leadership roles in follow-up activities across summit sub-themes and within regions, as well as to make concrete domestic and foreign policy commitments. It should more proactively and consistently engage civil society organizations—ideally integrating them into the summit follow-up process directly rather than in a parallel and less meaningful track—and work with them to both monitor current summit commitments and develop additional deliverables for the second summit in 2022.

And the United States should acknowledge the impacts of the private sector on democracy—positive and negative—and bring companies and investors into the summit process directly, including calling on them to make their own specific commitments in areas such as economic inequality, protection for human rights defenders, and the impact of technology on democracy and human rights. With the single largest U.S. deliverable being a $122 million effort to protect worker rights globally, the lack of discussion—much less deliverables—by the private sector on this or related subjects at the summit was both conspicuous and inexplicable.

The 2021 Summit for Democracy provided a launching pad for a much-needed conversation on the state of democracy around the world, but by the time the 2022 summit takes place, it will be imperative for the United States not to be the only one speaking.

Can the Summit Process Tackle the Threat of Corrosive Democracy?

Georges A. Fauriol
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program

The White House should be applauded for last week’s Summit for Democracy. The summit sparked an energizing visibility for activists and allowed for ancillary gatherings to galvanize needed strategies and calls for action. Unlike the gathering over two decades ago in Warsaw that led to the Community of Democracies—which took place in a world where democracy was ascendent—the summit did not really conclude with a distinct plan of action. That may in fact be a virtue, allowing the summit’s participants to remain agile in confronting the layered challenges facing democratic governance. But the absence of clear governmental commitments also suggests that obstacles exist to holding together the disparate coalition of countries participating in the summit.  

The United States did make some significant commitments. The signature outcome was the pre-summit announcement of a U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption. A core characteristic of twenty-first-century authoritarianism has been its global use of “corrosive capital,” enabled in part by a consortium of non-democratic financial, legal, and political networks operating from within democracies. The U.S. anti-corruption strategy—the first of its kind—provides a useful amalgamation and points to an expanded effort across U.S. government agencies. It also feeds into significant nongovernmental initiatives, notably in the media and information-communication spaces. But the breadth of topics covered by the strategy also show the sheer scope of the challenges ahead.

If the two-day summit has a lasting impact, the White House is going to have to activate a robust public campaign that begins to operationalize President Biden’s notion of this century’s “existential threat,” including from corrosive capital. New terminology is needed that reflects this global reality and fissures among democracies: “corrosive democracy”—the intentional manipulation of the instruments of democratic governance for the political purpose of restricting the government’s operational capacity. This acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between the economic universe of corrosive capitalism and the true political characteristics of the self-stylized “illiberal democrats” and strategically and media-savvy autocrats, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Ultimately, the principal message of the summit—that democracy is in peril, including from within democracies—needs to resonate more meaningfully with a public distracted by other concerns, including a pandemic. While this task can be enhanced by governmental action, confronting the peddlers of corrosive democracy will be most effectively carried forward by broad engagement of citizens themselves and the work of a large universe of private organizations, nationally and globally.   


Authoritarians Playing Defense

Elizabeth Hoffman
Director and Fellow, Congressional and Government Affairs

Increasingly, autocratic leaders are taking cues from each other in an evolving effort to fine-tune their ability to control and repress. Consider the proliferation of the criminalization of foreign funding for civil society organizations in closed societies. Journalist Will Dobson dubbed this phenomenon “the dictator’s learning curve,” and grassroots democracy activists have long complained that while autocrats appear to share best practices to sharpen their tools of repression, democrats have lacked similar cooperation.  

The Biden administration’s inaugural Summit for Democracy offered an opportunity to launch that cooperation and for like-minded countries to coordinate policy in response to increasingly assertive autocratic regimes. The strong response to the summit from leaders of countries that did not meet the threshold for inclusion—chiefly China and Russia—suggest that they view such coordination as a threat. The Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the United States penned a rare joint op-ed arguing that democracy in China and Russia is simply manifested differently. These same arguments appeared in a white paper released by the Chinese Communist Party days before the summit, entitled “China: Democracy That Works.” The essay extolls the virtues of China’s system, which represents the “unity of democracy and dictatorship to ensure the people’s status as masters of the country,” and was released at a convening in Beijing entitled the International Forum on Democracy.    

The Russian and Chinese regimes also sought to shape the narrative around the Summit for Democracy in cyberspace. According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard, “democracy” was the most tweeted word by Chinese state-sponsored or affiliated accounts between December 8 and 14—the week spanning the Summit for Democracy. Russian state-sponsored accounts were less active than their Chinese counterparts, but still mentioned “democracy” 98 times.

Unlike their more sophisticated and effective influence operations that seek to sow division within democracies, China and Russia’s efforts on this front feel hamstrung and clumsy, at least with regard to an international audience that is unlikely to be convinced that these governments are democracies in disguise. But autocrats such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin should be forced to play defense more often. Instead of bolstering the Chinese and Russian models of governance, their attempts to co-opt the summit to bolster their own narratives exposed the inherent contradictions in their self-proclaimed system of “people’s democracy,” which touts the importance of rule of law but also flagrantly ignores it. For that reason alone, the Summit for Democracy has proven a success. 


Why Humanitarians Should Be Paying Attention to the Summit for Democracy

Jake Kurtzer
Director and Senior Fellow, Humanitarian Agenda

For humanitarian practitioners, the 2021 Summit for Democracy passed with little fanfare. However, while the summit did not speak directly to humanitarian issues, it represents a small but meaningful step by the United States toward reinvigorating the political will necessary to tackle the most difficult humanitarian challenges. The summit’s priority themes—combating corruption, advancing human rights, and fighting authoritarianism—are essential to a reduction in humanitarian need. Authoritarian regimes are responsible for the overwhelming number of conflicts necessitating humanitarian response. Corruption saps available resources dedicated to meeting basic human needs, and armed conflicts are often precipitated by crackdowns on human rights and characterized by widescale human rights abuses.

Sadako Ogata, former UN high commissioner for refugees said, “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” Humanitarian leaders consistently urge governments to respond to humanitarian crises with political solutions. Yet the trend of democratic decline has sapped energy, strength, and the necessary coherence and coordination among democracies to tackle the political disagreements at the heart of protracted crises. Today, global humanitarian funding and diplomacy is dominated by democracies; a decline in democratic trends portends a reduction in funding and political will for humanitarian action.

The summit took place a week after the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched its Global Humanitarian Overview for 2022. The global humanitarian appeal for 2022, totaling over $40 billion, focuses on the impacts of climate change and armed conflict. But the scale of needs reflects a more troubling reality—many non-democratic governments around the world are increasingly incapable or unwilling to meet the basic needs of their citizens, compelling aid organizations to fill the gap. The authoritarian government in Venezuela is directly responsible for economic collapse and the lack of healthcare and economic opportunities for its citizens. The military coup in Myanmar, which disrupted a democratic transition, forced millions of Myanmar’s citizens to rely on social humanitarian networks instead of state services.

The decline of democracy around the world has other immediate and far-reaching impacts for civilians and nongovernmental organizations in complex crises. The increasing confidence of authoritarian regimes and their lack of acceptance of international norms heightens risks of military confrontation and impedes the ability of the UN Security Council to act expeditiously to resolve conflicts. Previous Russian incursions into Ukraine have generated major humanitarian consequences, with current provocations raising alarm bells. Iranian and Saudi meddling contributes to Yemen’s ongoing emergency, while Russia and China use their veto at the Security Council to obstruct or deny urgent humanitarian imperatives, including cross-border access into Syria.

In humanitarian action, the United States remains essential by virtue of its outsized financial contributions and continued willingness to engage diplomatically and politically. However, the United States cannot resolve conflicts on its own; as President Biden acknowledged at the summit, this administration will need to expend energy resolving domestic political challenges to address the United States’ own democratic shortcomings. The United States’ willingness to acknowledge this challenge, while still seeking to muster like-minded states toward a shared agenda of revitalizing democratic values, portends well for resolving the current and future political and diplomatic challenges facing the humanitarian sector.


Protecting Human Rights Defenders Requires Political Will, Not Just Foreign Assistance

Lana Baydas
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative

The Summit for Democracy showcased the value of collective action to defend democracy against authoritarian backsliding and rightly highlighted the need to reinforce democratic process beyond elections, including a free press, an open, participatory governance environment, and accountability. Human rights defenders face threats and criminalization for their legitimate work in protecting human rights principles and standards and holding governments accountable in democratic and non-democratic countries alike. These threats have been exacerbated by the pandemic: under the guise of states of emergency related to Covid-19, several democratic governments—some of them invitees to the summit—undertook restrictive, unnecessary, and disproportional measures to curtail civic freedoms and adversely impacted the enjoyment of human rights. Authorities in Niger, for example, arrested journalists and health workers for reporting on Covid-19, while the government of India arrested journalists for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. These moves echo a decades-long trend by many governments to close civic space under the pretext of countering terrorism and protecting national security. 

Similarly, a common indicator of democratic backsliding is the capture of the judiciary and legislative bodies by political influence, which enables further human rights violations and attacks on human rights defenders. Where there is no independent judiciary, there is no meaningful access to justice and remedies. Unfortunately, this issue did not receive adequate attention at the summit.

As the year of action begins, the administration should develop a roadmap that links defenders of democracy with democratic governance and bolsters the role of an independent judiciary and legislative bodies. While the United States and other governments committed to several new initiatives in this space at the summit, such as an International Fund for Public Interest Media and a Defamation Defense Fund for Journalists, supporting civil society actors and human rights defenders is not just a matter of technical assistance or programming—it is one of exercising “political will.” A starting point would be to call on participating governments to commit to protect human rights defenders and to rescind measures that have undermined civic freedoms, especially those adopted during the pandemic, in time for the second Summit for Democracy. Participants could also commit to leverage their influence globally to encourage other governments to open civic space as well by linking security assistance and economic aid to the effective protection of human rights defenders.


Advancing Human Dignity through Aid Localization

Ed Rekosh
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative

To go by mainstream media coverage, the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy was nothing more than an exercise in geopolitics. Media attention prior to the summit focused almost exclusively on which countries appeared on the invitation list. And the most newsworthy moment in the proceedings was the unscripted pulling of the video feed when Taiwan digital minister Audrey Tang showed a slide depicting her country in a different color than mainland China, reflecting an assessment by the civil society group CIVICUS of its comparatively open civic space. Time Magazine went so far so to dub the event a “geopolitical ploy.”

Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken set the tone of the Biden administration’s approach with an understated defense of democracy as the most effective political system for addressing today’s challenges and advancing human dignity. If the commitment to advancing human dignity—the underlying value behind all human rights—is to truly buttress the reassertion of global U.S. leadership, it will be critical for the administration to meet another one of its commitments: supporting citizen-to-citizen solidarity across borders by “localizing” U.S. development assistance.

President Biden announced more than $424 million in new programs and assistance at the summit, under the auspices of the Presidential Initiative on Democratic Renewal. In her summit remarks, USAID administrator Samantha Power emphasized the digital rights components of the initiative, which will also support free media, nonviolent social movements, and labor organizing, among other priorities.

For this initiative to have the desired impact on human rights, however, the U.S. government will need to live up to the promise that Power detailed earlier in the week in a speech to the Professional Services Council: she committed to localizing 25 percent of U.S. development assistance (up from 6 percent at present) by providing it directly to locally led initiatives in other countries within four years. A key challenge in accomplishing that goal will be modifying USAID risk management policies that give primacy to U.S. intermediaries at the expense of direct support to local actors.

Increasing development assistance that enables local democracy activists and human rights defenders to access financial resources that serve their own strategies and initiatives—in contrast to implementing plans formulated in Washington—would make all the difference. If the summit marks a real shift in how U.S. development assistance for human rights operates, in genuine solidarity with grassroots civil society around the world, that will make a significant contribution toward the summit’s goals.


A Year of Action Should Be Just the Beginning

Barbara Smith
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Human Rights Initiative

The Summit for Democracy marked a strategic and political recommitment by democratic nations, civil society, the private sector, and global citizens to democracy. It reaffirmed shared values around human rights, rule of law, and democratic governance. The summit also commenced a more operational year of action, the goal of which is to develop a collective effort to demonstrate that democracy delivers a framework for addressing a myriad of global challenges, such as advancing climate change initiatives, strengthening pandemic preparedness and response systems, and fostering economic inclusion and progress.

Successful democratic progress cannot merely be supported in the moments that capture international attention, such as when protestors fill the streets of capitals to demand change. It must also be nurtured in the quiet and determined moments to teach and empower youth by giving them the tools to discern fact from fiction; in the relentless perseverance of reformers to press for legislative or policy changes that will improve the lives of women, girls, and other marginalized groups; and in the sometimes years-long dedication of political activists seeking accountability and transparency in electoral processes. The year of action must launch a long-term and sustained process to mobilize global citizens in the fight to preserve democracy, to bolster democratic activists in backsliding nations, and to help human rights defenders, labor activists, and those working to advance justice and the rule of law who are under threat in nascent movements for democracy around the world. 

Democratic governance is—and has always been—a messy affair, requiring constant vigilance and regular maintenance. The United States should not hesitate in its work to recognize, build, and sustain global democratic initiatives simply because its own democracy is somehow imperfect: this will always be the case. Democratic partners should develop and share evidence-based examples of how democracy can deliver broad-based and inclusive economic growth and truly demonstrate how an integrated approach executed in solidarity with other like-minded nations, multilateral institutions, the private sector, and civil society can combat extreme poverty and advance human dignity. The year of action is just the beginning.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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