The Potential Legacy of the Summit for Democracy Process

From March 28–30, the United States will host a second Summit for Democracy, this time alongside four cohosts: Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of Zambia. The summit is expected to pick up on many themes from the first summit held in 2021, with a special emphasis on free and fair elections, independent media, the role of youth, combating corruption, and the influence of technology on democracy. Leaders will take stock of commitments made in 2021 and announce new initiatives in these five areas, among others. Throughout the week, a series of official and unofficial events will also highlight the role of other stakeholders, including civil society, the press, and the private sector, with parallel convenings taking place in the five cohost countries. Hampered the first time by Covid-19 and now by the logistics of gathering more than a hundred heads of state in person, leaders will meet again virtually, although this year there will be hybrid convenings in the capitals of the five cohosting countries, with some heads of state attending the second day in person.

President Biden first floated the idea of a gathering of democratic countries during the 2020 campaign. When the first summit was held in December 2021, it was seen as a test of the continued convening power of the United States, following four years of an “America first” foreign policy and the events of January 6, 2021. Would anybody show up, especially for a conversation about democracy? As it turns out, they would—despite some grumbling and a few holdouts, more than 100 heads of state participated in the first summit. Concerns about alienating allies and about replicating existing democracy initiatives both turned out to be overstated; though there was tension within the European Union over Hungary’s non-invitation, and concern in Asia with exclusion of Thailand, among others, in the end the summit neither created new global partnerships nor destroyed existing relationships. Absent intervening global events and a promise to hold a second summit, most likely few people would still be talking about the summit fifteen months later.

But in the 15 months since that first convening, what was once seen as a serious but slow-moving threat—global democratic backsliding—has taken on a new significance. Few were aware in December 2021 that Russia was just over two months away from starting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that sought not only to dismantle Ukraine’s newly acquired democracy, but to erase Ukraine from the map altogether. President Zelensky addressing the Summit for Democracy in a polished suit, standing inside an ornate government building, now feels strangely anachronistic. His words, though, were prescient, as he stressed that “Ukraine and its people have defended the values of freedom and democracy on a number of occasions, and are prepared to continue to defend them.” In Ukraine, the issues of democracy and sovereignty are intrinsically intertwined, and the summit provides an opportunity to highlight their relationship.

No doubt the Biden administration hopes to strengthen the coalition standing up for global norms by continuing to nurture its relationships with a group of countries that share similar democratic values. This is not an unreasonable connection to make—while many non-democracies have condemned the Russian invasion, countries invited to the first Summit for Democracy have disproportionately voted in favor of UN General Assembly resolutions on Ukraine compared to countries that were not invited. Only seven of the 39 abstentions and “no” votes for the most recent UNGA resolution demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine came from countries invited to the 2021 summit, despite summit countries representing more than half of those voting.

But despite the inevitable image of President Zelensky at this year’s summit in a T-shirt instead of a Tom Ford suit, it is not the symbolism, or even the heads of state speeches, that are likely to be the most important outcomes from the 2023 summit. Instead, it is the broader democratic ecosystem the summit can help build, particularly in reinforcing the role of civil society in building democratic resilience. In fact, governments—be they U.S. democratic allies or authoritarian foils—are probably not the most important audience for the summit. Few participating governments are joining the summit with the enthusiasm of the United States, and few authoritarian regimes are likely to feel threatened by it (though China’s surprisingly strong reaction to the first summit suggests it is at least paying attention). Instead, the most important audience is made up of the activists, journalists, and everyday citizens who will determine whether their country’s future is democratic or not. And this is where there is an opportunity for the summit process to have impact.

This can happen in two ways: through direct participation of nongovernmental leaders in the convenings themselves, and through the packages of new technical assistance and government policies adopted to support them.

It is a rarity for civil society leaders to stand (virtually, in this case) alongside heads of state at a summit, even in a public session. At the G7 and G20, civil society meets separately and is occasionally invited to participate in working groups alongside governments. At the most recent U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, a separate day was set aside for civil society engagement. Therefore having human rights activists and other leaders on the formal summit agenda—as the Summit for Democracy did in 2021 and is expected to do in 2023—sends a vitally important message about how democracies are actually built and sustained. And this inclusion is not merely symbolic. When U.S. presidents meet civil society leaders during trips abroad and Amnesty International members write letters en masse to political prisoners, they are not only raising global awareness of the activists and their work. Such actions can provide vital protection from harassment and attack. Including activists in the formal summit agenda can do the same.

In addition, summits, like all high-level government events—are forcing functions for participants to produce concrete outcomes they can point to as “deliverables” in order to justify the gathering itself. Many of the announcements at the first summit, particularly from the United States, were financial commitments, under the guise of the $424 million Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, focused on “supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology for democracy, and defending free and fair elections and political processes.” It has taken time for these new programs and initiatives to get underway, and thus far they have produced few results. But these are long-term investments in the nuts and bolts of democracy. The second summit is likely to build on those financial commitments with complementary policy initiatives, particularly in the area of mitigating harm from technology on democracy, the focus of a major U.S.-hosted convening during the summit.

Export controls on high-end technologies used by authoritarian regimes to surveille their populations. Technical support for worker organizing. An insurance fund for journalists under attack for exposing corruption. These are not headline-grabbing initiatives. In the context of Russian aggression and pro-democracy protests in Iran, they may feel small—inadequate even. But freedom of expression and assembly, rule of law, and the opportunity for everyone to succeed economically—these are the building blocks of strong and resilient democracies. Symbolism matters—President Zelensky has proven that time and again over the last year—but so does putting in the hard work of building democracy from the ground up. And if what emerges from the second Summit for Democracy are renewed efforts to provide real support—political, financial, and technical—to those on the ground attempting to do so, the initiative has the potential to deliver a real success.

Marti Flacks is the Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Marti Flacks

​Marti Flacks

Former Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and Former Director, Human Rights Initiative