Press Briefing: Previewing the 2023 Summit for Democracy
Paige Montfort: Thank you and good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. As our operator kindly introduced, my name is Paige Montfort. I’m the media relations manager here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We have a great call lined up for you today to preview the upcoming second Summit for Democracy, which the United States will co-host next week with the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of Zambia. I’m joined by three senior CSIS experts who are going to share their insights and analysis.
So first we will have Marti Flacks, who holds our Khosravi Chair in principled internationalism and is also the director of our human rights initiative. She will weigh in on key themes, the agenda, and expectations for this year’s summit. And Marti also just yesterday published an excellent commentary on the potential legacy of the Summit for Democracy process, which I highly recommend as some prereading ahead of the summit.
After Marti, we will hear from Christopher Hernandez-Roy, the deputy director of our Americas Program. Chris has more than 20 years of experience as a democracy expert, working in the secretary-general of the Organization of American States Office. And he is going to address threats to democracy in the Americas, the state of democracy in the Western Hemisphere, and some other issues.
And finally, with us is Suzanne Spaulding, CSIS senior advisor for homeland security and director of our Defending Democratic Institutions Project. And she is going to discuss the business case for supporting democracies and civics.
And so I will turn it right over to Marti to get started here. Just want to remind everyone, we will have a transcript sent out after the call. So if you RSVPed to me, I’ll get that out to you within just a few hours, and it’ll also be posted to the CSIS website. So over to you, Marti, to get us started.
Marti Flacks: Thanks, Paige. And thanks, everyone, for joining this morning. So I will start off with a little bit of history and context around how we got to the second Summit for Democracy, a little bit about the expected agenda and topics of discussion, and then get into some of the expected outcomes and next steps, and my sense of where this process might go and what the key takeaways could be from the second summit.
So putting the summit into context, the original idea for a convening of democracies is something that emanated from the Biden campaign in 2020. And the idea was to gather together like-minded countries to have a conversation about the state of global democracy amidst what has been more than a decade and a half of global democratic backsliding, and to address the threats to democracy coming from both within countries and from external pressures. The first summit was convened in December of 2021. It was virtual because of COVID.
And because it was held virtually, the administration at the time made a commitment to host a Paris summit. The idea being to sort of bookend a summit process with a kickoff in December of 2021 and then a year later reconvening to take stock of the progress made in the intervening year. Originally the idea was to do that second summit in person. I think the logistics of trying to gather so many heads of state ultimately made that impossible. And so the head of state piece of this second summit will also be virtual, although there will be some in-person components that I’ll talk about.
That first summit was a little bit of a test for a new administration on the question of whether the United States, frankly, still had credibility and convening power on issues around democracy and human rights. Would countries show up for that conversation and was there still desire to see U.S. leadership in this area despite a very America-first foreign policy for four years, despite the challenges that we faced in our 2020 election and January 6th? And I think the answer in December of 2021 was yes, that that demand was still there. More than a hundred heads of state participated virtually in that summit.
And so it was an important signal that the United States is back in this conversation. I think that probably would have been sort of the end of the conversation to some extent but for the pledge to hold a second one and then, more importantly and, really, significantly for the context of the second summit, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which happened just over two months after the summit and it’s – as I wrote in my piece yesterday, it’s really almost jarring now to see the video of President Zelensky’s intervention at the first summit wearing a polished suit and standing inside an ornate government building and speaking to the, you know, challenges that Ukraine and other fragile democracies were facing at the time.
The context in which this summit is happening is now – has now brought the issue of democratic backsliding and threats to democracy from what was seen as an important issue, albeit sort of a slow-moving threat, to one that is now both important and extremely urgent. And so I think this context comes in this real renewed focus on the questions around democracy and sovereignty. And we see that also in places like Iran where, obviously, we’ve seen a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in recent months.
So this is going to be a very interesting moment to reconvene for heads of state and other participants. A few things that are significant about the agenda and approach of this format as opposed to the last one, the first one, as Paige mentioned, is that there are five co-hosts or there are five total hosts alongside the United States.
South Korea, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, and Zambia will each be a co-host of a piece of the summit itself as well as host their own regional events on the second day of the summit and this is in response to a criticism that the United States faced the first time around that this was very unilaterally driven, and I think it’s important that they’ve brought in these regional countries because, you know, in the – and what we’re watching with those co-hosts is do they just hold an event and move on or do we really see them step forward to make commitments and announcements and send signals that this is an issue that they want to really engage in, going forward.
Because, in my view, the country and regional specific contexts are really where the rubber meets the road in terms of democracy and human rights impacts and so having those co-hosts step forward and say, this is an issue we are equally committed to focusing on in our domestic and foreign policy, could be potentially really impactful in those regions if those countries really step up and show leadership. So that’s one of the things we’re watching to see from next week is what that legacy could potentially be.
A couple other things that are, I think, important for the agenda and the potential outcomes are the themes that the summit is going to focus on, particularly some very traditional democracy topics like free and fair elections, freedom of the press and independent media.
There’ll be a particular focus on the role of youth and that’s important in regions like Latin America and Africa where there’s an enormous and growing youth population, as well as the challenge of combating corruption and the effect that it has in undermining rule of law and good governance.
And then a particular focus in the United States in their official event that they will host on day two and around the summit on the impact of technology on democracy, and this is something that has been a huge focus for the U.S. government to try and engage with partner governments but also technology companies to try and address things like threats from surveillance technology being abused by authoritarian regimes and the export of technologies that can be used by governments to attack or surveille their citizens.
And so I expect to see some outcomes from the summit particularly focused on that issue. It’s not a substitute for, you know, legislative or regulatory action around, you know, managing or responsibly governing the technology companies based here in the United States. But in the absence of sort of pending congressional action in that space, it is important that the administration is engaging bilaterally with other countries and also with companies on voluntary actions that can be taken in the interim.
And then the last thing that’s important about the summit’s structure that I think is really interesting is that it’s a fairly nontraditional summit, in the sense that, you know, there won’t be, I think, a single sort of outcomes document, the way you see from the G-7 or G-20. Because it’s virtual, you don’t get the benefit of the side meetings, the bilateral exchanges to kind of move agendas forward. I would argue that the real audience for this summit is not really governments at all. I don’t see the summit process particularly influencing either democratic governments to be more committed to authoritarian governments to move in the direction of democracy.
It’s really the outside groups, the civil society organizations, academics, students, media, journalists, and the private sector, and citizens that are the ones who kind of need to see governments have this conversation, send the signal that they’re focused on democracy and human rights, and kind of feel that support. And so the role that civil society in particular will play in the main event at the summit with heads of state is really important. And the packages of announcements and assistance that I think will come from the summit to support democracy and governance work around the world are also going to be really important outcomes.
Just a future – sorry – just a note on the private sector in particular. This is an issue that we’re very focused on here at the Human Rights Initiative at CSIS, along with others at CSIS. And we’ll be hosting an official summit event on Tuesday, March 28th, that’s particularly focused on the role of the private sector in democratic resilience. And we’ll have a number of speakers from the private sector, as well as from government and elsewhere, talking to the idea that even as – or, just as democracy is good for business, it is incumbent on business to be good for democracy, and talking about how companies can do that.
And then last thing, just to wrap up, is to say that we’re looking closely at what may come down the pike in the future in terms of the future of the Summit for Democracy process. There is a lot of enthusiasm from some of the local society organizations to institutionalize this effort, to continue it past this year. There’s, I think, more of a possibility than there was a few months ago that there will be a third summit next year, but certainly the kind of initiative and programs that are being launched I think are most likely to be the important legacy from this process, whether or not the heads of state can meet again.
So I will stop there. And let me turn it over, I think, to my colleague Chris from the Americas Program to go next.
Christopher Hernandez-Roy: Thanks, Marti.
This is Chris Hernandez-Roy. And good morning to everyone. I want to talk to you a little bit about the importance of the democracy summit from the perspective of CSIS’s Americas Program, meaning why it’s particularly relevant for Latin America. And I’m going to go into a little bit of historical context here, because I think what’s happened in Latin America is precisely one of the drivers for – or, one of the reasons why the democracy summit was conceived.
I had the privilege of being one of many people who worked on another summit process, called the Summit of the Americas. And I worked particularly on the one that was held over 20 years ago in Quebec City, what was then known as the third Summit of the Americas, which gathered the leaders of all the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America – from Canada to Argentina. And all the leaders present then were elected in free and fair elections. And all the countries represented, while they had different systems, different levels of political maturity, and different levels of democratic and institutional consolidation, they were all strong democracies with better social protection policies that they had been in prior decades.
A thing called a democratic clause emerged from that summit. Meaning that only countries that had democratic governments would be able to participate in future meetings. And that summit also produced something called the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is a sort of nonbinding constitutions for – constitution – sorry – for the Americas which spelled out the essential elements of a democratic system and morally committed countries to safeguard those democratic principles.
The Quebec summit really marked the high-water mark for democracy in the Western Hemisphere. Twenty years later, more or less, Los Angeles, California, was the host for the Ninth Summit of the Americas, and this meeting could not have been more different from its predecessor in Quebec City. The presidents of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua – three full-blown dictatorships, two of which emerged only in the last 10 years or so – were excluded for leading brutal regimes that systematically abrogate their citizens’ political, social, and economic rights, violate human rights, and persecute anyone who dissents from the government’s line. The presidents of some other countries, who were also in Los Angeles, could easily be labeled semi-authoritarian, like Brazil under Bolsonaro, or Bolivia under Luis Arce. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refused to participate if Cuba wasn’t invited, and the presidents of the Northern Triangle countries, all of them fragile democracies at best, followed his example and did not attend.
What happened in the time between these two summits is at the core of the democratic backsliding that’s affecting countries around the globe and, as I said earlier, is the impulse for the Biden administration’s original summit of democracy held in ’21, and version 2.0, which will be held in a few days.
After transitions from military dictatorships in the ’80s and ’90s, democracy in Latin America held out the promise that it could address deep structural problems that all the countries of the region share to a greater or lesser extent. These problems included weak institutions, deficient social services, weak rule of law and impunity, increased insecurity in organized crime, economic insecurity, inequality, and social exclusion, political polarization, and endemic levels of corruption. Over time, these weaknesses had two distinct impacts on democracy and governance in the region. With democracies unable to address the demands of their citizenry, large segments of the region’s population began to feel that democracy wasn’t working for them, that it only worked for the wealthy or the privileged elites. This eroded support for democracy, and voters saw other alternatives. They turned largely to populist demagogues like Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, and Cristina Fernández, among others, who promised a new way of doing things but who then engaged in democratic backsliding, or worse. These deficiencies made it easier for unscrupulous politicians to line their pockets, rig the system in their favor, extend their control to other branches of government, and eventually abuse civil and political rights. According to one respected pollster that we closely follow, an organization called Latinobarometro, support for democracy in Latin America fell from about 63 percent to 48 percent between 2010 and 2018. And these structural problems are just too important to ignore if the region, or much of it, wants to continue down a democratic path.
Having three established dictatorships in the region, and at least two semi-authoritarian regimes, makes it more likely that their influence and bad practices will spread through disinformation campaigns and other efforts, and copycat politicians are, you know, keen to adopt these practices, co-opt branches of government, eliminate separation of powers, attack journalists, criminalize opponents, and enforce – you know, and co-opt law enforcement, because bad practices keep authorities in power. They’re too tempting not to emulate.
If they want to prevent further democratic backsliding, the governments in Latin America have to redouble their efforts and address the structural challenges of democracy. And this is precisely what will be discussed at the democracy summit, where commitments and financial resources are also put forward, like the close to half a billion dollars in the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal that was announced at the first summit of the democracies. That summit, and now this second iteration, will bring leaders of democracies together and involves their respected civil societies to underscore the values that they hold dear and to work to ensure their countries’ futures remain democratic. The summit will nurture an energetic and vociferous ecosystem of civil society organizations, journalists, human rights defenders, and other activists who believe – to quote the Inter-American Democratic Charter – that the people of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.
The autocracies of the world have shown us that they are actively working together to challenge the liberal democratic order. Just look at President Xi’s visit to China (sic; Russia) yesterday. The democracies of the world need a coherent and coordinated approach, not just to push back against malign actors but to ensure that our political systems, which are based on freedom, respect, tolerance, transparency, and the rule of law remain strong and vibrant and deliver for our citizens. I just hope that these are not one- or two-time efforts, and that the idea – I think as Marti was saying earlier that the idea of holding regular meetings – not necessarily at the presidential level, but holding regular meetings involving civil society with practical outcomes takes root.
Ms. Montfort: Thank you so much, Chris.
And next up we have Suzanne Spaulding.
Suzanne Spaulding: Hi, folks.
Yeah, I want to pick up on Chris’ last point there and particularly on Marti’s point about how important the participation of the heads of state will be for the summit, but really where our greatest hope derives is from the participation of civil society, of human rights activists, and in particularly in our case of business. And that’s really what I’m going to focus on. I’m very excited about the event that Marti mentioned that we’re hosting on the – on the sides of the summit for businesses and their role as stewards, really, among the stewards of democracy. So I want to talk a little bit about that, a business case for democracy and specifically the business case for helping to promote the reinvigoration of civics in our country.
We’ve all seen and discussed here the decline of – in faith around the world, really, in democracy and its institutions, certainly here in the U.S. And my research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where I came after serving as the undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security, has been on the ways in which that decline in trust has been exacerbated by information operations coming from authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia but increasingly also China and others. And it goes well beyond elections. We did a deep dive into Russian information operations designed to undermine trust in our justice system, in our rule of law, in a report called “Beyond the Ballot.” And what we concluded from that is that the most important thing we can do over the long term to counter the pernicious impact of the content of those information operations is to teach about democracy – is to reinvigorate civics education, which has really fallen by the wayside – and that we need to do it at all ages.
And the way that that matches up with the meta-narrative that we see undermining democracy that this summit and other activities are really trying to push back against, the messaging that we saw in our adversary information operations around the world were that democracy is not just flawed but irrevocably broken, right – that the individual is powerless to bring about any change, and that they should just give up on the idea of truth. And those meta-narratives, if you will, are devastating for democracy.
What civics can do, both in the U.S. and around the world, is to remind people that the promise of democracy is not any promise of current perfection. Democracy is failing to meet the needs of its people around the world. Democracy is, in its current implementation, flawed. The promise of democracy is its potential for change. It is its capacity for change that distinguishes it from authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. But that change will only happen if the citizens are the informed and engaged agents of that change. So the idea here is to empower citizens to be – to hold their institutions accountable and to be effective agents of change to move democracies toward what we call a more perfect union.
Why is this relevant for businesses? There is the business case to be made for supporting democracy and civics. And frankly, the Harvard Business School has done a great job of laying out the business case, in cooperation with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But things like the rule of law versus the rule by law, right, where you have contract sanctity, that’s absolutely vital for businesses to succeed. And we even see Russian oligarchs here in the U.S. using U.S. courts to fight over their ill-gotten gains because they – because they have faith in this process not being arbitrary. Regulatory certainty, the process that comes from that versus sort of unfair and arbitrary or political regulation that we see much more frequently some place like China, for example. The idea of a robust marketplace of ideas, with freedom of speech and freedom of association, that is really crucial for real innovation. China struggles to match our level of innovation, for example.
And then, you know, in terms of civic skills, that civil discourse, teaching civil discourse, teaching that – renewing that shared sense of national identity based on shared aspirations rather than shared grievances, can create a more cohesive work environment. And of course, that civic knowledge to empower employees, citizens, to be more effective participants in their communities. And so we have launched an initiative called Civics at Work, in which we are getting CEOs to sign up to be advocates for reinvigorating civics, to engage their own workforces to civics – ways that build civics knowledge and civics skills, because we have an adult population that has been ill-served by our education system. And we can all stand to learn more about the nuts and bolts of how our government works, and to support civics activity in their communities.
Why business, places of business? Why do we think it’s so important for businesses to see themselves as stewards of democracy? Employers, interesting, are one of the last trusted, most trusted, sort of institutions or entities, individuals, out there, you know, in society today. And they can achieve this potentially at scale. Brad Smith of Microsoft, who will be participating in our event next week, was one of the first CEOs to sign up for Civics at Work. His book, “Tools and Weapons” really talks eloquently about the role of technology, for good and for bad, teaching civic responsibility. And, in fact, including that in STEM education can help ensure, or at least make it more likely, that we have individuals out in that tech sector developing these innovative tools, and have that sense of civic responsibility to make sure that they are tools and not weapons.
So that’s what I’m looking forward to in terms of our event and the opportunity for businesses to see themselves as playing a vital role in this broader effort to save democracies.
Ms. Montfort: Great. Well, thank you so much, Suzanne. And thank you, Chris. Thank you, Marti.
At this time, we’ll go over to Q&A. So I’ll hand it back to our operator to let folks know how you can queue up to ask questions.
Operator: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Aamer Madhani from the Associated Press. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you for hosting this call. This was very helpful.
Just wanted to ask a question about the atmosphere and optics going into this summit. And, you know, to what extent do you think Biden’s large message throughout his campaign and administration about the need for democracies to show that they can out-deliver autocracies – to what sense does that feel overshadowed by some of the tough realities on the ground?
Sanctions have yet to have an impact on Russia’s economy to the extent that the administration said they would going into the war. And he’s – Russia seems to be at least floating with the help of another autocracy, with China. After talking about a new approach to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is back to business as usual with the kingdom. There has been criticism by the administration on rule of law when it comes to judicial overhaul effort in Israel. So, in short, how would you evaluate the Biden administration and the United States’ credibility on the broad issue of democracy going into this summit? Thank you.
Ms. Montfort: Thanks.
Marti, perhaps you want to start off and then, Chris or Suzanne, if you have anything to add?
Ms. Flacks: Sure. Thanks, Paige. And thanks for that question. I think it’s a great – it’s a great question. I think there’s a few different strains that are important to address in your question. I think the overall messaging that the Biden administration has tried to put out around the summit, exactly as you said, is that there are two challenges that democracies are facing. One is internal threats and the other is external threats.
On the internal side of things, it’s really important to demonstrate that democracy delivers economically for its people better than autocracy. And also that democracy creates that sense of sort of civic responsibility and patriotism and kind of that safety and security that Suzanne was alluding to. That democracy is not just divisive and partisan, but actually can be a unifying feature.
And then externally, of course, what was at the time perceived as the threat of kind of insidious intervening in elections, online misinformation/disinformation from Russia and China, has now morphed into a much more real-time, physical threat of invasion by Russia of a democracy, with the intent not just to destroy the democratic system in Ukraine, but actually to destroy the existence of Ukraine. So that external threat has really taken on a new life and importance.
And I think that’s – I think that that’s a theme that the administration is really going to pick up on in the second summit, for some of the reasons that you are alluding to. Which is, you know, it is a mixed bag in terms of – in terms of the messaging around how do you address these internal threats. I think the Biden administration has a partial good news story to tell in terms of the work it’s been doing domestically. It has managed to get some big pieces done through the IRA and he CHIPS Act. And some of those things are starting to come through.
And there’s some really interesting aspects of that that are not being pitched as democracy, but as economic growth opportunities that will, I think, really have an impact on democracy. And the example that I have been thinking about is the announcement from the Department of Commerce that companies getting spending from the CHIPS Act have to provide childcare services to employees. The knock-on effect of that, of facilitating parents to be able to go to work and create space for them to not just earn more money but therefore sort of engage more in their civic space, is going to be really important in the long term.
So there are some good threads to pull in that regard domestically. And I think the fact that the Biden administration has been very open and transparent about the challenges that the U.S. is facing domestically on the democracy front has increased their credibility on these issues externally. Because that was one of the big questions that I think they faced coming in is how can you begin to talk about human rights and democracy overseas if you can’t address those problems here at home?
And I think he has done a good job framing it as: We’re not perfect at home, but we are acknowledging our challenges and we are creating space to talk about them. Whereas in Russia, in China, you can’t have that conversation with your government, you can’t have that conversation with your neighbors, there’s no space for defense and there’s no space for introspection about your challenges. So I think that framing is really important.
In terms of the external record, I think it’s absolutely fair to say that there has been – there’s been a disconnect between some of the messaging the Biden administration has put out on the importance of human rights as the center of foreign policy and how that’s played out in practice in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. And this is a very – this is a recurring problem I’ve seen through multiple administrations, where at the principal level, at the 60,000-foot level, the commitment is there.
But when the rubber meets the road in terms of decision making, it’s been difficult for them to see the real-time value of sort of backing away from what are seen as strategic allies. I think this would be a bigger problem absent the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think that invasion has really stirred up a desire and an importance of building a coalition of democracies, but also a coalition of countries that are committed to the international legal – (audio break) – and an acknowledgement that it is therefore important to continue to work with and engage with countries who maybe we don’t agree with on democracy and human rights issues, but who stand with us on sort of respect for sovereignty and respect for the international legal norms that have developed. So they’re walking a fine line there, but I think the Russian invasion has given them some leeway on that issue.
So I’ll stop there and Chris and/or Suzanne may want to come in.
Mr. Hernandez-Roy: Yeah, if I may. I don’t know if Suzanne wants to go ahead. I’ll just mention a few –
Ms. Spaulding: Go ahead, Chris. I’ll follow. Yeah.
Mr. Hernandez-Roy: OK, thanks. I’ll just mention a few things from the – from the perspective of Latin America, which, disappointingly, is really – stands in contrast to, you know, the strong transatlantic reaction against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where President Biden has really been able to marshal a firm response by the established democracies in the transatlantic union. In Latin America, the reaction and the optics are really quite disappointing.
Now, while almost all the countries, with the exception of the usual suspects like Cuba, Bolivia, and – sorry, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – most countries voted against Russia – or, against Russia’s invasion in successive U.N. resolutions. They, with one exception – and I believe it’s Costa Rica, which happens to be one of the co-hosts for the Democracy Summit – with the exception of Costa Rica, none of them have joined any of the sanctions against Russia and none of them have actually provide any help to Ukraine. They’ve pointedly refused to send any munitions or weapons of Soviet design that could have been useful for Ukraine to defend itself. And this is really because they want to remain non-aligned. They don’t want to get involved. This stems in part from the long history of nonintervention in the region, which is a reaction to U.S. intervention in the region in the late 19th century and, you know, mostly the first half of the 20th century. But it’s also, you know, been engrained in the sense that they don’t want to – it’s an extension of their desire not to get involved – or, not to pick sides in the U.S.-China strategic competition that’s going on in the region.
And in fact, in one case they’ve gone so far as – and I mean, the Biden administration has gone so far as to really kind of negotiate with one dictator to counter another. And what I mean by that is almost – less than two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine a high-level delegation was sent down to Venezuela to try to convince President Maduro – a president and a government that’s not recognized by the United States – to pump more oil in an effort to – you know, to ease prices at the pump as a result of the invasion. Now, the team – the U.S. team was there also to help negotiate the release of some U.S. citizens who were held as prisoners in Venezuela, and they were successful in that a short while later. But it showed, you know, their willingness to kind of put some principles aside in order to deal with pressing problems in a more – in a more realistic way.
So I think the optics, which was the original question, are kind of mixed, especially when it comes to Latin America.
Ms. Spaulding: Yeah. And I’m going to pick up on, again, a couple things particularly that Marti was referencing in terms of the internal and the external way of looking at this.
From an internal standpoint, you know, thinking about what the administration is doing to build and strengthen democracy at home, I would argue that the Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS Act, those big pieces of legislation that are going to strengthen our economy at the local level, providing opportunities both in terms of direct jobs but also in the economic benefits of a more robust and resilient infrastructure, that’s part of that economic security in which democracy is more likely – and particularly a cohesive democracy – is more likely to thrive. So I think there’s a direct – a real close connection there between those efforts and the strengthening democracy at home.
But then also I think if – you mentioned in your question, you know, the impact of sanctions. And you know, we could talk about what the – what the goal of sanctions should be/is/was, not necessarily full collapse of the Russian economy but making it harder to sustain and wage this war. And I think an important part of the sanctions is the demonstration, as it’s turned out, of the strength of this democratic alliance – at least of the, you know, largely Western liberal democracies – the strength of those alliances based on shared values and a shared – as Marti said, shared respect for the rules-based order, for the rule of law versus sort of client states is a really important affirmation of the strength and importance of democracy. And I think it also sends a strong message to China.
The other point I want to pick up that Marti talked about is transparency, this notion that democracies provide some space for disagreement, for introspection – the importance of the U.S. being, you know, relatively humble, for example, it is Human Rights Reports, et cetera. But really, this idea of transparency is a real strength of democracies. I talk about it in terms of training to fight in the light. If you train to fight in the dark and you could then meet your enemy at night or turn off the lights, and you’d have the advantage. And I think the world is becoming increasingly transparent for a whole variety of reasons, including just the inability to protect the massive amounts of data online for example, but pressures all around to become more and more transparent. And transparency is just going to be thrust upon us.
So those who can learn to operate in a more transparent world are going to have the advantage, right, turning on the lights. And democracies have much greater experience in training to fight in the light, in operating in a transparent world, than do totalitarian/authoritarian regimes like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. So it is a real strength of democracies that we ought to be leaning into. And as we go forward, it’s, I think, one of the things we need to be talking more about in terms of why democracy is a stronger, more sustainable system.
Ms. Montfort: Great. Thank you so much.
Next question, please.
Operator: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Ms. Montfort: Great.
I’m going to read one out from Howard LaFranchi at the Christian Science Monitor. This one’s probably for you, Chris, and then Marti and Suzanne can join if they’d like to. He asked: “On a recent trip to Latin America, when I asked about President Biden’s upcoming democratic summit I often heard that the U.S. just doesn’t have that much to offer the region anymore to make working with the U.S. on solidifying democracy as compelling as it once was.” And so he wants to know if this is a challenge that President Biden and the United States faces in other regions, where China has more of an economic presence. And what are the compelling counter-arguments Biden and the administration can make to make the U.S. case for working together on strengthening democracy?
Chris, would you like to take that one?
Mr. Hernandez-Roy: Sorry. I started and then I realized that I was on mute.
I can’t speak to how this would be true in other regions, but it is something that you hear quite a lot in Latin America. I hear it in my travels when I go to the region. You know, the general lament is the U.S. just doesn’t pay attention to us, us being Latin Americans. And – (laughs) – that’s kind of a good thing and a bad thing. You know, when the United States pays really close attention to a region, it’s usually because that region is problematic for some – for some reason. And so on one level it’s a good thing that Latin America is not, you know, a real focus of attention. On the other hand, because it’s not such a focus of attention, over the last 20 years, you know, the Chinese have been able to ramp up their game, invest in critical infrastructure, secure, you know – strong commodity streams, invest in dual infrastructure, and support Latin American governments with easing their debt burdens but in questionable ways, which then sometimes allow Latin American countries to fall into a debt trap. So I do think it’s true that more attention needs to be paid to the region.
More attention is being paid to a sub-region within Latin America, and that’s Central America. USAID just recently has issued a request for proposals for an almost $800 million package of assistance that would work on strengthening governance, reducing crime and violence, economic opportunity, all of that in an effort to strengthen those democracies and of course also reducing irregular migration back to the United States.
But more broadly, though, the United States does need to have a higher-level plan for engaging the region beyond having Senator Chris Dodd as the White House’s special representative, and beyond some of the sort of tepid trade initiatives. It is a region that shares democratic values, generally speaking, with the United States, and it is a region that we should pay attention and ensure that democracies continue to thrive and not engage in democratic backsliding, which unfortunately is very prevalent in the region. I mean, just a few weeks ago, one might have seen, you know, hundreds of thousands of protesters in Mexico against an electoral reform called Plan B, which would significantly roll back the efforts to have free and fair elections in the country. In El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala, you’re seeing, you know, very strong-armed tactics to fight what nobody – you know, nobody refutes is a very acute crime and violence problem, but they’re doing it in ways that suspend constitutional privileges and they engage in mass incarceration, in the process also attacking journalists who report negatively. Countries in the region have political prisoners.
So that’s a long-winded answer to say that it’s a region that we don’t pay enough attention to, at our peril, because it’s a region that generally shares our values and we need to encourage and protect them.
Ms. Montfort: Thank you, Chris.
Marti, Suzanne, was there anything else you wanted to add in terms of, you know, the counterarguments for Biden and the administration, for the U.S. case to working together to strengthen democracy or any part of that question before we wrap up?
Ms. Spaulding: I guess the only other thing I would add to Chris’s really good insights: You know, he brings the level of nuance that I think has to be brought here when we’re talking about Western Hemisphere or other countries. We have a tendency – all of us, I think – to attach labels to things that then obscure the important differences. And so I think about WMD, which is an issue I used to work on, weapons of mass destruction. You know, those are actually – we can’t really make progress until we break that down: chemical, biological, nuclear, radiological, right? But we attach this label and we start to think of it as one monolithic thing. Cybersecurity is the same way. I think about that with respect to our increasing use of the term global south, right, and so what starts as an understanding of the differences among countries in that part of the world suddenly gets this label, global south, and those differences become obscured and we begin to think of it, you know, as something we can treat with – all in the same way without understanding the nuanced differences. So I just want to foot-stomp Chris’s more nuanced sort of country-by-country view here.
Ms. Flacks: Yeah, I’ll just come in very briefly to echo and agree with both of what Chris and Suzanne just said, and just to say that these are obvious points that I think are important to make, which is that most of the rest of the world, you know, isn’t looking to make a choice between engaging the United States and engaging China, for example. I think most see the value in having relationships with both and see the value of continuing to engage with the United States on a whole range of issues. And I think whether or not every government in Latin America or Africa, for example, where I worked for a long time, you know, see the value of engaging on democracy and human rights issues in particular, I, at least, continue to see the demand signal from civil society organizations and other nongovernmental entities in those countries who really rely on and see the continued value of the United States working in this space, and who felt its absence very acutely when we pulled back on those issues.
And so, you know, when I got asked the question a lot in the early days of the Biden administration of, you know, should the U.S. – given all of our issues – continue to push on democracy and human rights, and continue to engage? My answer is always: As long as activists and advocates in those countries are asking for our help, you know, to support their efforts towards democracy and human rights, then we need to have their back and we need to continue to do that. And we do it in a much more humble and introspective than we used to, but it’s really important that we’re there.
So I continue to see that demand signal coming from most places that I engage with. And I think – and I think that’s not in any way an alternative to or in contrast to the desire of countries to have relationships with many different governments around the world.
Ms. Montfort: Great. Thank you so much, Marti.
I think that’s a great place for us to end. I know we’re a few minutes over time. So thank you, everyone, for dialing in today.
As a reminder, as Marti mentioned, CSIS will be hosting an official event of the Summit for Democracy next Tuesday the 28th from 8:30 to 12:30. And so please join us for that, as well as our event Monday the 27th on How Verified Content Defends Democracies. These events will be great. They’ll tie into the summit.
And per usual, we will have a transcript from this press briefing available within just a few hours today. I’ll send it out to everyone who joined us or RSVPed directly. And then it’ll also be on CSIS.org. And if you have follow-up questions, questions as the summit progresses, please feel free to reach out to me, Paige Montfort, at email@example.com. I’m happy to set up interviews with Marti, Suzanne, Chris, and other colleagues who were not on the call today.
Thank you all for joining and have a great rest of your week.