summit for democracy 2021

Written by Ayesha Zafar 7:40 pm

President Biden’s Summit for Democracy 2021: A Big Question Mark?

President Biden of the US will host a two-day Summit for Democracy this week to cast an eye over the current status of democracy in the world. Much like the author, many feel this summit to be an affront to the US’s ‘undemocratic’ rivals, China and Russia — two nations that were struck off the invite list.
Gul Seema
About the Author(s)
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Ms Ayesha Zafar is currently pursuing her Bachelor's in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad. She has authored multiple academic publications including research articles and book chapters. Her areas of interest include Middle Eastern politics, the geopolitics of Central Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region

The Revival of Democracy?

The Summit for Democracy 2021 is not much of a surprise, as President Biden, from his very first day in office, stressed the need to recommence democracy in the US and across the world to meet the unprecedented challenges of today’s time. He has long emphasized that democracy doesn’t happen by accident and that it must be defended, fought for, and strengthened.

On the International Day of Democracy, Joe Biden stated, “No democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final. Every gain made, every barrier broken is the result of determined, unceasing work.” Today, democracy whether in transition or established for decades is under severe threat around the world because of public distrust and the failure of governments to deliver equitable and sustainable economic systems.

Corruption, inequality, and venality are the major contributors to the weakening of democracy across the world. Likewise, military coups have made a major comeback with the recent cases observed in Myanmar, Sudan, and Guinea.

Therefore, to counter such challenges, the Biden administration has scheduled a virtual summit for democracy on December 9-10, 2021 that will provide an opportunity for world leaders to listen, share successes, drive international collaboration, and speak honestly about the challenges facing democracy for its renewal. 

The Virtual Summit for Democracy 2021

The aim is to bring leaders from across the world to set forth an assenting agenda for democratic restitution and to contest major threats through collective actions. This flagship initiative by the US showcases its commitments to strengthening the values of democracy and human rights by providing a platform to listen, learn, speak and implement. 

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For the United States, the summit will open a window of opportunity to engage with the world leaders whose support and commitments are critical for global democratic replenishment. It will encourage allegiance to internal reforms to counter authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights.

The summit will invite heads of state, civil society members, philanthropy, and people from the private sector by giving them an opportunity to bring change to society. It’s high time for states to stand together in defending against threats from autocracies; they must show joint commitment towards addressing the most pressing crisis of the present era.

state of democracy 2020
The State of Democracy”  by Katharina Buchholz is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

It is time to rethink and build a plan that could provide sound foundations for the renewal of global democratic values. With an aim to build a broader community of leaders committed to such a change, the summit will open avenues of opportunity for states to learn and innovate together.

Issues of accountability, governance, human rights, free and fair elections, civil and political rights, etcetera, will be under discussion at the summit. To embark on a year of action, another meeting on democracy which is most likely to be in-person will be held one year later with an objective to follow up and advance the summit goals agreed on this December.

The Invite List

However, a major concern regarding the summit as raised by the key officials is its invitation criteria for the countries. Although the US is committed to keeping the summit as inclusive as possible, it has invited only 110 countries to the summit, many of whom have troubling records of democracy and are often accused of harboring authoritarian tendencies.

On one side, we have Sweden and France as well-established democracies, and on the other hand, there are the Philippines and Poland with distressing democratic histories. Likewise, in Asia, a few of the US allies like Japan and South Korea have been invited, while other key allies like Thailand and Vietnam have not.

state of freedom 2020
The State of Freedom in the World”  by Statista is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

In the Middle East, where the US has long stressed the need to spread democratic values, only two countries, Egypt and Iraq, have been invited, while Iran and key NATO player Turkey are found missing. Much like this, in South Asia, Pakistan and India, both with a ‘partly free’ status, are invited, while Sri Lanka with a very good history of democracy is not.

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Correspondingly, Bangladesh is found missing from the invitation list despite its score on the Freedom House being 39 in contrast to Pakistan’s score of 37.  Not just this, Bangladesh is ranked 76th in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, while Pakistan is at 105th place.

Invitation to Taiwan

Apart from this, another controversy regarding the invitation is the US’s invitation to Taiwan but not to China. Similarly, Biden invited Brazil even though its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been criticized for his authoritarian bent. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has in the past stated that he does not “care about human rights”, will be among those discussing ways to flourish democracy globally.

Henceforth, the list of 110 countries invited to the summit for democracy 2021 is a big question mark on Biden’s administration. Nonetheless, the US stated that it has placed no condition on the invite of the summit since the idea is never to prescribe but rather ensure that countries come up with a commitment plan and by the end of the summit give pronouncements about the reforms they intend to make both internationally and at home.

An official from the state department stated that “We’re not seeking to define who is a democracy who is not a democracy. We’re seeking a really inclusive, big-tent approach”. This shows that the US is committed to bringing all the states be they democratic or not towards the idea of democracy by providing them with an opportunity to engage in discussion with the well-established democracies of the world in order to learn and bring about a transformation.

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However, a number of countries are still criticizing such a move by the Biden administration. Recently, Hungary has blocked the EU from participating in the Summit after it was revealed that it was the only country in the European Union not invited to the Summit by the US.

On this, the minister leading the PM’s office, Gergely Gulyás stated that “if Hungary is not invited to participate, there can be no common EU position, pointing to the unanimity rule in the EU treaties on foreign affairs issues. Hungary does not have the same serious democratic problems as the United States,” he said.

Not just Hungary, but Russia and China also reject the US’s idea of holding a summit for democracy. Tian Peiyan, deputy director of the Policy Research Office of the Communist Party’s central committee in a press conference stated that “The U.S. is a self-styled leader of democracy, but its so-called summit of democracy is only aimed at suppressing and containing countries with a different development model. It is set to become a joke and will not be popular”.

Therefore, keeping in view the concerns of the states, this summit will be a major test for Biden’s administration. Its success or failure will open up a new debate regarding the future of the democratic system and the freedom to have an own model of governance. Whether democratic values will prevail will be subject to the test of time and the success of the 2021 Summit for Democracy.


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