Human Rights & Democracy

December 13, 2021: Summit for Democracy Shows that the US Is Again Committed to Contest Authoritarianism at Home and Abroad

Posted on December 13, 2021 at 12:00 AM

Some 110 countries will gather via Zoom this month at a Summit, a series of meetings at the Head of State, official, and civil society levels, to discuss and make commitments to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism, and advance human rights. The virtual event kicks off a “year of action” during which countries will work to carry out their promises, leading to an in-person follow-up assembly in late 2022. The Biden Administration, through this complex endeavor, demonstrates that the United States is ready to engage with the world community on building back more effective ways for citizens to govern effectively.

Critics of the summit claim that not all the invited participants are truly committed to democracy, that the diversity of subjects will militate against a coherent program, that incentives to embrace democracy are lacking, and that the United States, after the January 6 insurrection, is not qualified to lead a movement to increase democracy. Several commentators call for the US to heal its own anti-democratic tendencies and institutions first, before preaching to others.

But fighting for democracy at home and in other countries has been a characteristic of President Biden’s foreign policy from the inception of his Administration.  Secretary of State Antony Blinken is quoted by James Traub in Politico as confirming President Biden’s commitment to the democracy project: “In every conversation I’ve heard him have with a foreign leader, the centerpiece of the conversation has been that he sees the fundamental struggle of our time as the face-off between autocracy and democracy… it’s fundamental for the U.S. to lead the effort towards democratic resilience and reinvigoration around the world.”

In furtherance of the President’s commitment, Blinken has cabled US embassies in many countries with instructions to talk to other countries’ leaders and citizens about democracy as a goal we all are striving for, to look for “best practices,” not to assume the superiority of the US experience, but to work on better governance as a shared enterprise.

Both China and Russia, neither invited to the Summit, pooh-poohed the meeting, echoing US media criticism of the US and claiming to be better at governing. China said its own highly autocratic practices were more “democratic” and better at providing economic progress than US institutions. These comments provoked sarcastic responses in free global media and demonstrated that even authoritarian regimes want to appropriate democratic language to cover their own practices.

The Biden Administration has already begun announcing the commitments it will make toward better governance. On December 8, day zero of the summit, the US Treasury Department targeted corrupt transnational crime syndicates, designating 16 individuals and 24 entities that collude with government officials and “erode confidence in public institutions.”

Over the two days of the summit, more commitments from the US and other like-minded countries will be rolled out. Discussions and, yes, criticisms of current practices in the US and other countries will ensue. But, the Biden Administration will have set the agenda for a crucial global debate; and the world will know that the US has returned to a determination to realize its fundamental values and a willingness to judge itself and others by the light of these values.

— Cynthia Efrid, Human Rights & Democracy Task Force

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