Democracy in Crisis: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authoritarianism was on the rise globally; democracies were in decline for the 15th consecutive year. Since then, much like all other aspects of our daily lives, the pandemic exacerbated those ailments. In fact, the U.S. democracy-tracking organization Freedom House is reporting this decline of democracy as a crisis. That characterization is based on the dramatic downturn of democracy and human rights in 80 countries during the pandemic. The crisis has been fueled by increased government controls aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus. Experts have noted that authoritarian leaders and authoritarian-leaning leaders cited the pandemic as grounds for broadly expanding social controls and abusing systems of power and accountability.
In the United States, Freedom House viewed the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as fraught with “politically distorted health recommendations, partisan infighting, [and] shockingly high and racially disparate coronavirus death rates.” The administration’s response to the pandemic amplified the country’s pre-existing “systemic dysfunctions,” pushing it over the edge in its democratic decline.
Opponents of American democracy exploited these vulnerabilities exposed in 2020 by the pandemic and social change movements to criticize U.S. democracy, attempting to demote its status from a shining beacon of government leadership to an archaic approach for leading a country. After the failed January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection, foreign policy adversaries were quick to respond. A spokeswoman from the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters that Americans likely wanted a more Chinese-style government, given the amount of political chaos in the United States. The head of the Russian Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee commented on Facebook that the “celebration of democracy has ended.”
The Biden Administration’s Goal: At the outset of his administration, President Joe Biden has sought to reverse democracy’s downward trajectory, and he has outlined strategic goals designed to help democracy and liberalism win the contest against authoritarianism. Specifically, the administration’s main policy goal rests on a “Summit for Democracy” that joins democratic world leaders together to create a strategic plan for overcoming democracy’s adversaries and existential challenges. Success for the Summit relies on a realistic eye towards creating a definition of democracy promotion that fits the world as it is now.
A Winning Strategy: To revive democracy as a viable form of government, the administration plans to recognize the deterioration of American-style democracy both at home and abroad. A hallmark of the president’s strategy to reinvigorate U.S. democracy is intertwining domestic policy and foreign policy. At home, President Biden plans to reinforce America’s democratic values through education, criminal justice, and voting reforms, while instilling greater transparency in his administration and focusing on the government abuses of power that Freedom House saw as symptoms of a declining democracy in the United States.
In terms of Biden’s foreign policy, a central tenet of hosting the global Summit for Democracy is “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” President Biden plans to gather the world’s democracies and leading civil society organizations to tackle common threats to democratic values and confront democratic backsliding head on. According to the administration, the Summit will commit to “(1) fighting corruption; (2) defending against authoritarianism, including election security; (3) advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” The president’s strategy seeks to spur economic change, technological innovation, and multilateral cooperation among chief democracies within his foreign policy agenda.
Challenges to Biden’s Democracy Strategy: As one of his most specific foreign policy initiatives, President Biden’s Summit for Democracy is a focal point that has drawn some criticism. Most importantly, the coronavirus continues to complicate democracy building. A gathering of world leaders could be seen as an irresponsible mass gathering, and democracy promotion may not be viewed as a top priority for world leaders continuing to tackle the pandemic response.
Two other arguments stand out in criticism of President Biden’s Summit plans: a need to approach a democracy summit with humility, and a need to develop short- and long-term action steps that correspond with an overarching strategic vision for a global renaissance of democracies.
Both critics and supporters of the Summit underscore the need for the United States to proceed with caution in leading a democracy summit, in part due to the country’s own democratic backsliding over the past few years. While some skeptics argue that the administration must first wholly address the issues happening within the United States—and some even calling for a domestic democracy summit—National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan contends that there is an immediate intersection between domestic and foreign policy, highlighting it as a core component of the Biden administration’s “grand strategy.” This view channels Biden’s domestic plans of placing an emphasis on the superiority of democractic values and outcomes while reforming the country. To that extent, supporters of the Summit have called for humble and honest leadership at the Summit. They argue that, because of the United States’ issues at home, President Biden should not be lecturing the world; instead, he should move forward with an appreciation of the country’s shortcomings and an eye on a better future for democracy at large
With a humble approach to the Summit, the United States also needs to objectively analyze the current state of the world in order to fit its democratic ideals. Critics of the Summit emphasize that American democracy is not a one-size-fits-all export. Rather, they argue that the Summit should allow other democracies to come forward and develop best practices that are not dictated by American leadership. This issue calls into question who will be invited to the Summit, signaling a need for other voices to appear other than the typical Western congregation of democracies, such as the D-10 style conference articulated by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Inclusion of a diverse set of voices can create a well-rounded view of what democracy can be and how it can be used to solve today’s problems. This rests on a clear focus on collaboration and ensuring that change occurs, as opposed to merely a political display of goodwill.
For a long-term democracy building strategy, there have also been calls for a more tangible plan of action with clearly-defined objectives to follow the Summit. This includes U.S. bureaucratic buy-in, seen through executive policies that cement the strategy into relevant agencies and administrative tools. This view would orient bureaucratic regimes towards democracy promotion, allowing the United States to employ the necessary tools and actors to ensure democracy flourishes at home and abroad. While the Summit signals a marker for a commitment to democracy and cooperation among democratic states and civil organizations, the ability to implement these changes and codify the policy directives that result from these conversations is important to promote real change.
To this effect, the planning surrounding the Summit for Democracy should be focused on realistic terms. Not only should the United States come to the table with humility, but also an open mind for achieving its goals to bring democracy at the helm of world power. As America regains its footing on the world stage, the Summit for Democracy can also serve as a reimagination of democracy promotion that encapsulates a globally diverse mindset with actionable goals, as opposed to a singularly American perspective of what democracy should be.
Ultimately, the Biden administration seeks to move forward with the plans for both internal and external promotion of democracy. Given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, a date has not yet been finalized for the Summit. Until then, the work of America’s enemies continues, while its friends eagerly await its next move.
Author Biography: Christina Revilla Chacon is the Social Media Director for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at the George Washington University Law School. She received her B.A. in Political Science from the Catholic University of America.