Incoming President Joe Biden plans to host a Summit for Democracy in his first year in office, bringing together the world’s democracies to “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” But as the debris settles from the violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — and the threat of further violence haunts Biden’s inauguration week — a key question emerges: How can Biden credibly lead a Summit for Democracy when the U.S.’ own democracy is gasping for air?
He can: but only if Biden uses this low point in American democracy to reckon with democracy’s ills, both at home and abroad. He must give up the idea of sitting “at the head of the table” and instead approach the summit with a dose of humility and a desire to learn — not only from like-minded allies, but more importantly, from those most harmed by democracy’s failings. Fortunately, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, suggested that would be the administration’s approach in diplomacy, when he cited America’s current ills and said during yesterday’s nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin.” But this approach must be born out in practice.
In a world in which authoritarianism is on the rise and democracies are backsliding, the daily experience of the most marginalized in each society – the genocide survivor, the stateless person, the activist, the journalist — offer the truest test of whether democratic renewal can live up to its promise. It is their experiences that truly expose what is wrong with democracy today – and also provide a pathway to fix it.
Let’s take the example of a Rohingya poet and activist, who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety: he escaped genocidal violence by the Burmese army in 2017, just two years after his country was celebrated as an emerging democracy with a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, at its helm. Neither he, nor hundreds of thousands of other genocide survivors who fled to Bangladesh, could vote in Burma’s elections last November — while Rohingya back in Burma were struck from voter rolls. And yet, he has clear ideas for how to start getting Burma back on track towards democracy: the restoration of Rohingya citizenship and voting rights; safe and voluntary repatriation for those who fled; accountability for genocide; and halting violence against other ethnic minorities.
Similarly, the students, feminists, and farmers who powered the mass uprisings against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in 2018 can recount the experience of sliding into authoritarianism – many of them went into hiding or exile when Ortega sought to crush dissent. Three years on, they are sure about how democracy can re-emerge. It begins with creating the conditions for a free and fair national election in November: deep electoral reforms, release of political prisoners, disbanding paramilitaries, freedom of movement, and justice for crimes committed during Ortega’s crackdowns.
Biden’s Summit for Democracy could be an important place to start reimagining democracy in a way that works for everyone. He can do so by creating meaningful and authentic space for those most harmed by democracy’s ills to join the summit as full participants.
Re-Imagining the Summit for Democracy
For the Summit for Democracy, Biden plans to build on the model of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), initiated by former U.S. President Barack Obama. Starting in 2010, the NSS took shape as the United States joined forces with more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear terrorism and counter nuclear smuggling.
The NSS model, however, did not include grassroots groups, frontline activists or academics in the formal summits themselves. This exclusion was due largely to the sensitivity of nuclear security issues and some states’ discomfort with civil society participation. Instead, civil society held its own side summits, and worked to influence decision-makers behind the scenes.
For the Summit for Democracy, Biden has said he will “include civil society organizations from around the world that stand on the frontlines in defense of democracy.” But he has not yet specified how. Following the state-centric approach of the NSS would be a mistake – but building on the creative spirit of the NSS presents Biden with a clear opportunity.
Like the NSS, the Summit for Democracy would be creating an entirely new cluster of actors not replicated in other fora. In an interview with me in early January, Ambassador Laura Holgate, the former National Security Council official charged with designing the NSS and leading U.S. engagement, said that the ability to create something “entirely de novo” also meant that the NSS organizers “could invent the rules, be innovative and adjust over time.” The Summit for Democracy, as a new initiative, is similarly not bound by tradition. This allows the Biden team to get creative with the guest list, the negotiations, the rules governing collaboration, and the United States’ own role, without being hamstrung by old approaches – including by only inviting government officials as full participants.
In contrast to the world of sensitive nuclear security concerns, a Summit for Democracy is, by definition, different. Democracy is about “popular control over public decision-making and decision-makers, and equality between citizens in the exercise of that control.” What’s more, democracy’s biggest champions often come from civil society, seeking to hold the line against their own governments’ abuses and backsliding. We can look, for example, to the spontaneous and sustained uprisings against authoritarianism in Nicaragua in 2018; the recent student-led mass protests in Thailand advocating for a more democratic form of rule than its military and monarchy currently allows; or the long-standing protests in Haiti pressing for a better future than the violence, kidnappings, corruption, and lawlessness under President Jovenel Moise.
In contrast, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw governments capitalizing on the virus to become even more authoritarian, cracking down further on activists, dissenters, and marginalized communities. In some countries, such as Cambodia and Thailand, these actions were taken irrespective of their relatively small COVID-19 caseloads.
Modeling Democratic Values
The Biden administration needs to model democratic values of participation, responsiveness, and inclusivity in the way it structures, plans, and implements the Summit for Democracy. But inclusion should not be limited just to academics, democracy think tanks, and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Instead, those most harmed by democracy’s failings should be prioritized. This is not only principled, but pragmatic. It is through their experiences that the practical impact of the flaws in democracy’s institutions and practices can be fully understood and remedied.
To achieve this goal, Biden should take five practical steps in the coming months:
- Coordinate with U.S. missions abroad to seek advice on agenda and outcomes from those most harmed by democracy’s failures: Biden’s summit organizers should coordinate with U.S. diplomatic missions in countries invited to the summit to hold in-country consultations with civil society. Priority must be given to ethnic, religious, and LGBTQI+ minorities, human rights defenders, journalists, pro-democracy activists, stateless communities, and survivors of mass crimes. Diplomats should aim to emerge from these consultations with community ideas for the summit agenda, as well as a proposed menu of commitments these communities want to see their governments embrace.
- Create a civil society advisory committee through a public-private partnership: Building on civil society consultations, the creation of a public-private partnership — with marginalized people at its core — would advance the summit’s goals, visibility, and programming. This partnership would allow the Biden team to exchange information with civil society, collaboratively hone the proposed agenda and outcomes, draw on civil society support for outreach and media on the event in their own countries, and plan for the monitoring and implementation of the summit’s commitments. This committee could be a test pilot for a more permanent civil society advisory group that could help steer Biden’s post-summit democracy policy.
- Align with Biden’s other foreign policy proposals by including civil society representatives in advance negotiations and at the summit itself: Biden’s team should imbue the Summit for Democracy with the same ethos of inclusion that he takes in his approach to new trade agreements: Biden says he “will not negotiate new deals without having labor and environmental leaders at the table in a meaningful way.” The same should be true for commitments made at the Summit for Democracy. Civil society should not only be involved in the lead-up negotiations, but participate in the summit itself – with a commitment by Biden’s team to address protocol, security, and vetting concerns.
- Set up a fund to support civil society: : Pooled resources by governments invited to the summit, along with philanthropic foundations, could help support civil society participation and outreach with their own communities to raise awareness of the summit’s goals, progress, and outcomes; underwrite monitoring of summit commitments to ensure States uphold their promises; and support efforts emerging from the summit designed to help democracy work for everyone, especially the most marginalized. Such a fund could be structured along the lines of the Global Equality Fund, which advances the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons in more than 90 countries. An option could be to set up the fund as one element of the public-private partnership outlined above, with civil society retaining a core and ongoing advisory role on how these funds should be allocated to advance the summit’s goals and outcomes.
- Commit to an ongoing process: The Biden team should consider making the summit a biannual event, just as the NSS was. “We decided early on that this needed to be a process rather than a one-and-done,” Holgate said. Four National Security Summits were held over six years. Participants could build on commitments and report back on progress over time. Given the challenges democracy is facing around the world, an early commitment to an ongoing process with high-level government officials and civil society participation would allow for champions to be built, deep alliances to be forged, and greater progress made over time.
The fragility of U.S. democracy is now on full display – and its flaws highlight just how urgent it is to come to grips with what ails democratic practice, both within America and around the world. The voices of those who have suffered most from democracy’s ills are crucial to understanding – and addressing — the impact of backsliding laws, policies, and institutions in democracies, as well as the abuses under authoritarian rule.
Clear and practical ways exist for Biden to include marginalized people meaningfully in the process. The Summit for Democracy would be less impactful without these perspectives informing its goals, planning, and outcomes – and without the genocide survivor, stateless person, pro-democracy activist, and journalist sitting at the summit table to keep governments honest.