President Joe Biden’s plan for a virtual Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9-10 offers an important opportunity, considering the global decline in democracy since 2005. It is high time for the world’s most powerful democracy to try to reverse this trend through a major international initiative.

After World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson initiated the establishment of the League of Nations. But the U.S. Senate voted against U.S. membership, and for other member states, it became too narrow. Many countries, including Germany, joined late and left early. The United Nations grew out of the ruins of World War II, but it became too broad, including dictatorships — notably the whole Soviet bloc – that effectively obstructed endeavors of democratization.

Ironically, one of the most successful international agreements was the 1975 Helsinki agreement between the NATO countries and the Soviet Bloc, but the reason was that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev craved some legitimacy and this was not a single meeting but a lasting process. Fast forward to 2000, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright established the Community of Democracies with Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek. It still exits, but it has been unable to make concrete inroads to thwart the downward slide globally.

The first issue for this new effort should be democracy itself, and the Summit for Democracy is suitably selective. The State Department’s newly posted list of invitees shows 110 countries, though Freedom House, the main authority, counts only 91 democracies at present. All democracies of significant size have been invited. Not surprisingly, the United States desired to invite a majority of the countries in the world, so it has gone further, arguably a bit too far. It has invited three countries that Freedom House classifies as unfree – Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq. It is good to see that the United States has invited Taiwan, which is indeed an outstanding democracy.

In Europe, the United States apparently has excluded Hungary, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while inviting Serbia and Kosovo. Presumably, the intention is to shame Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the former Soviet Union, only Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia were included on the published list. The invitees from the Americas and East Asia are relatively uncontroversial. The main concerns are in Africa and the Middle East. The draft invitation list features only 17 African countries, one-third of the continent, and reads like a list of U.S. friends in Africa, while several countries with more freedom have been omitted. Why not Sierra Leone, Benin, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Burkina Faso, which Freedom House ranks higher than about half the African invitees? Yet, these are minor squabbles. On the whole, the participants have been sensibly selective.

Previous Endeavors

Among previous such endeavors, the Community of Democracies is the most similar. Launched in Warsaw in June 2000, the 106 invitees were largely the same as now, though Russia was still considered potentially democratic and several moderate Arab countries were invited. The 106 countries at that conference signed the Warsaw Declaration: Toward a Community of Democracies, which is a brief but rather comprehensive list of human rights that should be honored in democratic systems.

Why did it fail? To begin with, it was convened at the level of foreign ministers, while the Washington Summit for Democracy is rightly for heads of states or governments. The Community of Democracies was primarily seen as a personal initiative of Albright and Geremek, but Geremek was ousted from the Polish government three days after the Warsaw summit. Within months, Albright also was gone after the next U.S. election. The Community of Democracies persists with a permanent secretariat in Warsaw, but it was always seen as a personal project of the two original leading figures rather than truly intergovernmental, so it lacks political clout and operative significance.

Looking Ahead

The lessons for the Summit for Democracy should be to establish a regular process of annual or biannual meetings at the level of heads of states or governments. The United States should retain leadership and the meetings should be convened in Washington, because foreign leaders do come to Washington when they are called. An intergovernmental secretariat should be established in Washington to keep the U.S. government fully involved.

The world already has several good international declarations of human rights, so another one would not add much. The Summit for Democracy needs to be more operative, with a focus on international institution-building. Many international organizations exist, but two are obviously missing — an international organization for democracy building and an international organization for the building of the rule of law. The Summit for Democracy should aim at establishing these two organizations by starting a process of creating their charter. Today, no international organization can really provide credible advice on how to build a democracy or the rule of law. All too often, honest reformers come to power for a brief period, but they receive little relevant advice from the international community on democracy or the rule of law, so they fail.

The two most relevant international organizations currently are probably the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which arose from the Helsinki process and includes the whole of Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the pan-European Council of Europe.

The OSCE is headquartered in Vienna and has a large staff also involved in conflict resolution and monitoring. In particular, it has the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is the foremost election-monitoring organization, and it has proved impressive integrity. Yet, Russia is a member and seems intent on limiting and harming the OSCE because the Kremlin opposes free elections. The OSCE is valuable and must be defended, but its mandate cannot be expanded to democracy building.

The Council of Europe is based in Strasbourg, France. It was founded in 1949 and has 47 members, which are all European. Its most controversial members are Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, while Belarus was never allowed to join. It protects and promotes three core valueshuman rights, democracy and the rule of law. Although the Council of Europe is formally intergovernmental, it is predominantly an interparliamentary organization, effectively ruled by its Parliamentary Assembly. It has suffered from repeated corruption scandals and is not seen as terribly effective. Its most prominent body is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which receives thousands of cases every year, primarily from Russia and Ukraine. Yet, ECHR is the instance of last hope, as it is seen as soft both in its verdicts and their enforcement. Another noteworthy Council of Europe institution is the Venice Commission, which assesses constitutions and legislation. It enjoys great authority, but it tends to be exceedingly cautious. The Council of Europe is valuable, but its regional and interparliamentary nature makes it not very suitable for greater tasks.

Needless to say, bilateral aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations are even less representative.

Examples in the Economic Sector

The situation is remarkably different in the sphere of economics. The triumvirate of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization have long fulfilled the role of building market economies. They have vast financial and personnel resources. Therefore, all governments that so desire have successfully built reasonably stable market economies.

Unlike U.N. organizations that handle some elements of advising on institution-building, the two new intergovernmental organizations would not be required to be universal. As so many other international organizations, they would become dysfunctional if Chinese, Saudi, or Russian representatives were allowed to undermine any argument in favor of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. On the contrary, members of the new organizations should have to subscribe to certain principles and conditions, as is the case with the IMF. Like the IMF and the World Bank (but unlike the U.N. organizations), they should be endowed with substantial budgets and staff of great qualifications and integrity.

Given the preeminence of the IMF, the World Bank, and non-governmental organizations dealing with human rights and democracy in Washington, it would be ideal to establish the democracy-building organization in Washington. For the rule of law organization, The Hague would be a natural seat. It has become the capital of international law, attracting a dozen international courts since the establishment of the League of Nations Permanent Court of International Justice in 1920, which was succeeded by the U.N. International Court of Justice in 1945. Yet, courts are only supposed to enforce the rule of law, not to build it.

The Summit for Democracy can do many other things, but it should focus on these three big tasks: to establish a process of regular Summits for Democracy, and to prepare the creation of an international organization for democracy building and an international organization for building the rule of law. The next summit, hopefully in one year’s time, should establish those two organizations.

IMAGE: Demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar take part in a rally outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) building in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, where the ASEAN summit on the Myanmar crisis was due to take place. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images)