The White House yesterday released the “Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal,” as President Joe Biden began his two-day online Summit for Democracy with invited leaders from 110 countries. Accompanied by an anti-corruption proposal released earlier in the week, and a plan for shoring up democracy at home, the new initiative addresses five areas: supporting free and independent media, combating corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology for democracy, and defending free and fair elections and political processes. It outlines $424.4 million in planned spending on programs, though that is subject to congressional appropriations. 

Just Security asked former diplomats and top experts in diplomacy, human rights, international security, and the rule of law to assess the initiative.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Andersen (@AndersenBetsy), Executive Director of the World Justice Project and previously held leadership positions at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and its Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA CEELI), the American Society of International Law, and Human Rights Watch:

While the Biden administration’s initiatives announced this week as part of the Summit for Democracy are impressive, they raise a number of questions. First, it is unclear whether the announced plans reflect expanded programs or a repackaging of existing assistance. The administration promises at least $424.4 million toward its Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal around the world, but the U.S. government already spends about $2.4 billion annually on foreign assistance relating to democracy, rights, and governance. Is this a refocusing of some of that assistance or additive? There is also, of course, that tricky matter of getting Congress to buy in; the announcement notes that the initiative requires “working with Congress and [is] subject to the availability of appropriations.” 

Assuming the resources are there, there is the question of the extent to which the administration can mobilize global action behind this agenda or has a strategy for leveraging multilateral fora to advance it. This week’s announcements are striking for the scant mention of international institutions or partnerships. Is this just all that the administration could get done in the 10 months since taking office, or hubristic American “go-it-alone-ism,” or a reflection of the sorry state of multilateralism today? In any case, it would seem an important “to do” for the Year of Action to find common cause with allies and advance the administration’s agenda through multilateral fora. Among such opportunities would be a full-throated, whole-of-government embrace of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals at home and abroad. The United States remains the only OECD and G20 country that has not undertaken a Voluntary National Review of its own progress toward those goals.

One apparent gap I hope to see filled in the coming months is increased attention to the rule of law generally and the justice sector specifically. The administration has committed to demonstrating that “democracy delivers,” and a critical dimension of that effort should serve the 1.5 billion people globally with unmet civil, administrative, or criminal justice needs. These gaps have profound negative impacts in people’s lives and disproportionately affect poor, minority, and other marginalized populations. The administration’s re-establishing the Office for Access to Justice within the Department of Justice marks some progress, and a September interagency report on Access to Justice in the Age of COVID-19 connected the dots between this domestic priority and the U.S. global sustainable development agenda. Yet justice sector investments are missing in the democracy initiatives announced this week. Without accessible, effective justice institutions, combating corruption and upholding rights will remain a challenge. 

Anders Åslund (@Anders_Aslund), senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, former diplomat for Sweden in Kuwait, Poland, Geneva, and Moscow:

It is excellent that the U.S. government this week has organized the first-ever Summit for Democracy at the level of heads of state. It is also very good that the U.S. government has been selective in its invitations. During this week, it has issued several programmatic documents and decisions for combating corruption and supporting democracy. The great activity has been excellent, but the quality of the products has differed. The best document was the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, issued on Dec. 6. The worst was the Fact Sheet: Announcing the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, published on Dec. 9.

What I had hoped for was the formulation of clear principles and the establishment of new multilateral organizations for the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. The anti-corruption strategy does provide the principles in an uncommonly clear fashion. Laudably, it discusses not only corruption abroad but also in the United States and what should be done about it. The “Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal,” by contrast, does not really clarify any principles. Instead, it is focused on funding, reading like another annual budget for democracy promotion by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It is piecemeal rather than principled. Needless to say, these many small programs will be further particularized into scores of bilateral programs, and it will all disappear into nothing, as inevitably U.S. foreign policy objectives will come out on top. Only the support for free and independent media would sensibly be done by the United States on its own. All the other activities should preferably be pursued in a multilateral fashion to protect the integrity of the principles of democracy. But the multilateral perspective is missing in this document.

Frances Z. Brown (@FrancesZBrown), Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Co-Director of its Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, and previously served as director for democracy and fragile states on the White House National Security Council  and at the U.S. Agency for International Development:

President Biden’s “Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal” contains significant announcements of U.S. support to worthy democratic causes. The $424.2 million of U.S. commitments are important on their own terms, but also because they can help spur other summit participants to raise their own level of ambition in supporting global democracy. The five areas of focus each respond to critical problems facing global democracy today. In particular, the support to global independent media comes at an especially crucial time for a key plank of democracy, while the emphasis on the relationship between technology and democracy is long overdue. The attention on fighting corruption responds to a key reason for disillusionment with democracy globally, while separate “cross-cutting” rapid response funds will be particularly useful tools in helping the United States support democratic openings or democratic consolidation when these opportunities arise more quickly than the inevitably slow program-design and appropriations processes typically accommodate. 

Yet for the summit’s ultimate goal of spurring democratic renewal, much remains to be seen, because democratic renovation is as much a political challenge as a technical one. As is typical for a summit format, the announcements were heavy on programmatic assistance. Such aid is necessary, but not nearly sufficient, for the mission Biden sets out. Open questions remain on how all these worthy technical assistance initiatives will be underpinned by U.S. diplomatic leverage, economic pressure, and even security assistance-related policies, in key countries, in the months and years to come.  

As but one illustration, financial and technical support are essential to the imperative to support free and independent media, but only do so much to help journalists who are assaulted, detained, and harassed by government security forces when covering opposition candidates in a hotly contested election. Additional U.S. (and multilateral) policy measures are needed, but such responses often do not readily lend themselves to a summit deliverables announcement. Of the five areas of focus, the anti-corruption pillar clearly benefits from the recent release of a broader U.S. government strategy for fighting corruption, and encompasses important policy and regulatory components involving the Treasury Department, Justice Department, and beyond. Whether as a summit follow-up or in other policy arenas specific to key partner countries, the other four areas of emphasis would benefit from similar levels of policy development. 

Ambassador Daniel Fried (@AmbDanFried) is Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and formerly served as Special Assistant and NSC Senior Director for Presidents Clinton and Bush, Ambassador to Poland, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, and State Department Coordinator for Sanctions Policy:

In his Westminster speech in London in 1982, President Ronald Reagan put the weight of his office behind democratic renewal during what seemed like inauspicious times. The Soviet Union still seemed to be on the march; Martial Law in Poland had (for the moment) crushed the democratic Solidarity movement there; the United States was in a worsening economic recession; and democracy seemed to be on the ropes at home and abroad. But history took another turn. Democracy was not as weak as its enemies supposed. Operationally, Reagan proposed U.S. support for democracy around the world that took programmatic shape in the National Endowment for Democracy (full disclosure: I am a member of the NED Board) that then helped democratic dissidents in Poland and throughout the Soviet empire in Europe. The Soviet Union fell less than 10 years later, 30 years ago this month.

This week, President Biden is seeking to rally democracies, also during inauspicious times. The $424 million the administration has pledged via its new Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal is a worthy investment. Democracy is indeed on the defensive, including within the United States. Autocrats abroad and authoritarian politics within the United States are a real danger, as they have been in the past. The challenge is what to do about it.

It’s customary to dismiss initiatives like Biden’s, or Reagan’s, as mere cant or exercises in public opinion shaping. Indeed, programs to support democracy are hard to run, slow to register gains, and difficult to prove effectiveness. They don’t work. Until they do. That was the happy experience of Reagan’s support for democracy in the 1980s. Biden is making a similar investment now. Wishing doesn’t make it so. There are no guarantees of success. But democracy activists around the world might actually benefit from some of this support. And history shows that such movements can, sometimes, succeed. 

It’s the right thing to make the effort on behalf of those who share the ideals that lie at the foundation of the American nation. Support for such people is what used to be called the American way.

Tracey Gurd (@traceygurd1), Senior Director of Civil and Political Rights and Advocacy at American Jewish World Service (AJWS):

The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal is a welcome and encouraging sign of progress coming out of day one of the Summit for Democracy. It promises to shore up core pillars of democracy in this time of rising authoritarianism and democratic recession. However, President Biden and his team must deepen the U.S. vision for democracy, especially by including and centering the world’s most marginalized peoples. And the president needs to bolster his commitment to pro-democracy activists in the United States and abroad by not only loosening U.S. purse-strings but also by deploying powerful, collective, and muscular diplomatic action in their support.   

The focus on supporting journalists and bolstering democratic reformers, particularly the political participation and leadership of women and LGBTQI+ individuals, is exciting and necessary.  But it misses others who are consistently targeted or harmed by authoritarianism or democratic decline – such as indigenous communities and genocide survivors – and those left out altogether from the enjoyment of democratic protection, rights, and responsibilities, such as stateless people. This could have been easily remedied by expanding the list of marginalized communities slated for support or by including specific programs, such as an effort to secure nationality rights for millions of stateless people (including those in the United States).

Another promising element of the initiative is the Powered By The People program to support nonviolent social movements, which are an overlooked but critically important bulwark against authoritarianism. From Nicaragua to Thailand to Haiti, a pro-democracy surge has brought thousands of people to the streets to protest authoritarian rule. 

But social movements and other pro-democracy actors can only do so much when their governments use violence against their own people. Democracies – especially the United States – must commit to imposing significant financial and political consequences for such abuses. This should include stronger coalitions to respond to democratic back backsliding quickly in crises such as coups and sham elections; more and better-coordinated sanctions and visa bans; working with international financial institutions to scrutinize or stop loans to authoritarians waging crackdowns and re-evaluate trade agreements with them; and working more vigorously in multilateral forums such as the United Nations and regional bodies to defend democracy and human rights advocates. This is what it would mean, as President Biden exhorted, to truly “act.”

Rebecca Hamilton (@bechamilton) is an Associate Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, and previously served as a lawyer in the prosecutorial division of the International Criminal Court:

Thousands of Sudanese people took to the streets in pro-democracy protests on Dec. 6, only the latest since an Oct. 25 military coup derailed their opportunity for a democratic transition. They have persisted despite internet shutdowns and in the face of tear gas, beatings, and live fire that has left 44 people dead and hundreds injured. As I tuned into President Biden’s opening remarks at the Summit for Democracy, I thought of how his words would sound to those risking their lives for democracy in Sudan.

“In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy … democracy needs champions,” Biden began. I agree. It is one thing, however, to say that democracy needs champions, and quite another to act on that sentiment in the tough cases. And the tough cases are the only ones where (external) champions really matter. On Sudan, the Biden administration championed democracy in the immediate aftermath of the October coup. But when presented with an elite deal that places civilian window-dressing on the entrenchment of military rule, the United States – and its pro-democracy allies attending the Democracy Summit, blinked. The only champions of Sudanese democracy now left standing are the Sudanese people themselves.         

Stepping back from that particular fight, though, there is plenty to applaud in the Initiative for Democratic Renewal. Of the five pillars guiding the Initiative, the first three (support for independent media, anti-corruption efforts, and democratic reformers) are essential. Given the paucity of resources for the initiative ($425 million, subject to appropriations, and spread globally), the issue I will be tracking is how distribution decisions are made.

When independent journalists, anti-corruption whistleblowers, and democracy activists need support everywhere, what is the principle that guides U.S. prioritization? In conversations with D.C.-based policymakers and NGOs alike about country selection for the Global Fragility Act, I have been unsettled by how casually certain countries are claimed to be “ripe” for U.S. support (while others, by implication, are not). Sometimes these views are informed by ground truth; more often, they are infused with the path dependency of who we are already working with and/or our own views of elites in the country, which do not always match the views of the broader population. 

Kemal Kirişci (@kemalkirisci), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe‘s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution:

The “Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal” looks very impressive, but I do not see any sign of initiatives that would promote the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In addition to “the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But these rights have experienced severe setbacks in the United States and the European Union in recent years. 

Biden during his campaign made clear promises to remedy these violations, but the recent announcement that the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy will be reinstated because of a court order runs contrary to that stated goal. In Europe, many governments are resorting to the practice of “push-backs” of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. These kinds of rights violations play into the hands of authoritarian leaders such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who enjoys showcasing them as examples of the West’s double standards, or the likes of Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, who points to them in excusing his own abuses. 

I am very interested to see if Biden — or for that matter any leaders participating at the summit — bring up these problems in the context of improving respect for human rights and reinvesting in democracy. 

Eguiar Lizundia (@eguiar), Deputy Director for Technical Advancement at the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Patrick Quirk (@patrickwquirk), IRI’s Senior Director for Strategy, Research, and the Center for Global Impact:

This Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal is a welcome development and much needed injection of resources to tackle challenges across five key areas, from fighting corruption to advancing technology for democracy. Particularly promising, among others, is the new Powered by the People initiative – centered on supporting nonviolent social movements, its focus aligns with our own research evidencing the key role such actors play in democratic transitions.

Looking forward, we hope to see the White House – if it has not already in the run up to yesterday’s announcement – lace these commitments together into a broader strategy for advancing democracy overseas. For the post-Summit “year of action” to yield results, the Department of State and USAID, with guidance from the NSC, must set measurable outcomes that all programs are working toward. Outcomes must be quantified by changes on the ground in the countries which matter most – not activities funded, or money spent. Additionally, the administration should deploy the human resources necessary to ensure that all the agencies involved are adequately staffed to rapidly implement the myriad of measures and efforts included in the Initiative.

Susan Markham (@msmarkham), Partner at Smash Strategies and previously Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID):

The programs outlined in the new Presidential Initiative reinforces the idea that, while government and political institutions are essential, it is the people who sustain them. Journalists, civil society leaders, professors, elected officials, labor organizers, political candidates, business executives, election administrators, refugees, and other citizens in the United States and around the world all have a role to play. That also means we, the people, can also change those institutions to work better for us. 

As noted in the administration’s National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, that requires a focus on structural or institutional change. Civil society organizations, election management bodies, political parties, and governing institutions are often unwelcoming to women in many aspects of their day-to-day operations, procedures, and internal cultures. Many aspects of the president’s new initiative seem designed to update these dated structures to make room for a more diverse set of historically marginalized political actors.  

What I wish there had been more of in the president’s speech and the new initiative is an integration of gender analysis across all five areas of work. Women’s civic and political leadership is included within the “Bolstering Democratic Reformers” area as its own effort. A similar, smaller program will facilitate the participation and leadership of LGBTQI+ individuals in democratic institutions. But where is the acknowledgement in the section on media and journalism that male and female journalists are at risk in different ways because of their gender, as in the case of online violence? How can corruption be addressed without acknowledging that a person’s gender affects their experiences of corruption in many ways? How can the initiative advocate for the increased use of digital technologies in democracy without taking into account the gender gap in access to technology globally? 

As the Summit for Democracy wraps up and a year of action begins, I look forward to the U.S. government and the others engaged in this work thinking about gender equality and women’s empowerment not just in a silo of more women candidates, but in a broader, more thoughtful way that will bolster democracy at home and around the world.

Maria J. Stephan (@MariaJStephan), Senior Advisor of the Horizons Project, advisor to Freedom House and Humanity United, previously directed the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace:

The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal offers a tremendous opportunity to highlight the shared struggle for democracy in the US and globally, and to strengthen relationships between those focused on combating authoritarianism and strengthening democracy at home and abroad. At a time when multiple studies reveal significant democratic backsliding in the US and around the world, now, more than ever, is the time for global democratic solidarity. 

Each of the five focal areas of the initiative — free media, fighting corruption, empowering activists and democracy reformers, tech, and free and fair elections —  enable opportunities for learning, relationship-building, and problem-solving across borders. That should be an intentional focus of the initiative going forward, particularly given the interconnectedness of the challenges we face. While governments were the primary focus of this first phase of the summit, the success of the initiative will rest on the organizing and empowerment of civil society and ordinary people. Given the seminal role played by bottom-up, people powered campaigns and movements in challenging authoritarianism and driving democratization globally, initiatives like the Powered by the People could help U.S. and international activists and movements learn from each other about how to organize and heal across divisions, build inclusive narratives, and innovate their strategies and tactics. The ability of the Biden administration to provide this support flexibly, responsively, and safely, while encouraging learning and relationship-building across sectors (e.g. democracy, social justice, and peacebuilding) will be key to its success.   

Christopher Walker (@Walker_CT), Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy:

Given the extent of the assault on democracy globally for a decade and a half, shifting the center of gravity will require a concerted and multidimensional effort. Among the aims of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal is to address the challenge posed by emerging technology, which inexorably touches on all of the other four areas of work. 

As Citizenlab’s Ron Deibert points out, in addition to the benefits digital technologies can offer, those we’ve all come to rely on are invasive by design, fundamentally insecure, exploitative of human cognitive biases, and prone to widespread abuse. This set of features is an authoritarian’s dream. The Biden administration’s initiative seeks to support on-the-ground capacity through “democracy affirming technology” and investments in defenses against digital authoritarianism and the corrosive norms that accompany it. This is right on target. After all, if democratic societies don’t stimulate a race to the top concerning the development, application, and norms around such tech, then who will? It certainly won’t be the Chinese authorities or repressive leaderships in other countries. 

Apart from the tech-related components, the initiative also sensibly focuses on supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, and defending free and fair elections and political processes. In a nod to the reality that modern global democracy challenges frequently intersect, the initiative intends to launch a fund to address cross-cutting challenges. 

The initiative has the potential to stimulate new and needed forms of collaboration and collective action on emergent challenges, including on the technology front. The challenge will be encouraging and inducing governments and nongovernmental players alike to adapt to the new environment. If the initiative and the upcoming “year of action” spur durable collaboration and new networks in innovative ways, it will be seen as a success.

Daniel I. Weiner (@DanWeiner329), Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program, previously Senior Counsel to Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub at the Federal Election Commission:

The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal includes many worthwhile objectives, and it is certainly heartening to see the United States commit resources to strengthen free and fair elections, empower marginalized groups, and combat corruption, among other priorities. Of course, these are concerns in the United States as well, as President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged in their respective speeches for the Democracy Summit. From legislation making it easier to sabotage future elections, to the unprecedented push to place new restrictions on voting that disproportionately harm voters of color, to a campaign finance system riddled with loopholes for illicit money (including foreign money originating from America’s authoritarian rivals), America’s own democracy is in urgent need of renewal. 

The key to this domestic renewal, as the president also noted in his speech, is passing two critical pieces of legislation pending in the Senate: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. They also determine the success of the administration’s new global initiative, for America’s true power to influence values around the globe lies in its capacity to set a positive example. That is what our allies are waiting for.

IMAGE: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to representatives of more than 100 countries, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on, during a virtual democracy summit at the White House in Washington DC on December 9, 2021. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)