The Summit for Democracy: what’s next?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The Summit for Democracy was convened by United States President, Joe Biden, last December. Originally, it was designed as a massive gathering in Washington, but instead took place as a virtual meeting with over 120 leaders and ministers reading prepared statements over two days. A virtual meeting with back-to-back speeches was perhaps not the best start for Biden’s flagship international initiative to define a new 21st century narrative of the struggle between the democracies and authoritarian states such as Russia and China. Zoom screens guaranteed virtually zero public and media attention.

The US defined the parameters of democracy broadly to maximise participation. Nonetheless some countries, such as Pakistan, declined the invitation, believing that the Biden administration was using the cloak of democracy as a political model to push its more immediate foreign policy objectives. Hungary was the one EU country that was not invited to take part.Budapest responded by trying to stop EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen from speaking at the summit on behalf of the EU. Taiwan was invited and China and Russia responded by organising their own national citizen engagement events beforehand, as if to suggest that their model of managed democracy still merited the democratic label.

Interestingly, the continent with the most countries represented was Africa, underlining the desire of the US to re-engage with the continent after the insults and neglect that characterised the Trump years. The US was keen to emphasise that the summit was not a one-time event but the beginning of a process. US officials liked to quote the phrase of John Lewis, the late Democratic senator, that “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” Thus, the summit was presented as the beginning of a process: there will be another summit towards the end of 2022 and this year has been declared as the ‘Year of Action’.

This rather open-ended format has promoted many experts and civil society representatives to initiate a discussion on what should be in this Year of Action, and where Biden’s democracy building programme should go from here. How can it move from a slogan and aspiration to a concrete policy agenda that actually produces tangible results for bolstering the quality of democratic governance across the globe?

Civil society groups also propose the formation of coalitions of interested governments and activists

This question is all the more salient as democracy continues to be in decline. Freedom House and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) both report 15 years of continual backsliding on the rule of law, freedom of the press and citizens’ rights across the globe, most notably in the US, India and Brazil. In the US, for instance, 19 states have introduced voting restrictions; eight have introduced anti-protest measures; and two states have debated provisions that would allow election results to be challenged, or even overturned, and to prosecute state election officials. What this underscores is that ultimately the success of Biden’s democracy initiative will be determined by its ability to improve the quality of democracy where it has matured, such as in the US or EU countries, as much as by its capacity to foster stronger democratic institutions and practices in emerging or partially free democracies.

In short, the democracy initiative is still an idea in search of substance. As a result, experts and civil society representatives have come together to discuss priorities and to exchange ideas on which specific proposals have the best chance of being implemented. The US Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which runs a major democracy promotion programme, has been a particularly important platform in this respect. As with action on climate change, there is a strong sense within this community that civil society, activist and NGO engagement must do all that they can to monitor implementation and pressure governments to stick to their commitments. This will be crucial to sustaining the momentum. They therefore need to build a wider ecosystem around governments and the key international institutions, being both on the outside and inside of the process, according to whether they need to work with or against national governments and official policies.

The first focal point is the end of January, when those countries that participated in the summit have been asked to submit their annual national plans under the Year of Action. NGOs are pushing for these to be made public so that they can assess the levels of ambition and monitor implementation. These civil society groups also propose the formation of coalitions of interested governments and activists to work on specific aspects of the democracy agenda. This is similar to climate change and the COP26 process, where there were coalitions working on issues such as methane gas reductions, reforestation, the protection of small island states, and so on.

For instance, 78 countries and civil society organisations have come together in an Open Government Partnership to put the concept of “beneficial ownership”, or the disclosure of information relating to the true identities of shell and holding company owners, on the Year of Action agenda. This would help prevent tax avoidance by companies registering in tax havens and the ability of oligarchs to hide stolen money or property behind complex financial structures. This issue was part of the summit agenda on corruption as a principal threat to democracy. Other related issues are illicit financial flows, bribery and non-transparent contracting which has been a major problem in many countries in procuring emergency medical supplies during the COVID-19 crisis.

US leadership will also keep attention focused on the its own democratic failings and political polarisation

Another potential coalition is in the area of press freedom and avoiding government censorship, or restrictions on the press by curtailing freedom of information and media monopolies by governments, or government-friendly business. At the summit, Biden announced that the US would allocate $424mn to the freedom of press activities. Online security, disinformation and fake news are other obvious areas for the democracy initiative to tackle. In many cases, this will mean enabling the initiative to co-opt existing NGOs and lobby groups that are already working in these fields and which have acquired the expertise, connections and campaigning experience. For instance, the Freedom Online Coalition or the CyberPeace Institute would be valuable partners for the internet, data protection and information assurance dimensions of the Year of Action. Other potential coalition areas are emergency legislation and restrictions on the lives and movements of individuals, something which democratic governments have imposed during the pandemic. These emergency powers are quick to be introduced and slow to be removed once the crisis has abated.

Herein lies the major problem for the Biden administration. Its democracy initiative overlaps with a myriad number of pre-existing international, national government and civil society activities which have already gained traction. For example, the issues of tax havens and accountability of giant tech companies have been on the G7 and OECD agendas for years already. The Council of Europe has devised an anti-corruption mechanism (GRECO). Media freedoms have been key issues for the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which has its own media ombudsman. The EU is working on a Digital Services Act to protect individual privacy online, and counter disinformation. The United Kingdom hosted a major Anti-Corruption Summit in London in 2016. The list could go on indefinitely.

So how can the democracy initiative act as an umbrella or coordinator for all these various activities? Will the democracy initiative provide added value or additional resources to boost the influence of existing activities; or will it be perceived as a politically loaded, tainted brand that could distort or complicate these programmes across the globe? Many NGOs and civil society groups are adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude, giving the democracy initiative a year to produce results and to show whether participating governments will come up with serious action plans. Many governments that reluctantly accepted Biden’s invitation to participate in the summit, because they were glad to have a US democratic seal of approval, are still worried that they will be dragged stealthily into a confrontation with China or Russia under the noble banner of democracy and high principle. So, the US will need to work hard to convince them that upholding democratic principles and strengthening democratic institutions is in their own long-term national and political interest – hardly an easy sell.

Finally, much will depend on the engagement of Washington in the follow-up diplomacy. The US is in a somewhat difficult position. If it takes too much control and ownership over the initiative, it will give the impression that this is a return to Cold War containment dressed up as Wilsonian idealism, more designed to serve Washington’s interests than the democratic aspirations of the global population. US leadership will also keep attention focused on the its own democratic failings and political polarisation, especially as the country enters another bitterly contested election cycle.

The authoritarians are staking their popularity on performance indicators

Yet if the US backs off under the motto of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ and fails to provide focus, resources and diplomatic heft for Biden’s initiative, there is a danger that it will end up like so many noble but empty and quickly forgotten international endeavours, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war or, more recently, the Alliance of Civilizations. So how the US calibrates its ownership and steering of the democracy initiative will be the determining factor in its outcome.

A concluding word concerns the concept of democracy itself. Former UK prime minster, Winston Churchill said that it was the worst of all political systems, except for all the others. Democracy has an intrinsic value; it embodies the core concepts of–human rights, individual freedoms and the rights of people to choose who should govern them. Those concepts are valuable irrespective of how well individual democracies perform. Biden’s initiative puts the emphasis largely on performance. Given the dissatisfaction of many voters in Western democracies these days with poorer living standards, insecure communities, or their place and influence in society, this is perhaps understandable. After all, the authoritarians are staking their popularity on performance indicators. Stability, security, protection of group identity, and the restoration of a lost national pride feature prominently in this regard. Biden’s initiative is designed to raise the performance and concrete delivery capacity of the democracies in a way that will enable them to out-compete the authoritarians in terms of material benefits, as well as scientific and technological achievements.

This is reminiscent of the way in which the US tried to prove its superiority over the Soviet Union during the Cold War by pointing to all the modern appliances that the average American housewife of the period had in her kitchen compared to her Soviet counterpart. Naturally, the adherence of voters to democratic systems depends to a large extent on their ability to deliver jobs, health, education, and law and order. Yet, at the same time, in enabling political change and popular protest, as well as balancing multiple interest groups and protecting minority voices, democracies will often be turbulent and far from perfectly efficient. So, the level playing field with the authoritarians cannot be defined by performance comparisons alone.

Democracy is good because it embodies fundamental principles that human beings wish to live by, whether their preferred parties win or lose elections, and this point has to be made by leaders to their own electorates if they are ever to have the credibility to preach it abroad. Biden needs to not lose sight of this guiding lodestar as he turns to planning the agenda and invitation list for his second Summit for Democracy.

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