Since his election campaign last year, U.S. President Joseph Biden had promised to hold a “Summit for Democracy” in order to highlight the worrying trends around the world of growing authoritarianism, and to bolster democratic institutions that appear to be faltering. While the concerns are genuine, and Mr. Biden’s successful delivery of his promise last week, with a summit that saw 110 nations invited must be credited , it has also thrown up troubling questions. The State Department’s decision to “arbitrarily place” restrictions on the invitee list, has led to a controversy. In South Asia, the inclusion of Pakistan, along with India and Nepal, but the exclusion of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka raises serious doubts on the criteria applied. And, if the “quality of democracy” and the importance of human rights were the criteria, then the question is which country is qualified to make that value-based judgment? Expectedly, the Summit was roundly criticised for the most notable exclusions: Russia and China. In a joint editorial, the Russian and Chinese Ambassadors to the U.S. claimed their own states are democratic in practice, and criticised the U.S.’s experiments in regime change and “democratic transformations” in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. That the summit was organised in a year when newest democratic entrants, Afghanistan and Myanmar, reverted to autocratic regimes that rule by the power of the gun casts doubts on the efficacy of the international system in enforcing democracy through external interventions.
Apart from a more inclusive guest list, as a result, the summit would have done better to begin with a globally accepted definition for democracy, and a common understanding of the challenges. The Biden administration committed to announcing specific targets on helping free media, ensuring free and fair elections, and the participation of women, and listed authoritarianism, corruption and human rights violations as key challenges. Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the principles of “inclusion, transparency, human dignity, responsive grievance redressal and decentralisation of power” as key to Indian democracy. Many accused big tech companies and social media of “digital authoritarianism”, and some spoke of the devastating impact of COVID-19, climate change and rising economic inequality as major stumbling blocks. Few, however, were willing to concede the shortcomings in their own democracies, however, especially the rise in hyper-nationalism, xenophobia and majoritarianism that saps the very essence of representational, pluralistic and inclusive governance today. Democracy, like charity, begins at home, and rather than making international pledges at summit-level conferences, elected leaders must keep their promises of freedom and equality for the people or “demos” that make up their nations.