The US flag flies over the war crimes courtroom in Camp Justice at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in a photo reviewed by the US Department of Defense.  Photo: AFP/Michelle Shephard/ Toronto Star
The US flag flies over the war crimes courtroom in Camp Justice at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: AFP / Michelle Shephard / Toronto Star

During his presidential campaign in 2019, Joe Biden made it clear that, if elected, he would commit his time in the office to averting the negative impact of Donald Trump’s presidency by reinstating US global leadership and reviving the “power of America’s example.” In order to accomplish this noble yet herculean task, among other things, he pledged to host a global “Summit for Democracy” aimed at “renewing the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.”

Although it remains unclear what “Free World” really means, and some may even argue that the term has divisive connotations, it has to be admitted that Biden managed to keep his promise, as on Thursday and Friday this week, he has hosted the first of two summits dedicated to the topic of democracy. This week’s event takes a virtual format, and an in-person gathering is planned to take place in 2022.

Summit mired in confusion

As was reported by Politico magazine early this year, the Biden administration was struggling to put together a concrete program for the summit that would live up to the high expectations and remain in line with its main topic – democracy.

The most prominent idea that was put forward during preparations for the summit was an international alliance aimed at the promotion of Internet freedom called “The Alliance for the Future of the Internet” that would seek to counter the rise of “an alternative vision of the Internet as a tool of state control promoted by authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.”

Unfortunately, it was not made clear how that initiative would distinguish itself from the already existing and quite similar networks such as the Freedom Online Coalition, and how that would work in practice beyond the apparent antagonization of Beijing and Moscow.

Furthermore, the guest list has left a lot to be desired regarding the criteria applied to selecting invitees to the summit, as some hardly meet healthy democratic benchmarks and openly flirt with autocracy. This includes India, Brazil and Poland, to name a few.

When it comes to countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Nigeria that are respectively rated 20, 37 and 45 out of 100 by Freedom House, which labels them as “not free” and “partly free,” there is no doubt that such countries are far from being democratic, yet still found a place on the list.

One reason for this fact is clearly strategic. Still, it imperils the cause of democracy and the sole purpose of the summit while risking demoralizing democratic forces by legitimizing undemocratic conduct through obtaining the US imprimatur in exchange for demonstrating their anti-Chinese or anti-Russian bona fides.

The absence of Egypt, Turkey and Hungary may prove detrimental to the US cause in the long run as it marks a significant inconsistency in the selection process. Adding the fact that Taiwan found place on the list, despite Beijing’s objections, Washington may be ultimately playing into China’s hands by alienating some countries and pushing them into Beijing’s arms.

The state of US democracy

While it may be partly justified to associate the recent erosion of democratic institutions in the US with former president Donald Trump’s way of governance that placed the country below the “democracy threshold” on the polity scale by downgrading it to an “anocracy” (a mix of democratic and autocratic features), the truth is that many young Americans still do not have confidence in its country’s political recovery.

According to a recent poll from the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School, 52% of respondents between 18 and 29 believe that democracy in the US is either “in trouble” or simply “failing,” at 39% and 14% respectively. 

The survey further found that 27% perceive the US government as “somewhat functioning,” and only 7% of surveyed view the country as a “healthy democracy.”

Notably, young Republicans are far more pessimistic than their Democratic peers, as 47% believe that democracy in the US is in trouble, and 23% argue that it has simply failed to live up to its promise.

On the other hand, 44% of young Democrats believe that democracy in the country is currently healthy or somewhat functioning and 45% argue it is in trouble or has failed – the belief shared by 51% of independent and unaffiliated respondents.

The most astonishing finding relates to the fact that the majority of young Americans lack faith in Joe Biden’s governance, with only 46% of those surveyed approving his presidency, compared with 59% last year.

“After turning out in record numbers [to vote] in 2020, young Americans are sounding the alarm. When they look at the America they will soon inherit, they see a democracy and climate in peril – and Washington as more interested in confrontation than compromise,” IOP polling director John Della Volpe concluded. 

The way forward

While the idea of discussing democracy is undoubtedly an important matter in the ever more globalized world, it is fair to argue that the US is ill-suited at the current stage to exert higher moral authority over other countries.

Americans and foreigners alike find it difficult to continue to buy into the “shining city on a hill” or “America isn’t perfect but still has lessons for the world” rhetoric – the latter championed by former president Barack Obama – and if they do, they are probably utterly cynical and/or deflecting the truth.

It is said that the current summit will require pledges from its participants that will include several domestic and international initiatives to counter authoritarianism, combat corruption, and promote respect for human rights.

Nonetheless, the United States’ own reputation in all three areas is objectively questionable.

As Dutch political scientist Marlies Glasius argues in an article for the journal International Affairs, the mass digital surveillance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as extrajudicial killing of terrorist suspects abroad and detaining some of them without trial at Guantanamo Bay are signs of the cultivation of autocratic practices.

Moreover, the continued existence of the Guantanamo prison, ongoing inequality that has cost Americans nearly $23 trillion since 1990, as well as the country’s inglorious post-9/11 conduct at home and abroad in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, puts Washington at odds with human rights.

On top of that, despite the recent attempt by Janet Yellen and Samantha Power on the pages of The Washington Post – seconding President Biden’s pledge made in his Foreign Affairs essay published last year – to convince readers that in order “to uphold democracy, the US must fight global corruption,” it is worth noting that the US itself has a significant problem with corruption, as it currently ranks second on the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

There should be no doubt that there is much to be done about democracy in the US by looking inward rather than outward in order to prove “that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people,” but the ongoing summit is a non-starter.

Instead of wasting time and energy on disguising the real purpose of a gathering that aims to counter the growing influence of China and Russia, and resembles the late senator John McCain’s idea concerning a new “League of Democracies,” US policymakers would be well advised to remember Immanuel Kant’s ideas about democratic peace that did not close any polity outside the community or federation for peace.

As author John MacMillan argues, Kant was well aware of the interdependence of liberal and non-liberal states – the knowledge instrumental in an emerging multipolar world where the great powers like the US, China and Russia have no other choice but to learn how to co-exist with one another without descending into a war that could turn nuclear.

Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer. He is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow and former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the UK, Bow Group. Kasonta is a graduate of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). You can follow him on Twitter @Adriel_Kasonta.