The sprawling San Quentin prison complex in California. The US leads the world in incarceration rates. Photo: Wikipedia

As the self-anointed leader of the “free” world, US President Joe Biden has called a “Summit for Democracy” to take place this week, and leaders of around 110 countries have accepted the invitation to attend – not all rated highly by the Freedom House index, known for measuring countries for their democratic practices.

Since the conference will be virtual, attendance is not an overly burdensome commitment – no international travel is involved, but just a stable Internet connection would do.

According to Freedom House, the United States does not even rate in the uppermost quartile of the nations in the world for democracy and freedom. In fact, the US is a peer of South Korea, Panama and Romania, just a smidgen ahead of Ghana and Poland, and Argentina and Croatia; in other words, the US is solidly in the middle of the pack as far as freedom and democracy go.

While the US is not exactly the paradigm of democracy and freedom, most guest leaders probably decided to show up lest they offend the freedom-loving White House. As recent examples have demonstrated, the worst-case scenario is to annoy the US so much as to trigger an uninvited visit of American marines to force-feed your citizens on what American values are all about.

Afghanistan is just the most recent example of a country that enjoyed a full 20 years of harsh indoctrination of democracy the American way. No country that faced and survived a close encounter with the US can testify that it is better off for the experience; Libya, Iraq and Syria are recent examples that come to mind.

So is Biden calling for the Summit to celebrate the end of the forever wars and show other countries how freedom and democracy can work for them? Or, because his domestic approval rating is tanking to an all-time low, that any kind of a pop from the festivities of a gathering of international leaders can only be good for ratings?

Showcase democracy’s unique strengths

Explaining the purpose of the Summit, the State Department said, “It will showcase one of democracy’s unique strengths: ability to acknowledge its imperfections and confront them openly and transparently.…”

With that as an invitation, I am pleased to enumerate the many imperfections of the American style of democracy and let the aspiring leaders attending the conference consider whether following the steps of Uncle Sam is wise and in the interest of their countries.

A basic right of a fully functioning democracy is to encourage and facilitate its citizens to participate and vote. We in the US do just the opposite. One of the two major political parties has devoted a vast amount of energy and political capital to developing schemes that would deny certain segments of the population the right to vote.

Respect for the rule of law should be a given in a democracy. In the US, contempt for the law and violation of the statutes rise in direct proportion to the stature of a person. The more powerful and wealthy the person, the more he or she can ignore the law and expect to get away with it.

But contempt for the rule of law isn’t just with the super-rich and powerful, we Americans believe our personal freedom and individual rights are more important than the greater good of the society.

We vehemently defend our right not to wear a mask and not to vaccinate against the highly contagious Covid-19 respiratory disease. We will fight to the death to defend our right to carry guns, and we will take our argument all the way to the Supreme Court that a pregnant woman has no right to decide on what’s right and good for her fetus and her body.

Our political leaders are not elected because they place issues of national interest above petty partisan issues but because they can raise a lot of money for political campaigns. They bicker and keep busy infighting but avoid dealing with hardcore issues vital to the country. Infrastructure, education, health care and gainful employment for all are issues that get kicked down to the next election.

Apparently human rights will be the major topic of discussion at Biden’s Summit. Contrary to a reasonable but erroneous public perception, universal human rights as defined by the United Nations are not the same as those accepted by the US. In America, we do not believe people of color, people of queer sexual orientation and homeless people or those otherwise in poverty have the same degree of human rights as the mainstream white race.

Putting people in prison is our forte

We are very good at putting people in prison. Nearly a quarter of people incarcerated in the world are found in American prisons. Yet we make up slightly more than 4% of the world’s total population. No other country comes close to putting as many people in jail as we do, and disproportionally the incarcerated are people of color. 

Brimming with high technology, we are the world’s leader in the use of e-incarceration involving the use of sensors, the Global Positioning System (GPS) and anklets to put people under house arrest and leverage the number of people we can control in detention. Apparently, we regard depriving people of their freedom as the best way to teach them the value of freedom.

Furthermore, our prison system represents one of our pillar industries. The more people we put in jail, the more jailers we have to hire, and private industries get paid to manage the prisoner overflow from state-owned facilities.

Not exactly the land of opportunities that I had envisaged when I immigrated to this country.

So what can we expect from the coming forum of leaders, the Summit for Democracy? Will any of the speakers push for peaceful collaboration among all nations, including the ones not invited, to confront climate change, the Covid pandemic, and the global refugee crisis?

Or will the attendees sit quietly and listen to President Biden lecture on his version of human rights? Despite the State Department assertion he will “confront them openly and transparently,” Biden is unlikely to review the litany of human-rights abuses in America. Instead, he is most likely to heap allegations of human-rights violations on those countries not invited to the Summit.

Most notably, China will be a principal target. Keep in mind that China does not have tent cities of homeless people. China has taken more than 800 million out of poverty and provided them with housing, health care and the ability to earn incomes. With its Belt and Road projects, China is going around the world helping other countries upgrade their infrastructure and thus improve their economic well-being for the overall benefit of the world.

As you listen to Biden’s speech, you should conduct a running mental fact-check as to whether his statements ring authentic or are mere reflections of fabrications and distortions emanating from the US government and the mainstream media.

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.