The Biden Administration’s Summit for Democracy (S4D) is an opportunity to revitalize the global democracy agenda by centering public attention on democracy’s dividends, promoting cross-border collaboration between democratic nations, and by mobilizing governments, legislatures and civil society to tackle their domestic democratic deficits.
To date, media attention has largely centered on the invitation list. Though understandable, this focus is unfortunate. Academics put the number of democratic nations at 92; the Administration’s preference for a big tent (110 countries) that includes some backsliding countries reflects a pragmatic approach that privileges engagement over exclusion.
The more important questions to explore are the ‘why’ and the ‘why now.’ 2020 marked the 15th straight year of democratic decline and the tipping point when a majority of the world’s population came to be ruled by autocratic governments. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan coupled with a steady string of coups in 2021 -- including Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea -- further reinforce the perception of a deepening democratic recession.
Like that other pandemic, autocracy unchecked is highly contagious. Authoritarian governments learn from each other, share tools of repression and actively collaborate across borders to quash dissent. Success begets success: the subversion of democratic norms in one country serves to embolden would-be autocrats in another.
Against this backdrop, the push for global democratic renewal takes on new urgency. Citing democracy’s “superior assets,” Secretary Albright argues forcefully that the time is right for a “democratic comeback.” However, she also acknowledges that this resurgence will require hard work on difficult problems, both within and beyond national borders. In this sense, the Summit for Democracy represents an excellent opportunity to rally governments to address their domestic democratic challenges and work together to make the world more conducive to democratic governance. In a globalized world, it is evident that the democratic health of one nation depends on the solidarity and commitment of others, as evidenced by the following cross-border challenges:
- Incidents of transnational repression and coordinated anti-rights campaigns targeting women and LGBTIQ+ communities are growing in scope and audacity; the democratic community needs strategies for nimble, concerted responses to these offenses.
- The international industries -- including investment advisors, lawyers, lobbyists, and real estate agents -- that enable corruption and authoritarianism require greater transparency, regulation and enforcement.
- Ensuring that new digital technologies support, rather than subvert, democratic values demands multilateral coordination on policy and regulatory solutions.
- Ongoing global efforts to respond to the overlapping climate and COVID crises should adopt a build back democratically approach by reinforcing institutional checks and balances and ‘do no (democratic) harm’ approaches that are inclusive, participatory, transparent, and accountable.
In support of democratic revitalization, throughout 2022, NDI will organize an extended slate of “Democracy Game Changers” initiatives aimed at showcasing democracy activists and reformers, and spotlighting those pressing challenges that demand a collective response. In the lead up to the second Summit for Democracy scheduled for late 2022, NDI will support governments (national and local), civil society, and parliaments for consensus building, monitoring and implementation of their S4D commitments. NDI will put special focus on ensuring that commitment implementation is inclusive and responsive to the needs of women, youth and other excluded groups on the front lines of the struggle for democracy and at greatest risk in backsliding contexts.
The Game Changers series will kick off on December 6th, with a live-streamed virtual conversation entitled “Democracy’s Defenders: What’s at Stake and Why It Matters” among several of the world’s leading champions of democracy on four continents. NDI Chair Madeleine Albright will provide opening remarks, and a panel including Lithuania Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, and former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, moderated by NDI President Derek Mitchell, will follow. The conversation will focus on these leaders’ assessments of global democratic trends, the stakes for international society, and lessons learned from their experience at the senior-most levels of government in defense of democracy.
Democratic development is a marathon, not a meeting. The S4D sessions on December 9-10 will mark a historic moment in the global fight for democracy by convening world leaders to celebrate and commit to democracy as a global public good. When the cameras turn off, the work will begin on translating those aspirations into meaningful democratic progress over the next year, and beyond.
Authors: NDI President Derek Mitchell & Director of Governance Kristen Sample
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.