US President Joe Biden declared at the opening of a “Summit on Democracy”, which he convened on December 9, that “democracy needs champions”.
He is perfectly right. And, he has good reason for saying so. Last year, the US – which trumpets itself as the bastion of democracy – almost became a fascist state after President Donald Trump, supported by a pliant Republican party, did everything he could to maintain power, including encouraging a mob march on the US Congress on January 6 in the wake of his loss of the presidency to Biden.
It was a frightening time for the world where fascist and autocratic leaders had emerged in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America determined to rule with little regard for human and political rights, or for democratic principles generally, especially a free press and freedom of citizen expression.
Had Donald Trump succeeded, his behaviour would have emboldened the existing tyrannical leaders and spawned a few more. Tension and conflict would have escalated, dividing the world not on traditional ideological grounds, but on a contest between those that value democracy and those who regard it as a nuisance and an obstacle to their own control.
Democracy in the US was undoubtedly gravely threatened by President Trump’s desire to hold power at any cost; to dismantle what his one-time political adviser, Steve Bannon, described as the ‘deep state’, but which is really the checks and balances of public servants sworn to uphold the US Constitution and the law; and to threaten and coerce compliance even by elected officials in the US Congress.
But that is not the only aspect of US democracy that was – and remains – a threat. The emergence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and the wanton and unconscionable killing of black people by police and Individuals, empowered by centuries of oppression and repression, are manifestations of the flawed state of democracy and human rights in the US.
Justice for black people without whose enforced servitude and without whose blood, the US would never have been built (and the word ‘never’ is used without fear of contradiction), is the putrid sore in US society. Democracy in the US will remain flawed and human rights will continue to be unserved, until, as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, said, “justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream”.
The saving grace of the US, unlike in many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa and a few in Europe, is the strong commitment of decent and well-thinking people to protecting and preserving the institutions of the US. Persons such as the Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, who President Donald Trump told to find 11,780 votes so that he could overturn his defeat by Biden in that state, and lay claim to the Presidency. Outstanding were the judges of the US Supreme Court and state courts, including those appointed by Trump, who put upholding the law above any other consideration.
The prospect of Donald Trump returning to the Presidency in 2024 no doubt brings a shudder down the spine of many, including President Biden. So, this Summit on Democracy is not just concerned with “the global competition of the 21st century” which the President said “is one defined by democracies versus autocracies”; it is also about competition for the soul of the US and the direction it takes.
The agenda of the Summit was set by the US government, even though over a hundred leaders were invited. They were each given the agenda and asked to speak on particular issues which focused on combating corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and promoting human rights.
However, opening the Summit, President Biden said that “working with our Congress, we’re planning to commit as much as $424 million in the next year to shore up transparent and accountable governance, including supporting media freedom, fighting international corruption, standing with democratic reformers, promoting technology that advances democracy, and defining and defending what a fair election is”.
But an essential element is missing from the US plan. It takes no account of the imperative of spending money on correcting global economic inequities and on development. Essential to sustaining democracy globally is development. In underdeveloped countries with large pockets of poor, unemployed and discontented, political parties exploit these conditions to foster unrest and civil disturbance.
So, it is all well and good to provide money to defend against authoritarianism and to promote human rights. These things are extremely important, but they are not enough. By themselves, they will not sustain democracy anywhere, including in the US.
In part, it was the dissatisfaction of the poor, the unemployed and the disgruntled who responded to President Trump’s coded message to “Make America Great Again”. It is also what helped to bring authoritarians to power in other parts of the world.
Two days of an organised and rigid virtual meeting with a pre-planned outcome statement, and a pledge of money to fight corruption, demand transparent and accountable governance, standing with democratic reformers, promoting technology that advances democracy, and defining and defending a fair election, may send a signal to countries not invited to the Summit, but it won’t satisfy hunger, unemployment, poverty and need.
If governments can’t overcome those conditions and improve the lives of their people, then no offering of democracy will cut it.
We must welcome President Biden’s efforts to champion democracy, but the plan needs rethinking – this time with the involvement, rather than the attendance, of the leaders of the most vulnerable countries.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the U.S. and the OAS. He is also a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own