A debate among political scientists has been persisting for some time over the state of democracies globally
On December 9 and 10, US Pres-ident Joe Biden will hold a virtual global Summit for Democracy. This is in keeping with his campaign promise, alth-ough it has taken a year to implement it. According to the US state department, the Biden-Harris administration is convinced that “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world is essential to meeting the unprecedented challenges of our time”.
President Biden also stated on the International Day of Democracy: “No democracy is perfect, and no dem-ocracy is ever final. Every gain made, every barrier broken, is the result of determined, unceasing work”. He is clearly not just speaking of American experience till the Nine-teenth Amendment to the US Constitution was pas-sed in 1920, which provided that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” The franchise was thus extended to women nearly a century and a half after the nation was born. President Biden had in mind the actions and behaviour of his predecessor Donald Trump, who attempted to overturn the 2020 election after losing it. The result was a mob attack on the US Congress, with hordes of people overrunning Capitol Hill as the legislators assembled inside to endorse President Joe Biden’s victory.
A debate among political scientists has been persisting for some time over the state of democracies globally. The world’s confidence in liberal democratic systems has slid since the twin shocks of the US subprime market crisis in 2008 and then the Euro crisis that was followed by Greece’s insolvency. Larry Diamond characterises it as a “democratic recession”, as functioning democracies began to shrink after reaching a peak till the beginning of the present century. China and Russia became much more confident and assertive, presenting the world an alternative, single party model of governance. While the 2011 Arab Spring overthrew a number of dictatorships in the Arab world, what followed was civil war or another military dictatorship, such as in Egypt.
But much more significantly, even within the European Union, Hungary and Poland have seen a gradual accrual of power by a single ruler, after undermining institutions that any democracy needs to ensure the freedom to criticise, choose or replace incumbent governments. Anne Applebaum in her book Twilight of Democracy notes that even ancient philosophers had their doubts about democracy. Plato feared the “false and braggart words” of the demagogue, and wondered whether democracy was merely a staging point on the road to tyranny.
The US Constitutional Conv-ention of 1787 created the institution of the Electoral College to ensure that a man, as Alexander Hami-lton put it, with “talents of low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” could never become President.
Yet the US saw just such a man, Donald Trump, beat all the existing barriers, using twenty-first century tools to reach millions via the social media, to become President. Unrepentant and backed by a pusillanimous Republican Party, he may well be back in power in 2024.
Therefore, President Joe Biden is not off the mark when he says that the challenge to liberal democracy as a system of governance is not yet over, nor perhaps shall ever be so. But the hosts were challenged by whom to invite and, more important, whom to exclude. Shannon Tiezzi in The Diplomat uses the Freedom House’s 2021 World Report to check the scores of those invited or omitted. As a general rule, she observes, the average score of invitees is 78.5 and the non-invitees 32.8. But there are exceptions that stick out.
Three countries with a perfect score of 100 — Finland, Norway and Sweden — are naturally invited. The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a score of 20, is also in. The inclusion of Pakistan is attributed to geo-politics, as including only India could have affected US-Pakistan ties, particularly at a time when Afghanistan is still in flux. The Maldives got the nod, but Sri Lanka, with the Rajapaksa clan running it like a family enterprise, is out. Singapore is omitted, although it does have a kind of electoral democracy. The interesting case is the invitation to Taiwan, with the caveat that only a minister and not the head of government will attend.
Newsweek magazine has categorised the invitees and those omitted by groups to decipher the US approach. Every US ally and major Western government would be present. Asian treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are attending. The Quad members, including India, are there; as are AUKUS, the newly-created three-nation alliance. Every European Union member, except for Hungary, is invited. The inclusion of Poland, which is also showing democratic slippage, is interesting, perhaps due to the hope it can be reeled back. Every Nato member is on the list, except Turkey. Of the ten members of the Asean, only Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are invited. The clear omissions are Thailand and Myanmar, where the military has strengthened their grip. The omission of Singapore, when Brunei is included, may be as much due to the reluctance of Singapore to join a gathering that is clearly tilting against China as due to its one-party system.
That brings up the question of India. Freedom House has already downgraded India from “free” to “partly free”. Amongst the invitees to the summit are governments, multilateral organisations, philanthropies, civil society and the private sector. The three key themes are: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights. The state department’s statement then suggests that “leaders will be encouraged to announce specific actions and commitments to meaningful internal reforms and international initiatives that advance the summit’s goals”. This rallying sound too optimistic. The Indian government has shown in the last few weeks greater willingness to listen to the people when repealing the three controversial farm laws. But the farmers’ protests will continue till the rest of the issues are amicably resolved.
But the manner in which the laws were repealed sans debate, protesting members barred from the Parliament session and investigative agencies used to facilitate the defection of prominent Opposition figures to the BJP augurs poorly for the outcome that President Biden is seeking. The tendency of the Union government to espouse liberal values abroad and undermine them at home is unlikely to change after one global summit. But the United States drawing the “red lines” based on liberal democracy is a very welcome step.