By Clifford D. May
The Summit for Democracy upset China’s totalitarian rulers. That’s the most positive thing I can say about the two-day virtual conference convened by President Biden earlier this month.
An editorial in the Global Times, one of Beijing’s many propaganda organs, fumed that the purpose of the meeting was to declare the United States “still the boss.”
It further asserted: “From the COVID-19 fight to anti-racial discrimination, the U.S. has not done anything worthy of being put on a window display in the West.” From the regime that let loose a pandemic and is persecuting its Uyghur minority to the point of genocide, that’s chutzpah on steroids.
In his opening remarks, Biden cited Freedom House’s finding that “global freedom” has been “in retreat” for the past 15 years. He observed that “autocrats” are seeking “to advance their own power, export and expand their influence around the world, and justify their repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today’s challenges.”
True enough, though it might occur to some listeners that, just a few months back, he gave a huge boost to the autocratic project by precipitously abandoning the people of Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban.
Biden said he was also worried by the increasing “dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governments that they feel are failing to deliver for their needs.” As I’m not the first to observe, a government big enough to deliver all your needs is big enough to take away all you have. Count me among those who would be satisfied with a government that protects my life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness.
Biden went on to promote his Build Back Better Act, apparently not understanding that whether a majority of America’s elected representatives is for it or against it (as now appears to be the case), the outcome is equally democratic.
The summit’s priorities were “defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights.” Few of the featured speakers could boast accomplishments in any of these areas.
António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, expressed his deep concern about the loss of Enlightenment values around the world, apparently oblivious to the fact that the U.N. Human Rights Council trashes those values 24/7.
Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, pledged to “work collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to make meaningful internal reforms and support international initiatives that advance the Summit’s goals.” I bet that left tyrants shivering in their shoes!
My two cents: Democratic societies face three distinct threats. The first is external and might be termed authoritarian assertiveness. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s claims that its Communist dictatorship is a “people’s democracy,” a “Democracy That Works,” the model for other countries to emulate. Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly insists he is “defending true democratic rights.”
The second threat is internal: “democratic backsliding.” The leaders of India, Brazil (both invited to the summit) and Hungary (not invited for some strange reason) are frequently accused of weakening institutions essential to democracies.
The third problem is self-doubt—especially in the United States. Former President Donald Trump and his most fervent supporters don’t believe he lost last year’s presidential election. Hillary Clinton and her most fervent supporters don’t believe she lost the previous presidential election. Throughout the Trump years, many Democrats declared themselves not the “loyal opposition” but the “resistance,” an allusion to those who fought Nazi occupations.
Such tough topics were mostly avoided at the Summit. As far as I could tell, no one even attempted to define democracy. Voters cast ballots in Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanon, but those are not democratic societies (and they weren’t invited). That should lead us to the conclusion that elections alone do not a democracy make.
Nor should democracy be confused with majoritarianism. America’s Founders structured the United States not as a direct democracy but rather as a constitutional republic with a strong emphasis on minority rights, unalienable rights, separation of powers and checks and balances.
Equally important, they believed that rights inhere in the individual, not in groups. Authoritarians disagree. For example, communists distribute rights according to class, and those who subscribe to “woke” ideology demand enhanced rights for groups they declare oppressed and limited rights for groups they deem oppressors.
Also avoided at the summit was any debate about the distinction between natural rights and such newly minted rights (to which the Biden administration has committed) as that of transgender athletes “to compete free from discrimination” in events like women’s wrestling.
I’m dubious, too, about the Summit’s emphasis on corruption, because that’s a malady that infects democratic and dictatorial nations alike. Corruption is more prevalent in Nigeria and Mexico than in Singapore. Yet Nigeria and Mexico were invited to the Summit while Singapore was left off Biden’s invitation list.
As Biden was snubbing Singapore, he was himself being snubbed by Pakistan. Why did Pakistan send regrets? Likely out of deference to its allies in Beijing, who are militarily threatening democratic Taiwan.
Taiwan did attend, but a Taiwanese official’s video feed was cut when her slide show, ranking the world by civil rights, displayed her country and the People’s Republic of China in different colors.
A message appeared in its place: “Any opinions expressed by individuals on this panel are those of the individual, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.” According to Reuters, the White House ordered the cut. The State Department later claimed the cut was an “honest mistake.”
Perhaps that’s good enough for government work. To restore and revive democracy around the world will require a more thoughtful and serious effort.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times. This originally ran on JNS.org.