To promote democracy, Biden should lead by example

Next week, US President Joe Biden will host a digitised summit to promote democracy internationally. The idea is good, but things can go wrong.
Populist leaders with anti-democratic track records: Duterte and Modi in Delhi in 2018. picture alliance / AP Photo Populist leaders with anti-democratic track records: Duterte and Modi in Delhi in 2018.

National leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Narendra Modi of India must not be given an opportunity to impress citizens of their nations by participating in Biden’s summit. Their track record shows that they do not endorse an agenda of deepening democracy. Instead, both right-wing populists keep undermining constitutional principles and, far too often, support or at least tolerate political violence.  

Neither of them, by the way, won the votes of the majority of their respective nation’s citizens. They came out first in elections when less than 40 % of voters chose them.

The Biden administration obviously does not want to allow the wrong kind of leader to shine on the stage it is setting up. This is why the governments of some countries, which are traditional allies of the USA, have not been invited. Egypt, Turkey and Hungary will not take part therefore. Biden wants policymakers to make commitments to oppose authoritarianism, fight corruption and promote human rights. He may hope Duterte and Modi will pledge anything meaningful, but I doubt they will – if they do, they probably will not live up to it.

The geostrategic context is obvious. Biden wants to rally allies. Democracy is quite obviously not on the agenda of China, the rising world power, or Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin still longs for the global role the Soviet Union used to play.

The best thing Biden can do to make the summit deliver more than empty rhetoric, is to lead by example. He should make serious commitments to deepen democracy in the USA. The international community is well aware of how his predecessor Donald Trump disregarded and subverted democratic principles at home and courted despotic strongmen abroad. Because of him, the USA is no longer a self-evident standard bearer of democracy.

As I recently argued here, US democracy is still in danger. If you don’t trust me, consider what Jennifer Rubin, who used to self-identify as “conservative” before Trump made her change her mind, wrote in the Washington Post recently.

The insurgency of 6 January was broadcast on live TV around the world. Nonetheless, most Republican members of Congress now deny anything important happened that day. Far too many of them keep repeating Trump’s big lie of Biden having stolen the election, and far too few dare to disown the former president. Adding to the worries, they celebrate violent vigilantism.  

In this scenario, Biden should promise he will make Congress pass legislation to ensure real election integrity. More than a dozen Republican-controlled states have adopted laws that make it harder for minorities to vote, but easier for state administrations to subvert election results. Moreover, they designed voting districts in ways that ensure they get a disproportionately large number of legislative seats. In Wisconsin, for example they won fewer votes than Democrats, but have almost two thirds of the seats in the state assembly.  

The Democrats’ majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives are slim, but they would suffice to counter anti-democratic (please note the small “d”) action by Republicans. Making that happen is actually a matter of global relevance. At the climate summit in Glasgow, US diplomats had less clout than they would have had if Congress had passed Biden’s climate agenda. That it still has not happened is because Democrats are underrepresented in Congress.

Another issue of global relevance is the spread of disinformation on social media. Authoritarian populists benefit from fake-news propaganda. Biden should promise to introduce legislation to stop this trend. He should also pledge to cooperate with other democratic governments on defining global standards that serve this purpose.    

Asking partners to make commitments to deepen democracy is a good idea. By making such commitments himself, Biden could set the right example. That way, he would be putting pressure on the likes of Duterte or Modi too.

Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.

This is a slightly modified and updated version of a comment we recently posted on LinkedIn. Do join us there, if you like: dc-development-and-cooperation 

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