US President Joe Biden hosted a virtual democracy summit last week. The summit will kick off a full year of action to promote democracy around the world with a follow-up summit – in person this time – to be held in Washington with Biden once again as the host. There is no doubt that democracy has been in decline across the world since the turn of the present century, both in established democratic states and among the laggards and aspirants. It will take more than a few summits to tackle the underlying causes, but the initiative is still laudable. It can help change the global political discourse in favor of liberal democracy.
Democracies do not always work together to promote democracy in other countries.
Democracies do not always work together to promote democracy in other countries. When the interests of two states converge, shared democratic values can strengthen the relationship between them. But shared democratic values do not trump the pursuit of competing interests. During the Cold War, being democratic nations did not prevent India and the United States from being on the other side of the geopolitical barrier. Shared interests can lead democracies to work even as allies of undemocratic states. In order to contain the then Soviet Union, the United States was more than willing to ally itself with Communist China even when the latter was in the throes of the ultra-radical Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. India and the Soviet Union maintained a strong strategic partnership for three decades (1960-1990) despite being on either side of the ideological divide. Keep in mind that for Biden, the Democracy Summit serves as an instrument to put his main geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, on the defensive, but this is of limited use.
The geopolitical dimension prevailed in the inevitable controversy over which countries to invite and which to avoid. Judging by their democratic credentials, it is difficult to justify excluding Bangladesh and Bhutan when Pakistan was invited. Pakistan’s geopolitical usefulness, particularly in dealing with the nearby turbulence in Afghanistan, may have weighed in. But it must have been embarrassing to watch Pakistan decline the invitation. Earning long-time benefactor China brownie points was more important to Islamabad than the once-highly regarded American superpower certification.
The summit’s objectives were threefold: to counter authoritarianism; dealing with and combating corruption; promote respect for human rights.
According to reports received so far, the only tangible result is the Export Control and Human Rights Initiative, launched by the United States, Australia, Denmark and Norway, which seeks to prevent authoritarian governments from abusing dual-use technologies to investigate and hack communications from opponents, journalists, activists and minority communities. I would have expected India to be part of this group, especially after Prime Minister Modi called the summit’s attention to the need for global standards for the use of digital technologies for social media or for cryptocurrencies likely to undermine democracies. Although he did not specify it, it is a fact that digital technologies can strengthen democracy by allowing wide dissemination of information, increasing transparency and accountability.
Prime Minister Modi said India’s message to the world is that “democracy can deliver, has delivered and will continue to deliver.” It was an encouraging message, but the fact is that over the past decade and more, democracies have been seen to be less successful than authoritarian, communist or other states at providing the most basic services than ordinary citizens expect security, education and health from the state, namely the public services. It cannot be denied that across the world, the Chinese experiment under authoritarian rule has been recognized as a spectacular success, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, creating the world’s most modern cutting-edge infrastructure and offering living standards to its people. Whether this has been achieved at the cost of a widespread violation of human rights and the degradation of its ecology is not always obvious. There is what can be called “the envy of a dictator” or the longing for a strong and powerful leader who could overcome all human and material barriers to bring peace and prosperity. Like it or not, there is pessimism about democracy within democracies and it is a greater challenge to democracy rather than the machinations of authoritarian states and their leaders.
The survival of democracies needs introspection among its champions. Why have the people turned away from what once seemed to be the best and most evolved political arrangement in human history? In my opinion, at the end of the cold war, the liberals got lost. They acquiesced in the calculated attempt to equate liberal democracy with free markets, selling the dubious proposition that free markets inevitably lead to democracy. The role of public policies in ensuring equity in access to basic services and opportunities for advancement gradually diminished as market orthodoxy increasingly took hold. A smaller and smaller group of winners grabbed the growing pie, while the ranks of losers grew steadily. These inequalities are not the result of globalization or the nature of technological change. They are the result of the failure of public policies. The democratic state has abdicated its responsibility to ensure the fair distribution of the fruits of globalization and technological progress. We have ended up with levels of income and wealth inequality that are simply not compatible with democracy. Populism is rooted in this frustration with growing inequalities and polarization is inherent in such a situation. Democracies must find a way to address this growing inequality, otherwise they are unlikely to survive. Or they can turn into what are now described as electoral autocracies.
Prime Minister Modi spoke about India’s inclusion policy. This is indeed an important feature of democracy and must be broadened. Only a responsible citizen can be an actor in democracy.
India is the largest democracy in the world and, in many ways, a unique experience in celebrating plurality within a democratic regime. Its success as a democracy may well determine the fate of democracy itself.