The eyes of the world’s leading foreign policy wonks were all on Washington, DC, after President Joe Biden met with fellow democratic leaders at the “Summit for Democracy”. This was a key realization of his campaign pledge of 2020 and – coming hot on the heels of his summit with Vladimir Putin – a chance to showcase American leadership at a time when the stakes have seldom been higher.
110 countries were invited. The choice of participants was always doomed to be controversial. Many people ask: Does really Pakistan deserve a seat at the table while Turkey does not? Is the United States, after riots at the Capitol on January 6, well-positioned to preach about democracy to others? Where does, say, Saudi Arabia, fit in the global division into the pro-Western democratic and non-democratic nations of the world? The answers to these big geopolitical questions are far from simple and straightforward.
There were no concrete decisions or deliverables once the meeting concluded. The gathering had a largely symbolic meaning. The dull reality of the pandemic made it a mostly digital event, depriving politicians of photo-ops and civil society was not able to interact very much. The symbolism matters, however, because after four years of “America First” under Donald Trump, the US is sending a clear signal to its allies and friends: ‘We are back and we care about the democratic family of nations.’ It is a powerful message to autocrats worldwide, especially China and Russia that no American decline is on the cards and the West has a conscious and dedicated leader.
Research shows autocratic regimes do not wait idly for the US to “wake up”: rather, they try very hard to undermine the democratic order of societies by spreading disinformation and confusion. GLOBSEC’s 2021 Vulnerability Index shows the extent to which Eastern Europe has become a key battleground for anti-democratic and anti-systemic propaganda.
Eastern Europe featured in several other important aspects of the summit. First: a new wind seems to be blowing through the corridors of power. In October 2021, Czechs rejected the government of Andrej Babis and the next government is likely to cease its flirtation with China. In Hungary, next year’s election might bring a similar political turnaround. It’s as if the victory of Zuzana Caputova in Slovakia back in 2019 started a trend whereby the tide of populism began to ebb away. Second: Hungary is the only EU country that was not invited. This is a sign of the US administration’s concerns over the political development of the Viktor Orban government. As if to prove the Americans right, the Hungarian government promptly issued a statement that it will veto any EU post-summit statement. Third: the American initiative coincides with a policy change of the European Union regarding the rule of law amongst its 27 members. The EU this time seems to be decided upon withholding funds to countries where the judiciary is not independent or where there is a risk of misallocation of resources by corrupt individuals or groups. Fourth: the celebration of democracy will be followed by a much more difficult and mundane exercise on the ground, that of reinventing the Western democratic structures. Here, lessons from Eastern Europe are worth looking closely at.
Celebrations of democracy must not be the moment to rest on our laurels. Democracy which allows for discrimination of huge swathes of society, such as women or ethnic minorities, is not worthy of its name. In order to win the narrative for democracy, the West needs to reinvent itself by updating policies and public instruments to the realities of the 21st century. Otherwise, autocrats worldwide will be able to claim: “We may not allow for free elections, but we deliver on growth or prosperity or modernization”. The rejuvenation of democracy cannot happen at summits. Instead, it is forged through a concerted effort of politicians, civil society, experts, entrepreneurs.
Biden’s initiative is to be applauded. The democratic family has to get its act together. The future of democracy is being decided all over the world but one of the key battlegrounds is Eastern Europe. In the middle of it, there is Slovakia, a country which has covered a long distance – from the “black hole” of Europe (as Madeleine Albright once put it) under the Meciar government to the trail-blazer of democratic revival. Its example could be a blueprint for other countries in the region.
If President Biden cares about keeping his initiative alive, he should not allow this summit of democracies to be a one-off. There is supposed to be a global follow-up summit, this time in person. But perhaps we should go further. How about a series of regional summits, tackling the challenges of populism at the regional level? And how about the next one taking place in Slovakia, to recognize and support the democratic revival in Eastern Europe? That really would help the defence of a key democratic battleground.