Democracy, Populism, & Domestic Politics, Global Governance, United States The Summit for Democracy: Give It Tools for Success
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November 23, 2021
Henri-Paul Normandin | Perry World House
President Biden is moving ahead with his plans to host a virtual Summit for Democracy on December 9 and 10, to be followed by a “year of action” and a second in-person summit next year. The Summit aims to build a shared foundation for global democratic renewal. But if it is to live up to its ambition and prove to be more than a talkfest, the Summit must set in motion a movement to effectively advance democracy.
What would success look like? Broadly speaking, the Summit could be considered a success if, over time, it contributes to improvements in the quality of democracy in countries that espouse this form of governance, as well as an increase in the number of countries that can reasonably be described as democracies. Meaningful success will not be measured the day after the Summit. It will be measured three, five, or ten years down the road.
In this spirit, the Summit purports to “galvanize commitments and initiatives” in favor of democracy, including human rights. What type of initiatives could be put in place to effectively advance democracy over time?
Proponents of democracy have to play both offense and defense. Offense entails raising the legitimacy and appeal of democracy as the only form of governance based on the power of ‘the people’ in all their diversity, and a form of governance that can deliver for the people. Defense involves guarding against the erosion of democracy and risks of backsliding, as well as countering attempts by malign forces to undermine democracy and democratic regimes.
It is also critical to consider a basic reality that is too often overlooked in international circles: democracy is first and foremost an indigenous undertaking, something that comes about at the local and national levels. While democracy can be emulated and to some extent influenced by international factors, it essentially grows and fails nationally—like any other form of governance, for that matter. Attempts by the international community to graft democracy onto a country have rarely resulted in success without the latter’s social forces meaningfully owning the process. In the same vein, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of democracy.
In this context, the intention of the organizers to involve civil society in the Summit is absolutely relevant. For democracy is not only a matter for political leaders; it is in essence a matter for ‘the people’ and the expression of a variety of views and interests. Equally relevant is the initiative to hold an event with mayors, as democracy also takes form in cities and at the grassroots level.
To circumvent the quagmire of superficiality and truly actualize the stated objectives of the Summit, the organizers should equip themselves with tools that will facilitate substantial and sustainable improvements to global democracy. Most potent will be initiatives that stimulate, support, and put pressure on each participating country to enhance the quality and vibrancy of its own democracy.
Some initiatives might be voluntary, leaving it to each participating country to join them or not. Others may be mandatory for any country aspiring to participate in the Summit. After all, being a ‘member of the club,’ even if it is meant to be inclusive, should come with commitments as well as a certain degree of responsibility and accountability, mostly vis-à-vis national stakeholders, but also towards peers and the international community.
Drawing from the experience of various international organizations, there is a range of potential initiatives and mechanisms that the Summit participants could consider implementing.
As a starter, it is very common for international summits to issue a declaration outlining a combination of agreed-upon ideas, principles, aspirations, and commitments. This can then serve as a common point of reference and action, including for some of the other initiatives and mechanisms described below. Most importantly in this case, a strong declaration endorsed by a wide variety of participants would literally ‘make a statement’ highlighting broad global support for democracy and mobilizing countries and stakeholders around common goals.
The entry-level requirement for each country aspiring to participate in the Summit should be a national pledge regarding what it intends to do to advance democracy nationally and internationally. Ideally, such a pledge should be presented by each country’s head of state or government when taking the stage at the Summit. This may seem like a simple step, but it could be a powerful means of opening up avenues for public debates and follow-up activity.
The Summit organizers have already embarked on this path, as they have encouraged potential participating countries to come up with their own commitments, ideally taking a ‘whole-of-government’ approach involving all relevant public institutions.
A logical step following the issuance of a national pledge would be to report on its implementation. Hopefully, this would incentivize and pressure every participating country to deliver on its pledge—and on democracy more generally.
This could be done through self-reporting by participating countries. Even if its content tends more toward self-glorification than self-criticism, each report would create an opportunity for public debate and engagement, most importantly at the national level, which would draw attention to areas for progress.
Another avenue would be reporting by a third party—whether through an appointed group of national and international experts or otherwise. States often subject themselves to such mechanisms in international organizations. This would entail mobilizing resources to that end, along with a credible methodology.
To note, a number of international NGOs already monitor the performance of all states in relation to democracy, based on global performance indicators. Should they wish, they could add reporting against national pledges. Further, it is certain that national stakeholders would monitor their own country’s situation against the national pledge, as well as in relation to democracy more generally.
Another instrument to consider is a peer review mechanism. States already occasionally subject themselves, whether voluntarily or by obligation, to such mechanisms in various international institutions. While it can combine a number of elements above (national pledges, self- or third-party reporting, monitoring), the original element in this mechanism is that it calls upon peers (i.e., other countries) to assess, comment, and provide advice. Some peer review mechanisms tend to focus on specific norms, others tend to be political in nature.
A peer review mechanism would require agreement over a set of rules and procedures, supported by some kind of secretariat. A viable option might be to invite a credible international organization to set up a peer review mechanism for countries willing to participate in such an exercise.
Access to Support Services
The construct of democracy requires more than political will. It is an ever-evolving undertaking, with constant adjustments in policies, practices, and legislative and institutional frameworks. The capacity to sustain democracy is often weak or challenged, even in well-established democracies. Hence, it is useful to make support available to countries willing to enhance their capacity and resilience. This could take the form of sharing best practices, providing advisory services, or technical assistance. The Summit could enhance the visibility and availability of such services, possibly mobilize further resources to this end, and spearhead innovation to address new challenges arising from new technologies or social media.
An original feature of the Summit could be the establishment of an advisory council, which would gather a number of respected figures, such as former heads of state. The mandate of this council could set a higher or lower level of ambition. At a minimum, the council could make a public statement at the Summit, drawing attention to issues and trends in relation to democracy. It could eventually issue ad hoc statements as needs and opportunities arise. The council could either limit itself to generic issues related to democracy or develop responses to country-specific situations. Furthermore, council members could open up private channels of communication with country leaders when the situation warrants.
Early Warning System
Democracy seldom collapses overnight. There are often indications of regression or danger, such as attacks to undermine the press, human rights defenders, and legal institutions. An early warning system could be set up, with a group of experts or a geographically representative group of countries monitoring situations of concern. When worrying signs emerge, they could eventually issue a public statement, trigger the involvement of the advisory council, or adopt other political responses.
Collective Protection and Response Mechanism
While the erosion of democracy as well as attacks against it often come from within a country, it is well documented that authoritarian states also actively undermine democracies. This is often done through propaganda and disinformation in social media and cyber-attacks, as well as attempts to influence national actors through manipulation, sowing division, and intimidating and silencing critics.
To reduce risks and increase costs for authoritarian states involved in such undertakings, the summit could establish a collective protection and response mechanism. Hence, if one country is subjected to an outside threat or interference, other participating countries may decide on collective action to counter this threat or interference. The ambit of such a mechanism could be modest—for instance, issuing political statements denouncing such interference, or more aggressive actions such as taking sanctions against the offending party.
Provide an Impulse to Democracy
To be most effective and encourage a “race to the top,” as one official characterized the Summit to me, it would be optimal if such initiatives generated a mix of incentives, support, and pressure. In light of the Summit’s informal structure, with countries participating on a voluntary basis, initiatives are likely to be on the softer side, rather than formal and complex attempts to enforce strict implementation of specific standards, as is sometimes the case with mechanisms in international institutions. Other than exposure to public pressure, the only hard sanction that might be available would be the sheer absence of invitation to participate in future Summits.
Whichever initiative or mix of initiatives is retained, no doubt it will have to be tailor-made to the unique nature of the Summit as well as the level of ambition of its participants. Furthermore, one can understand the reluctance of Summit organizers to establish a new bureaucracy to carry out such initiatives. Hence, existing international organizations, including well-established and credible NGOs as well as regional organizations, could be encouraged to take over some of them. The first virtual Summit in December this year is an opportunity to initiate consultations on mechanisms that could be launched in the following months or at next year’s anticipated in-person Summit.
It is also important to bear in mind that what happens within the Summit’s walls will likely be only part of its potential value. If the Summit succeeds in generating a buzz around democracy, much of the useful debate will happen in the public sphere, sparking proposals, demands, and action. The Summit may also prompt new platforms for stakeholders and stimulate the growth of new initiatives. Hence, putting in place mechanisms that will, directly or indirectly, provide an impulse for action is crucial to the Summit’s long-term success.
Risks and Opportunities
The summit does not come without risks. Everyone is cognizant of the geopolitical context. Democracy and geopolitics appear entangled. But we would be best served if the summit focused on democracy as such rather than on geopolitics. The summit should be about advancing democracy, rather than advancing the interests of democratic countries, which extend far beyond democracy to include international trade and security, for instance. While we are unfortunately down that path to some extent, attempting to instrumentalize democracy in the pursuit of geopolitical objectives will do a disservice to the cause of democracy. Toning down the rhetoric about great power and strategic competition may be wise, lest we discredit democracy, turn away potential partners in the democratic journey, and further agitate authoritarian regimes.
Other risks include providing a veneer of legitimacy to participating countries and leaders who are not genuinely committed to advancing democracy, and limiting the Summit to a glamorous talk shop. Such risks can be mitigated through the implementation of some of the initiatives described above and many more.
Most importantly, the summit purports to contribute to a rejuvenation of democracy and, over time, to “showcase progress made against commitments.” If so, it needs to give itself tools to trigger progress and track it. Otherwise, the Summit may turn out to be a squandered opportunity at a critical juncture in history.
Henri-Paul Normandin is a former Canadian Ambassador who spent much of his career advancing democracy and human rights. Amongst others, he spearheaded the concept of a universal periodic review mechanism at the UN Human Rights Council. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Fellow at the Institut d’études internationales de Montréal.
 For this paper, we surveyed relevant initiatives and mechanisms from the UN human rights system, African Union, ECOWAS, E.U., OAS, Commonwealth, OECD, G20, WTO, ILO, IAEA, WHO, UNFCCC, and NATO. Edward Tan, Research Assistant at Perry World House, conducted the review.
 For instance: Global State of Democracy, by International IDEA; Freedom in the World, by Freedom House; Democracy Index, by the EIU; and V-Dem, by the University of Gothenburg.