A Humble Approach to Saving Democracy | Opinion

Democracy is dying. A recent report released by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) found that the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is three times that of those moving closer to democracy. These findings re-enforce the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2020 report, which found that less than 9 percent of the world's population live in a "full democracy." More than a third live under authoritarian rule.

In the midst of this democratic decay, the United States, led by the Biden administration, is attempting to take action, hosting a Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9 and 10. The summit will virtually bring together governments from around the world to tackle issues like combatting authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting human rights.

Given the reality of domestic political challenges, the Biden administration should avoid any veneer of promoting democracy. Instead, the United States should present a humble face at the summit, looking to learn from other countries as much as it tries to set its own agenda. Rather than a formal presentation of country commitments, the summit should serve as an exchange of ideas to vexing democratic challenges in an increasingly complex global landscape.

The moment for the summit could not be more urgent. Democratic erosion has heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic as authoritarian leaning leaders have usurped executive powers and closed civic spaces. The pandemic has also exacerbated economic inequality. The World Bank predicted that in 2021, the richest 20 percent will recoup most of any losses suffered during the pandemic, while the poorest 20 percent on the income rung will continue to lose 5 percent of their income. Across the world, individuals, especially those from marginalized communities, are rightfully questioning whether their governments can deliver results and make their lives better.

The combination of increased authoritarian tendencies during the pandemic, unprecedented economic inequality and an unabated climate crisis means that protecting democracy could not be more relevant and important. Controversy, however, has emerged before the summit even begins.

Some are asking why the United States and all its political failures, leading to a democracy that the IDEA report defined as "backsliding," is even hosting a summit, rather than focusing on its own backyard. A liberal democracy index from the Swedish nonprofit organization V-Dem, which measures indicators like judicial independence and freedom of the press, found that 36 percent of all democratic backsliding in the last year occurred in the U.S. and its direct allies, seemingly contradicting claims that democratic erosion is led by authoritarian governments like China and Russia.

Others are wondering how authoritarian leaning countries like India, the Philippines and Poland even received invitations to the exclusive summit, calling into question whether the forum will be more optics than substance.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks
President Joe Biden delivers remarks to commemorate World AIDS Day at the White House. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Decaying democracy in the West, and a dubious invitee list do not mean that the summit is a waste of time or resources. The United States, especially led by a Biden administration that is explicitly committed to democratic ideals, still has the unprecedented opportunity to convene, and bring countries together. The reality, however, is that as governments, civil society and the private sector prepare to gather, restoring democracy itself will require creativity and ideas, as much as concrete governmental commitments. The fact that democracy is receding around the world gives credence to the notion that no single leader or country is at fault, but rather, challenging global trends have played an outsized role in its erosion.

There are no easy answers to solving a whole host of democracy challenges. Countries are struggling to counter misinformation and propaganda as social media continues to gain traction as a primary source of news distribution. Climate change and economic inequality has led to increasing levels of global migration, with governments challenged to define who is a citizen, and forced to combat often misplaced anti-immigrant sentiment, as evident in the worsening situation in Belarus. The surge of violent crime around the world has provoked a challenging conversation on the balance between preserving public safety and promoting ideals of justice. Exacerbated political polarization, occurring in countries as diverse as Chile and India, has effectively othered divergent political parties, making it difficult to engage in the practice of compromise so needed in democracies.

Certain governments, like Brazil, Belarus, Myanmar and Sudan, are undoubtedly looking to authoritarian rule as a way to avoid even grappling with these questions. But in such a complex and pivotal moment, there are no silver bullet solutions. Historically, the U.S. has played the role of democracy-promoter, in the summit and its aftermath, the U.S. should attempt to learn from how other countries throughout the world are attempting to promote democratic reform.

The German Marshall Fund's City Fortifying Democracy project provides an example as a method for an exchange of democratic ideas. Bringing together six American cities and six European cities, the initiative has explored how municipalities are engaging in key democratic challenges like promoting free and robust elections, supporting local journalism, balancing the concepts of justice and public safety and engaging citizens in city governance.

The project has not asserted specific policy solutions. Rather, the cities have learned from each other. The City of Frankfurt has formed a Foreigners Advisory Council, aiming to integrate the concerns and perspectives of non-citizen residents into political decisions. Amsterdam has lowered the voting age to 16 in local elections, attempting to expand the suffrage and give young people a voice. Seattle's Democracy Voucher program, which uses public funds to allow citizens to make campaign contributions, aims to curb the influence of money in politics.

The Summit for Democracy can use a similar model to learn from countries around the world, and not just in the West, who are employing effective innovations. Zambia recently held a peaceful election and successfully transferred power to the opposition party. Gambia has successfully increased civic space for protests, rather than clamping down. Ukraine engaged in a comprehensive process to reform its parliament, which has led to increasing efficiencies and participation from its citizens. In the midst of the pandemic, Finland and New Zealand made transparent and inclusive decisions about proceeding with elections that led to ultimate success.

Yes, democracy itself is at risk. But in cities around the world, citizens and governments are innovating and attempting to solve the vexing challenges of the moment. The Summit for Democracy can be a powerful, catalyzing event—if the U.S. sees itself as a learner and convener, rather than as a promoter.

Scott Warren is a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.