There’s a saying that good fences make good neighbours. However, if you’re rather short of cash to make those fences, you can always fall back on a strategy of reaching out to a big party in a kind of ‘Ashwamedha Yagya’, where a beautifully decorated horse was sent out in the name of the king. Those who accepted the horse proclaimed allegiance to the king; those who did not, simply killed it. That’s the most fitting analogy of the Summit of Democracies to be held virtually in Washington this week. The horse in this case is the idea of democracy, and its trappings are a little shoddy and worn out. But it still makes for an interesting event, anyway.
The Summit of Democracy
The ‘Summit of Democracy’ was announced in February this year, and arises from United States President Joe Biden’s campaign promises to strengthen democracy after his predecessor did everything he could to drag it down to the dust.
The event is to bring together not just governments, but also civil society and the private sector. The purported message is pretty powerful; to “showcase one of democracy’s unique strengths: the ability to acknowledge its imperfections and confront them openly and transparently…” and thereby strengthen the system. In other words, it is as different from the Chinese or Russian system as it could possibly be.
The objectives as defined are: ‘Defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights.’ The last will be immediately suspect, particularly as leaders are expected to announce ways to improve all three, even as ‘civil society’ will be represented in town halls and panels to express their views. Various sessions will discuss genuine problems such as protecting journalists, defending democracies against disinformation, and beating back corruption, which eats away at institutions. Another session is to empower civil society organisations. That’s all for the good. But if the intention is to give everyone lessons on how to improve democracy, it’s a very bad idea indeed, not to mention puzzling, when the list of invitees is viewed.
The list seems to have been put together by the relevant desks, depending on what the White House interests are prevailing at the moment. Therefore, Pakistan gets an invite prioritising its help on terror, but Bangladesh does not — though it is incomparably better run — particularly in terms of managing its economy and keeping down the jihadi elements.
Ukraine is invited as well as the Philippines, both of whom are riven by corruption and shifty governance. The largest numbers are from Europe (39) and the Western Hemisphere (27) followed by East Asia and Pacific (21). And here’s a special invitee. Taiwan. That’s got to make China see red.
The Middle East is virtually ignored since democracies are certainly short on the ground there. But Qatar with a ‘very high development’ index is probably better run than most democracies. Singapore, with a one-party system, is similarly not invited, despite being a staunch US ally, and having a standard of living that is the envy of others. It seems, therefore, that building a coalition on the basis of ideology alone is not going to deliver much if the objective is to present the world with the wonders of a democratic system. Pakistan’s ‘democracy’, for instance, is a threat to every one of its neighbours. It’s all very confusing since this is hardly a showcasing of the most democratic of them all.
Enthusiasm is low and likely to get lower
Given that everyone is similarly bemused, enthusiasm is not all that high in much of Asia. The Japanese press is less than complimentary, while South Korea isn’t actually cheering, besides being wary of joining any blatantly anti-China coalitions.
Thailand has not been invited, while ASEAN invitees like Indonesia and Malaysia are unlikely to be enthusiastic about pitting themselves against a major trade partner. Meanwhile, the expected criticism from China included party warnings that the democratic experiment was “doomed to fail”, while Xinhua called it “nothing short of a lousy ‘talk show’ of a democracy lecturer”. A joint Op-ed by the Ambassadors of China and Russia pointed out not unreasonably, that wars launched in the name of spreading democracy, “severely undermine regional and international peace, security, and stability”.
In addition, leading journals like Foreign Affairs and The New Yorker were asking America to look inwards, pointing to a significant lowering of democracy since Biden took charge, including legislation in nineteen states that makes it more difficult to vote and redrawing of constituencies that marginalise minorities.
Meanwhile, any reference to ‘democracy’ is enough to turn civil society very uncivil indeed. A research paper from a reputable think tank clubs India and Pakistan as ‘democratic backsliders’, which is as strange as it gets; another points out that US’ need to co-opt India against China has kept criticism of its treatment of minorities at a minimum, and therefore, defeats the purpose. The Financial Times clubs India with Poland for the erosion of democracy. Overall, the term ‘backsliders’ is catching on, particularly in the ‘civil society’ lexicon. One can only see New Delhi losing enthusiasm by the minute.
Reviving democracy as an objective
During his candidature, Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision had America’s leadership role in democracies as its bedrock. It wasn’t a bad idea. Democracy, however flawed, is still the best system there is. Given that China is rapidly proving that democracy is not needed as previously thought, for economic growth and development, it’s best to prop up the ‘democracy’ quotient as much as possible. No one can deny that democracy needs fixing, but the problem is that most will resent America for trying to set the agenda. Fewer still, will appreciate the role of ‘civil society’, who tend to sit in judgment of situations they have little understanding of. Worse, many of the 1.5 million NGOs in the US are involved in destabilising rather than improving a lot of those they champion. Groups like the ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) with huge funds and an impressive network need their activities curbed. And no, curbs are not undemocratic at all, when the ICNA or its allies like HHRD (Helping Hands for Relief and Development) from working with the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Jamaat-e-Islami. So if the idea is to serve up democracy as a unifying glue, make sure your think tanks and NGOs are not working against you.
Recently, a RAND paper pointed out practical ways to deal with the ‘competition’ with China, keeping in mind not just US interests, but its limitations. Warning that while the risks of competing with China were less than not competing with it, the main thrust of its recommendations was on building international coalitions or alliances in formulating strategies to counter China, and using “all elements of national power”.
One of these elements is certainly US democracy, which still stands tall despite severe setbacks. After all, the average bright-eyed youth would rather be in the US, than in China no matter how glossy its cities. But that’s the thing. Critics say a democracy summit is not suitable, where the competition is hardly ideological. But it’s made China see red, especially since it can’t retaliate in kind. And that’s something.
India, as a noisy democracy, should welcome this, but also introspect and build on its traditions of a ‘just king’ accountable to his people that is so inherent to all our epics. We have drifted a long way from that ideal, but it could be diplomatically and strategically expedient to offer a new vision of democracy based on Dharma and the practical guidance of the Bhagavad Gita. It is true that this may not be an immediate moment in limiting a rampaging China. But it will certainly help in powering up the latent strength of this country, which in turn will make Beijing pause. Unity in diversity is not just a catchphrase. It translates into strength when you want to get muscular. Besides, such an exercise, at the very least, will provide diplomats with good talking points at the next democracy summit next year. Backslider or not, at least get the conversation going.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)