Perspectives March 16, 2023
The Second Summit for Democracy Can Be a Stage for Democratic Revival
The 2021 Summit for Democracy was held as the world’s citizens suffered a lengthening democratic decline, but it also allowed participating governments to make clear goals and commitments in democracy’s defense. The 2023 meeting provides an opportunity to take stock of, and chart, their progress.
At the end of March 2023, the Biden administration will play cohost to a second Summit for Democracy along with its Costa Rican, Dutch, South Korean, and Zambian counterparts. The first Summit, held at the end of 2021, prompted tough questions: Could democracies continue to meaningfully deliver for their citizens at home? And critically, could a summit spur the world’s democracies into pushing back on authoritarian aggression abroad and reversing a years-long trend of democratic decline? The Biden administration deserves credit for attempting to meet the geopolitical moment through this unprecedented convening, though the impact of this process is still unclear. As we approach the second Summit, democratic governments should capitalize on the momentum of the last year and roll up their sleeves.
Responding to Russia’s invasion was the “Year of Action” the Summit needed
The 2021 Summit was held as the world’s citizens suffered 15 consecutive years of losses in rights and liberties. That year offered some bitter disappointments; the stalled transition to democracy in Myanmar ended with a coup d’état and Tunisia’s president embarked on a power grab. Countries that were developing or had long enjoyed democratic norms and institutions were hardly immune–after all, the United States was not a year past the shock of the January 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill. Against that troubling backdrop, over 100 participating countries—rated Free or Partly Free in our Freedom in the World index—were called on to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and respect human rights through concrete policy commitments at the first Summit and ensuing “Year of Action.”
In February 2022, within three months of the first Summit, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The world saw, in sharp relief, what the stakes of democratic complacency and unbridled authoritarianism really looked like: An authoritarian regime launched an unprovoked war of aggression against a vibrant democracy on its border. Many of the world’s democracies rallied in response by bolstering Ukraine’s defenses, providing vital humanitarian assistance, and helping document atrocities committed by Russian forces. The words “wake-up call” were uttered among policymakers and advocates in 2022, further reinforcing the opportunity that a Summit for Democracy provides to coordinate policy changes that can contain rampant authoritarian aggression. While the response to Russia’s full-scale invasion has seen a disappointing number of “fence-sitters” such as India, democratic nations have done much to shake off their complacency.
How to build on the momentum
The second Summit comes at a time of continued uncertainty. The democratic backslide documented in 2021 has continued; in our Freedom in the World 2023 report, we documented a 17th consecutive year of regression. But the tide is hopefully turning. The gap between the numbers of countries that improved and declined was the narrowest since this pattern emerged. And while Ukrainian victory is not guaranteed, Ukrainians themselves continue to muster a courageous and inspiring defense as the alliance backing Kyiv has largely maintained its resolve. The second Summit provides an opportunity for democracies to build on that hard-fought momentum and reverse the trend of the last near-two decades.
So how can participating leaders make the most of the second Summit? First, they should thoughtfully and transparently report on the promises they made the first time around. For example, many governments pledged to “promote human rights internationally” or “support free media.” But what actions did they take to do so? Governments must also be honest and humble when addressing their domestic performance; our 2023 findings show that 17 countries that participated in the first Summit saw net declines in freedom in 2022, while 15 improved. Peru, for example, was shaken by President Pedro Castillo’s failed self-coup and the deadly clashes that followed. Reflecting on our 2023 scores, many countries’ critical solidarity with Ukraine has not moved the needle domestically on much-needed democratic renewal. Much more work at home is needed.
Second, though it is not a requirement of the second Summit, democratic governments should use it to pledge additional commitments after consulting with civil society. Much work is needed, for example, to forcefully push back against transnational repression, a trend where autocrats target diaspora populations and exiles abroad. Autocrats have not hesitated to pursue targets residing in democratic nations, misusing diplomatic connections and Interpol to do so. Democracies can pledge to employ a variety of tools to repel this trend, including law enforcement, targeted legislation, and sanctions. Democratic governments could also pledge to do more to advocate for the release of political prisoners, who are held in inhumane conditions when they call for democracy and human rights in unfree settings.
Every day a Summit
While these Summits alone cannot be the decisive events that reverse the tide of resurgent authoritarianism, they do provide a staging ground for demonstrated commitment and coordination. Democratic governments should seize the moment this Summit offers to finally confront the issues that shaped 2022: corruption, war, the imperialist aggression of autocratic regimes, internal backsliding, and repression across borders. Democratic leaders should stop enabling or tolerating authoritarianism, build and rebuild their own institutions and norms, and support human rights defenders, whether or not there is a summit.
There are discussions of a third Summit for Democracy, possibly hosted by a civil society partner or another government besides Washington. Should it happen, participating governments will have another opportunity to demonstrate their progress. If they stall, they risk bolstering autocrats, who feel comfortable flouting laws and norms because of their democratic rivals’ perceived insincerity or ineffectiveness. Democrats can instead display the seriousness of their beliefs, build a track record of real action, and provide an unmistakable answer to those who offer repression as a cure for the world’s ills.