It’s a difficult time for democracy. China, under the increasingly autocratic rule of Xi Jinping, has positioned itself as the leading rival to the democratic United States for global influence. Russia continues its brutal war against Ukraine. Many nations are backsliding in their support for freedom and human rights.
But there are also reasons to be hopeful. Most of the world has rallied against Russia’s aggression, and the Ukrainians’ brave resistance reminds us that democracy is worth fighting for. Dozens of countries have strengthened their democratic institutions, according to Freedom House, a research and advocacy group. Governments lifted pandemic-related restrictions on freedom of assembly, and there were freer and fairer elections in Africa and South America.
A recent summit hosted by the United States and four other nations – Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia – highlighted the promise and challenges of democracy. It brought together leaders of more than 100 nations for virtual sessions focused on pillars of democracy, such as independent media, human rights, free and transparent elections and more.
President Joe Biden emphasized the positive, declaring that, while the world is at an inflection point, nations are “turning the tide” and reforms are working. He singled out Angola for its effort to build an independent judiciary and the Dominican Republic and Croatia for anti-corruption initiatives.
Importantly, there were concrete actions. Biden committed to providing $690 million to fight corruption, support free elections and advance technologies that support democracy. The U.S. joined other nations in an agreement to oppose cyberattacks and the misuse of commercial spyware. Biden signed an executive order rejecting government use of technologies that target journalists and human rights activists.
But while some nations have made progress, Freedom House says that global democracy has been in overall decline for 17 years. And some important participants in the democracy summit are facing questions about their commitment to democratic values and processes. Israel, a key U.S. ally, was racked by protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to weaken the judiciary. In India, an opposition leader was jailed for defaming the president. In France, there has been widespread outrage over the president’s action to raise the retirement age. Mexico is weakening an elections oversight agency.
And there was not much consensus, among nations involved in the summit, on what a commitment to democracy should look like. For example, a declaration of principles supporting fair and free elections and criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was initially endorsed by fewer than 75 participating countries.
There have also been signs that American democracy may not be as robust as we’d like to think. Many of Donald Trump’s followers joined him in rejecting the outcome of the 2020 election. The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol threatened a cornerstone of democracy, the orderly transition of power. Skeptics might suggest we should clean up our own house before lecturing others.
But working with other nations to strengthen democracy should be a key part of America’s role in the world. Biden called for organizing global democracy summits when he campaigned for the presidency, and the first took place in late 2021. For the second, last month, hosting was broadened to include more countries. The summit was timely and encouraging, but challenges remain.
Biden rightly said that democracy is “hard work” and it “must be protected constantly.” Both are unquestionably true. The United States was created as a radical and optimistic experiment in representative democracy, and our history shows that it has been a great success. But will democracy continue to thrive, in the U.S. and globally? There are no guarantees that it will.