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Neither China nor Hungary, but Pakistan: the US holds its first ‘Summit for Democracy’

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A summit of 109 countries will be invited to sign a set of pledges on combating corruption, opposing authoritarianism, and promoting human rights.

Joe Biden, the president of the United States, promised to rekindle democratic impulses in his country and around the world. Take care of institutions, freedom, and fundamental rights in the face of populism and countries like China and Russia. This is the official mission with which his government will virtually host the Summit for Democracy this Thursday and Friday: a gathering of 109 countries who will be invited to sign a series of non-binding commitments in three categories: anti-corruption, anti-authoritarianism, and promotion of human rights. A meeting, though, that raises three concerns.

The first is that the selection of the guests does not appear to adhere to democratic norms. Among the 109 nations are Pakistan and the Philippines, both of which have been accused by the State Department, the summit’s organizer, of carrying out “illegal and arbitrary killings,” among other human rights breaches. Hungary, on the other hand, has not cleared the cut despite being a NATO and European Union member and not engaging in extrajudicial executions, “human trafficking,” or “severe restrictions on religious freedom,” as Pakistan has. And it’s been painful.

The government of the authoritarian Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, has said that it is a “disrespectful” gesture and a penalty for his sympathy for the former American president, Donald Trump. “Hungarian-American relations were at their peak during the Trump presidency, and it is clear from the list of the invited countries that the summit will be a domestic political event,” the Hungarian Embassy told ‘The Washington Post‘ In U.S.A. 

“Therefore countries that were on friendly terms with the previous administration were not invited.”

Asked about these contradictions regarding the democratic credentials of the attendees, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not clarify what the selection criteria had been. 

“I understand, of course, the interest in the invite list, but it’s not meant to be, again, a stamp of approval or disapproval — it’s just meant to have a diverse range of voices and faces and representatives at the discussion,” she said in reference to the invited countries.

Other selections have aroused concerns: Poland, which has a similar tilt to Hungary in its harassment of the judiciary and journalistic freedom, will vote. Despite friction with authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey, a NATO member and a longstanding US ally, is not on the list, but Brazil is, and its leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has not stopped hinting about his ambition to stay in office.

Meanwhile, China, the power that Washington has in mind when it talks about the advancement of authoritarian models in the world, has responded that it is also a democracy. 

Despite the fact that there is only one legal party, democratic protests are repressed with violence and jail and the State exercises the information monopoly, censors the internet and systematically violates human rights in regions such as Xinjiang, its State Council declared that “there is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms,” and China is a “Democracy that works”.

Another reason China would be upset is that the United States has also invited Taiwan – the island nation that Beijing considers part of its territory and therefore does not tolerate other countries treating it as an independent entity. The Pentagon’s strategic calculations say that China will invade Taiwan within five to six years, with a chance of success.

The second reason the summit raises questions is that its host, the United States, may not be at the best time to give lessons on governance, the rule of law and transparency. The year 2021 began with an assault on the Capitol by a mob encouraged by a president who still refuses to accept defeat, wrapping himself in the squid ink of lies and conspiracy theories.

Last summer, the White House withdrew in a bloody and disorderly manner its troops from Afghanistan, a country in which 20 years of war have practically only served to return to the beginning: to the fundamentalist regime of the Taliban. A difficult stain to erase on the honor and morale of the United States, incapable, for decades, of finishing the missions it begins.

The world perceives these and other problems: growing inequality, lousy or very expensive health coverage, the practically secret and unlimited financing of political parties and polarization that poisons everything, including the vaccination campaign or the use of a mask against the covid. As we said a few days ago, only 17% of those surveyed in industrialized countries believe that American democracy “is an example to follow”. Numbers light years away from the reputation Americans used to enjoy.

The third reason that generates misgivings is that the summit does not have binding mechanisms, which, together with the questionable democratic credentials of some of the attendees, invites suspicion and mistrust. Conservative voices, such as diplomat Elliott Abrams in a Heritage Foundation debate, have declared that this is a public relations operation for Biden. Lots of good-sounding words with nothing underneath to sustain them.

At the same time, as the proponents of the initiative argue, we would be at the right time to start a debate and do so with the muscle that can only be put on by the State Department, which had, until 2019, the largest diplomatic corps in the world: the which had more positions (until it was overtaken by … China). 2021 will be settled with a history of six coups d’état, for example, that of Sudan or Myanmar, and with a general decline in democratic sympathies in the world: the highest in 25 years, according to a study by the University of Cambridge.

Regarding the moral authority of the United States, it was never a perfect country, which did not prevent it from fighting effectively, at times, for its moral flags. It did, according to veteran diplomat Daniel Fried, in World War II. 

“We were worse off in 1945. We had legal segregation in this country. Does that mean we shouldn’t have supported democracy in Europe because we had flaws?,” Said Fried, a former US Secretary of State for European Affairs, during a debate on Al Jazeera about the summit.

Scholars James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson write in Politico that the summit may end up being a “self-inflicted wound,” but it can also be saved. They recommend including civil society personalities from these countries, openly criticizing the abuses that are committed in them and using the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, which is held next June, to review to what extent it has been tried to keep promises made this week.

The US government has tried not to be too specific about the details of the meeting. In the words of the spokesperson, Jen Psaki: “You’re always trying to make yourself better, to lead better, to push other countries to be better, and this is an opportunity to do exactly that,” she stated. “I understand, of course, the interest in the invite list, but it’s not meant to be, again, a stamp of approval or disapproval — it’s just meant to have a diverse range of voices and faces and representatives at the discussion”.

Image Credit: Getty

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