Authors: Dr. Kristian Alexander and Dr. Mohammad Farid Azzi*
On Wednesday, March 29, 2023 the Summit for Democracy’s five co-hosts — the United States, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, and Zambia — officially kicked off the Summit, with each co-host leader hosting a live, fully virtual, thematic, Leader-level plenary session.
The main topics discussed at the Summit for Democracy 2023 was the role of youth in democratic systems, media freedom as a cornerstone of democracy, the fight against corruption, and bolstering free and fair elections.
The Summit for Democracy is a gathering of leaders from around the world to discuss and promote democratic values and practices. The idea for the summit was first announced by US President Joe Biden in his 2021 speech to the Munich Security Conference, where he called for a “global summit for democracy” to be held in 2021. The inaugural Summit for Democracy took place virtually on December 9-10, 2021, and was hosted by the United States.
This year’s summit brought together leaders from over 100 countries, civil society organizations, and the private sector to discuss and commit to actions aimed at strengthening democracy, promoting human rights, combating corruption, and countering authoritarianism.
The summit provided a platform for leaders to share their experiences and best practices in promoting and defending democratic values and institutions, and to explore ways to strengthen democracy around the world.
The summit recognized the powerful role that technology can play in both advancing and undermining democracy. Participants discussed ways to harness technology for democratic purposes, such as improving transparency and accountability, while also addressing the risks posed by disinformation and other forms of online manipulation. Overall, the Summit for Democracy emphasized the importance of shared values and collective action in defending and strengthening democracy.
However, challenges facing democracy are significant, and participants specifically expressed concerns over democratic backsliding, the creeping influence of populism and group polarization.
Democratic backsliding refers to a situation where a country that had previously made progress towards democratic governance begins to erode its democratic institutions, practices, and values. This erosion can take many forms, including restrictions on the media, curtailment of civil liberties, weakening of the rule of law, politicization of the judiciary, manipulation of elections, and concentration of power in the hands of a single person or group.
Democratic backsliding can occur for a variety of reasons, including the rise of populist leaders who prioritize their own power and interests over those of the broader public, the inability of political leaders to address major challenges such as economic inequality or security threats, and external influences such as external groups and actors seeking to undermine democracy in other countries.
Populism has emerged as a major trend in many democratic countries in recent years. Populist leaders often appeal to the fears and frustrations of the people, and offer simple solutions to complex problems. This has led to the rise of leaders who are non-responsive to societies’ needs, and who have been accused of undermining democratic institutions.
Many democracies are experiencing increasing levels of polarization between different political groups. This is often fueled by social media and the internet, which make it easier for people to form echo chambers and reinforce their existing beliefs. This can make it harder for political leaders to find common ground and work together to address the challenges facing their countries
Overall, while the Summit for Democracy received support from many quarters, it also faced criticism for its approach and its limitations.
Critics argue that efforts to promote and defend democracy must be more inclusive, collaborative, and focused on addressing the root causes of democratic challenges.
Some countries and commentators criticized the summit for being exclusive, arguing that it was organized by the United States and attended primarily by countries that share its values. Furthermore, it is suggested that the United States, as the host (co-host) of the summit, is hypocritical in its calls for democracy promotion given its own history of interference in the politics of other countries and its own challenges with democratic governance.
Some observers also claim that the summit failed to engage with countries that have different political systems or that have faced challenges to their democratic institutions and that the summit was primarily a symbolic gesture rather than a substantive effort to address the challenges facing democracy.
Several civil society organizations and democracy advocates criticized the summit for not including enough voices from outside government and civil society, such as youth activists and marginalized groups. These groups are often at the forefront of efforts to defend and promote democracy and should have had a more prominent role in the summit.
The Summit for Democracy is primarily focused on promoting and strengthening democratic institutions and values. As such, the summit is designed for democratic countries and does not include non-democracies. However, it is important to note that the exclusion of non-democracies does not mean that the summit is intended to isolate or antagonize them. Ultimately, the goal of the summit is to create a stronger, more resilient global community of democracies that can work together to promote the values of human rights and dignity as well as work and respectfully interact with other forms of political systems.
Dr. Mohammad Farid Azzi is a Senior Fellow at the Global Barometer Department at TRENDS Research and Advisory, Abu Dhabi.