International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman; Phil Roeder
World News /11 Oct 2020
10.11.20

We Need Biden’s Summit of Democracies

COVID-19 could have been a moment for democracies around the world to cooperate. Instead, international cooperation collapsed. Allies fought over basic medical supplies. Success in New Zealand and South Korea has not been replicated. Ten months into the pandemic, across the world, the countries which have most fallen short are democracies. Unfortunately, this failure of democracies to stand together to face common problems has been all too frequent over the last decade.

Freedom is in retreat. Authoritarianism, nationalism, and kleptocracy are on the march. Even well-established democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom, and India have seen their commitments to openness, free expression, and the rule of law challenged. Meanwhile, autocratic regimes have engaged in new acts of repression, from mass internment and cultural genocide of Uyghur Muslims in China to crackdowns on peaceful protestors in Belarus. Arresting this change needs to be a core part of U.S. foreign policy in the next administration.

Our leaders need to prove that free, democratic values can still address the world’s problems—that common values can create common solutions. A summit of democracies, as former Vice-President Biden proposed in his March article in Foreign Affairs, is the way forward. As Biden describes, countries can commit to ways to both reinforce their own democratic institutions and agree on the best approaches to confronting backsliding or authoritarian states. The summit should issue a common set of principles on transnational issues like refugees and migration, globalization, terrorism, and climate change. A model would be the Helsinki Final Act, which tied Cold War-era security in Europe to common principles of governance and cooperation.

It is true that a single summit will not solve the challenges facing democracies. Serious differences in policy will likely remain, and not all states will uphold their commitments. Still, getting the leaders of the free world in one place, and working on a united agenda, would be a powerful, reinvigorating symbol. It could set the agenda in other international institutions, like the UN or the OSCE. And in some areas which are ripe for collaboration, a single summit could make a big difference.

One such area is combating foreign election interference. Democracies can share intelligence about foreign attempts to subvert electoral processes. They can share best practices in elections administration and cybersecurity. They can also agree on joint approaches to punishing states that engage in illegal election interference.

Another area where democracies can find common ground is in anti-corruption and anti-tax evasion efforts. Agreements to share information between financial regulators and tax authorities would help restore public trust in democratic institutions. Democracies could agree to close gaps between national laws that encourage tax dodgers to seek out countries with the least regulation. New anti-corruption standards would expose authoritarian leaders who use financial institutions in democratic countries to hide money stolen from their people.

Authoritarians and kleptocrats thrive on division and competition. Democracies get their strength from cooperation and collaboration. Within countries when people are able to trust each other, engage in public debate together, and act together, democracy thrives. When trust breaks down, and division and suspicion takes root, democracy falters. The same is true on the world stage. The next U.S. administration needs to rebuild that trust and counter the division. A summit of democracies is the first step towards a new global recovery for freedom.