Democracy Summit — boon or bane? | By Sultan M Hali


Democracy Summit — boon or bane?

US President Joe Biden hosted a second Summit for Democracy on 29 and 30 March 2023, co-hosted by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Zambia and South Korea. The first Summit for Democracy was held on December 9-10, 2021. Prima facie this is an interesting programme but in a turbulent world, which is faced with major challenges owing to the worldwide pandemic COVID-19, global warming, economic meltdown, strife and conflict in numerous regions, perhaps hosting a summit on democracy, may not merit being discussed as a pressing issue. Simultaneously, the summit guest list has raised many questions — for example, the omissions and inclusions. NATO allies Hungary and Turkey were once again spurned along with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Russia and China; while Taiwan, not an independent country but considered a part of Mainland China, was invited for the second time to join the democracy summit at the cost of ignoring Beijing.

In his opening address to the 2023 Summit, President Joe Biden declared: “Democracy demands full and equal participation of all — all of our citizens. That’s how we unleash human potential and put ourselves in the strongest possible position to take on the shared challenges — and I emphasize ‘shared’ challenges.” The question arises, how can humanity be expected to tackle the shared challenges, when a very large population was not invited to join the debate. Predictably, the Russian Ambassador to the United States was highly critical of the advent of a second “Summit for Democracy”. Talking to “Newsweek”, Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, while talking to “Newsweek”, rejected the summit as an attempt by Washington to impose its interests worldwide even as the U.S. faces serious issues of its own at home. He stressed that the 2021 forum “was characterized as the epitome of hypocrisy even by a number of observers in the West.”

Ambassador Antonov put forward the rationale that the U.S. itself suffers from issues pertaining to racism, gun violence, corruption and social inequality. He questioned why approximately 40 million people are living below the poverty line in the richest country in the world; while the 50 wealthiest Americans are richer than half the U.S. population. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto had criticized the Summit for Democracy for having features of domestic politics of the US.

Another divergent view has been presented by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an intergovernmental organization that supports sustainable democracy worldwide. In its Global State of Democracy Report 2021, IDEA noted that the US has its own issues with democracy — because the United States — the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale. The European think-tank informed that the historic turning point came when Trump baselessly questioned the results of the 2020 elections, which culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on 6 January by supporters of the former President.

Similar pessimism on American democracy is reflected in a 2022 poll by the Harvard University Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. According to the poll, 52% of young people in the US believe that the country’s democracy is either “in trouble” or “failed.” Only 4% said that it is “healthy.” Commenting on the Democracy Summit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated that the White House event was “never a boon but a bane for the world”. Another report released in September 2022 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the US democracy is at a “dangerous inflection point” and the country faces a democratic setback.According to a Quinnipiac University Poll, 67 per cent of respondents believe that American democracy is in danger of collapse, and 48 per cent think there could be another Capitol riot in the US.

Democracy, which found its roots in ancient Greece, later found ardent followers in Europe, but was established on a sound footing in the U.S. It is heartening that America’s founding fathers, chose to appreciate scholars and leaders from different civilizations and eras, who contributed to giving the world a system of legislation, governance and rule of law. Although the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. displays friezes depicting “great lawgivers of history” like the famous Chinese scholar Confucius and the Last Prophet (PBUH), yet the standards of democracy in the U.S. have declined in the near past.

It is unfortunate that the systems of democracy in other states are not understood or appreciated. Take the example of China, which has evolved a system of democracy — most suitable to the Chinese nation. This form of democracy is time tested, has run the gamut of trials, errors and course corrections, and has resulted in propelling China from an impoverished nation to an economic giant and achieved its first centenary goal. In 2021, 100 years after the establishment of Communist Party of China, absolute poverty has been eradicated from China. By the centenary of the founding of China in 2049, China will have become a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and modern socialist country.” These are no mean achievements.Perhaps as a reaction to the Democracy Summit, China and Brazil have decided to ditch the US dollar as an intermediary and have reached a deal to trade in their own currencies. The agreement will enable China and Brazil to conduct their massive trade and financial transactions directly, exchanging yuan for reais and vice versa instead of going through the dollar.

In another related development, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not only parted ways with the U.S. but has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) along with erstwhile rival Iran. SCO is an economic and security bloc that counts China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members and a number of observers. Tehran was the most recent to be upgraded from observer to full member in September and Riyadh’s decision came just weeks after a China-brokered deal to resume Iran-Saudi diplomatic ties.

In a nutshell, instead of trying to shoe-horn one’s own brand of democracy on others, especially if it denies inclusiveness and only fuels international tensions. The Summit for Democracy in 2021 did not produce any “key deliverable since it drew criticism for its exclusion of nearly half of the world’s countries, creating divisions and drawing ideological lines. Nor did the event in 2023 as it left the world more divided and estranged than before, creating antagonism and trampling on the democratic spirit, leaving a toxic legacy despised by their targets.

Alternatively, Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out when he proposed the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) a day earlier, the practice of stoking divisions and confrontations in the name of democracy is in itself a violation of the spirit of democracy. GCI calls on countries to keep an open mind when perceiving countries with different cultures and political systems and to refrain from imposing their own values or models on others or stoking ideological confrontations. In other words, Xi commented, a single flower does not make spring, while one hundred flowers in full blossom bring spring to the garden. Rather than seeking to create divisions, countries should enhance their exchanges and interactions so as to tend the garden of the world so that it becomes more “colourful and vibrant”.

—The writer is a Retired Group Captain of PAF, who has written several books on China.

Email: [email protected]