Nations holding their breath for democracy may suffocate. If the US is still the leader of the free world, its followers are dwindling, as several summits in November will show.
This month, Australia lines up, once again, alongside the US at the G20 meeting in Bali, the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, and at APEC in Bangkok. Next year, Prime Minister Albanese will visit fellow Quad member India, before hosting the all-democracy group whose unifying purpose appears to be to contain China inside an ‘arc of autocracy’. What hopes of success do they have?
President Biden held a Summit for Democracy in December 2021, and promised another, a year later. That’s now slipped to ‘the first half of 2023’, with no explanation. The gap year for democracy, 2022, has been renamed a ‘Year of Action’ by Washington, to ‘support democratic renewal around the world’.
The attack on the Capitol in January 2022 didn’t set a great example of democratic renewal. The recent hammer assault on Paul Pelosi didn’t either. But when the second virtual summit does happen, its aim will be the same, to ‘renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.’ Its three themes will be repeated: defending democracy against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and advancing respect for human rights.
Whose rights, is one question. Defending what against whom, and why, is another. Confronting and fighting is a third: what other ways are there?
Biden began his presidency saying he would make human rights and democracy his slogans. He now needs these worthy objectives to polish up his public image after the ‘defining moment’ of his mid-term election results. He will seek to show Republicans that he has foreign friends outside the US. But he may find that even under his Democrat administration, global support for democracy has fallen in a year.
Not all countries on Biden’s guest list for 2021 had achieved democracy. Hence the name, ‘Summit for Democracy’ not ‘Summit of Democracies’. In the view of University of Sydney politics Professor John Keane, the guest list was ‘cynically drawn up, bureaucratically crafted, agency-structured’ and included states that weren’t democracies at all.
The number of ‘electoral democracies’ in the world reached an all-time high in 2012, with 97 allowing voting for someone from a list of candidates. A decade on, their number has fallen to 89 countries. In the same period, ‘liberal democracies’ also fell, from 42 to 34. These are countries whose governments recognise and protect individual rights and freedoms, and where political power is limited by law. (Democracy – Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/less-democratic).
If attendance at the 2023 democracy summit falls, that could do Biden more reputational damage, and may explain the delay in holding it. Biden’s guests, each with their own problems, will have absorbed reports from the US of mass shootings, election fraud, civil division, judicial bias, gross inequality, right-wing extremism, and domestic terrorism. They know about American agencies which, covert or overt, were behind coups, assassinations, torture, and electoral intervention in their own countries. Some of their citizens grew rich from the proceeds. All are watching Biden, who may succeed him, and with what result.
Biden campaigned with the slogan ‘America is back’. That was a rerun of his earlier days as a Senator, when the US and world leadership were synonymous. The world has changed since then. The US has declined, China has risen, and Russia is doing in Ukraine what America has done for over a century – invading other countries – while China is not. But Biden seems not to understand that US hegemony is over. Now, rival states’ aspirations must be accommodated peaceably, for military confrontation between nuclear powers means total destruction.
But in Biden’s view, nothing’s changed: democracy must confront autocracy, as good confronts evil. His National Security Strategy in mid-October echoed Barack Obama’s vaunting of US exceptionalism. Again calling America the ‘indispensable nation’, Biden told the world it ‘needs US leadership’. Pointing to a Disney-ish vision of a brightly-lit, beacon-like United States, Biden fancifully saw American military power and the ‘international rules-based order’ still leading the world.
Putting the ‘war on terror’ behind him, Biden has repeatedly claimed that the US will defend democratic Taiwan against Communist China. His officials, aware of the consequences, keep backing away from that, from mentioning ‘democratic’ Ukraine, while knowing its Nazi history. But democracy is Biden’s weapon against terrorism, Communism, and authoritarianism. The greatest struggle, in his world-view, is between democracies and autocracies.
Neither Russia nor China is a democracy in US organisation Freedom House’s terms. Each nation has autocratic traditions, but both prioritise the central authority’s responsibility for the nation’s security and progress. The war in Ukraine, incited for years by the US, but launched by Russia in February 2022, is a proxy war of democratic NATO against ‘authoritarian’ Russia. Russia wants its former territories back: so does China. A war in the South China Sea, also long-planned, may be fought the same way, by the US, Japan, Australia, and even NATO, with Taiwan as their proxy.
Democracies’ record doesn’t inspire confidence. Hong Kong’s history as a democracy dates only from 1984, when the British allowed some reform, without ever granting full universal suffrage to the colony before the handover to China in 1997. Taiwan’s history as a US-style democracy is also short, with no direct presidential election being held until 1996. Professor Jeffrey Sachs says the real struggle for us all is to live together and overcome our common crises. But at a Democracy Forum in Athens, Sachs was pointing to Britain as the world’s most violent country in the 19th century, and to the US inheriting that distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries, when his (free) speech was shut down.
President Biden’s greatest mistake, said Sachs, was to claim that ‘the greatest struggle of the world is between democracies and autocracies. The real struggle of the world is to live together and overcome our common crises of environment and inequality.’ In that struggle, Australia plays a minor role, but we have abandoned diplomacy for militarism. This month’s events may show we’re on the losing side.