Countries at the global democracy summit take the first step — admit there's a problem

This week's U.S.-hosted Summit for Democracy was light on triumphalist chest-beating from what was once referred to as the free world. It was sober, with some scared-sounding observations about threats to political freedom — abroad and at home.

3-day gathering in Washington resembled therapy session about democracy in retreat

U.S. President Joe Biden convened a three-day virtual summit this week with leaders from democratic nations, during which he acknowledged challenges mounting abroad and at home. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In advance of this week's Summit for Democracy, some analyst commentary might have led one to believe we were in for a round of triumphalist chest-beating by what was once referred to as the free world.

This wasn't that.

The gathering of over 100 countries, NGOs and businesses, hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, was light on boosterism and bragging about the state of affairs in said free world.

Instead it was sober and sounded scared. Like an international therapy session.

From beginning to end, a running theme of the three-day affair was that democracies are playing defence, that autocracies are on the advance, and free societies are perilously divided, starting with the very country hosting the virtual summit.

A moderator on the first day summed it up with a bleak metaphor.

Even as the summit was going on, news headlines about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and other events after the last U.S. election underscored the threats to U.S. democracy. (Reuters)

"Maybe this alliance needs to be a bit more like a support group of Alcoholics Anonymous," said Rebecca MacKinnon, vice-president of the Wikimedia Foundation.

"[One] where everybody's admitting their failings and tries to help each other get better." 

Biden also summed up the challenges in his opening speech.

"In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time," he said. "Democracy doesn't happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation. And this is an urgent matter on all our parts in my view."

He said the data points in the wrong direction: the organization Freedom House shows 15 straight years of decline in global freedom, and the international Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) says more than half of democracies have seen a decline in at least one aspect of their democracy in the last 10 years.

Furthermore, Pew polls in more than a dozen countries say a majority of citizens want major changes or total reform. In fact, respondents in some nations say the solution is more democracy; that they don't trust their politicians, and want more power for citizen assemblies. 

The U.S. promised more than $400 million for a variety of global initiatives. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Meanwhile, China is promoting its own system as an alternative, saying it guarantees stability better than the messy affair of competitive party elections.

Beijing was not invited to the summit and instead released a document describing its own system as an alternative form of democracy.

It glossed over the fact that China lacks the basic elements of a democracy like free elections, free political parties, free media and a free judiciary. 

Where Canada stands

So where does Canada fit in?

On the whole, it receives high marks: fifth place worldwide in the Economist's Democracy Index, a 98 per cent score from Freedom House and general praise from IDEA.

Where it falls short, according to Freedom House, is on Quebec's religious-clothing law and the state of Indigenous communities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the summit. Canada generally gets high grades from international democracy organizations, with some exceptions. One is government's control over parliamentarians. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

IDEA faults Canada for relatively weak checks on the power of the government, saying Canada has suffered a persistent decline in the quality and effectiveness of Parliament.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a closed-door session of the summit and promoted a few of his government's initiatives.

They including a past plan to fight election meddling and a future plan to create a centre to support democracy.

There are also funding commitments — $5 million for the UN Human Rights commission; $1 million each to the Global Equality Fund supporting LGBTQ people, the International Religious Freedom Fund, and a global civil-society protection fund; $3 million for future technology projects that help democratic initiatives; and for a 2022 international anti-corruption meeting.

What the U.S. brought to the summit

The U.S., meanwhile, committed $424 million US for a range of initiatives from supporting independent media to open internet to election security.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also touted a recently passed law that forces new reporting requirements on shell companies based in the U.S.

She said it could help smoke out corrupt foreign officials using U.S. companies and property to launder money stolen from their people.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said new money-laundering rules in the U.S. will help hunt down autocrats' illicit funds. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

A speaker from Ukraine at Yellen's event addressed one elephant in the room: the buildup of Russian troops next to her country.

Daria Kaleniuk said her country is bracing for war. And she said it's because the ruler next door, Vladimir Putin, sees Ukraine's open government as a threat to his own kleptocracy and wants it gone from his region.

"Corruption kills," said Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Action Centre.

"[Putin is doing this] in order to protect his right to steal and rob the Russian people."

There were other elephants looming closer to home for the Washington summit-organizers.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law warned participant countries they're not doing enough to preserve freedom. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

This week as it hosted the event, the U.S. witnessed the latest eye-popping stories about threats to its own republic, which have seen the country slide in global democracy rankings.

There were new stories about threats to election workers after the 2020 election; new details about the Trump White House plans to cancel the result; new statements from midterm candidates backed by Donald Trump saying certifying Biden's 2020 win was a mistake.

Some of the speakers Friday talked about what happens when democracies die. 

One, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of the International Peace Institute, cited an adage about the end of political freedom leading to a more brutal world: "It's all fun and games until they knock on the door," he said.

Another speaker spoke from experience. 

Nathan Law described being jailed and removed from the legislature of Hong Kong, which has seen its freedoms diluted by Beijing.

The former lawmaker said democratic backsliding isn't an abstract concept to him but a personal painful story. "I've lived through it."

As for the audience listening in the West, he said Chinese authoritarianism is creeping into the free world, in business and entertainment, as industries doing business in China recoil from commenting on its abuses.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the free world lacks the determination to co-ordinate a pushback."

Maybe participants will have a happier story to tell next year. Biden has invited countries back for another event to report on their progress.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump fight with members of law enforcement as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Leah Millis/Reuters)


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.


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