12 December 2021   2 comments

US President Biden kicked off a two-day “Summit for Democracy” on 9 December. The conference was designed to showcase democratic rule as a counterpoint to the authoritarian states such as China and Russia. But it also highlighted the trend toward anti-democratic sentiments in the US which have been developing since 2000 as President Biden acknowledged: “Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort.” The long-term trend away from liberal democracy was summarized by Freedom House:

“The impact of the long-term democratic decline has become increasingly global in nature, broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruelest dictatorships, as well as by citizens of long-standing democracies. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year. The ongoing decline has given rise to claims of democracy’s inherent inferiority. Proponents of this idea include official Chinese and Russian commentators seeking to strengthen their international influence while escaping accountability for abuses, as well as antidemocratic actors within democratic states who see an opportunity to consolidate power. They are both cheering the breakdown of democracy and exacerbating it, pitting themselves against the brave groups and individuals who have set out to reverse the damage.”

The US commitment to liberal democracy has always been compromised by perceived imperatives imposed on the US by balance of power considerations. Thus, for example, the US found itself during the Cold War with the Soviet Union supporting authoritarian dictators such as Somoza in Nicaragua or Diem in South Vietnam in order to forestall totalitarian rule by surrogates of the USSR. The perceived distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes was popularized by Jeanne Kirkpatrick in 1979 in an essay entitled “Dictatorships and Double Standards“. But the most dramatic erosion of the US commitment to liberal democracy began after the attacks on 11 September 2001 and the misbegotten “Global War of Terrorism”. The US passed the Patriot Act which circumscribed individual liberties, engaged in torture to secure information from combatants, and ignored fundamental tenets of international law to overthrow governments it found unacceptable (the overthrow of the Iraqi government in 2003 ranks among the most profound diplomatic errors of all time).

Finally, the Trump Administration shredded America’s role as a defender of liberal democracy in the eyes of many in the world. Paul Pillar describes the damage done:

“What has to be considered the most glaring issue as President Joe Biden calls the summit meeting to order is that the convening nation is seeing its own democracy badly deteriorating. Among other deficiencies in the American political system, one of the two major political parties in the United States doesn’t believe in democracy anymore. For some time it has been trying to suppress citizens’ exercise of their right to vote. Now it is turning its back on one of the central tenets of democracy, which is respect for the outcome of free elections. The party is led by a defeated ex-president who still rejects the outcome of the most recent national election, making fraudulent claims of fraud. Most of the party’s representatives in the lower house of the national legislature voted to reject that outcome as well.

“The sad state of American democracy is partly reflected in the Freedom House scorecard, where the United States ranks behind sixty-nine other countries on political rights. In other words, it barely makes it into the top third, on a list that includes not only every sovereign state in the world but also some disputed territories such as Crimea and the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the trajectory of American democracy is grim, with multiple developments especially since Trump came into power being the sort of warning flags that mark a democracy that is dying.”

In response to Biden’s Summit, the Chinese have insisted on an alternative definition of democracy which is hardly based on liberal principles, but probably deserves careful attention. Writing for The Diplomat, Brian Wong gives a good summary of the Chinese position. But many disagree, notably Simon Tisdall writing for The Guardian:

“It’s difficult to regard Xi – with his unassailable dictatorial powers, his techno-fascist surveillance state that stifles dissent and oppresses minorities, and his aggressively expansionist foreign policy – as anything other than a totalitarian control freak with imperial fantasies.

“Empires, especially Britain’s, get a bad press nowadays. Their close association with colonialism, racism, slavery and other evils is reason enough. But the assumption that such abuses have been banished ignores what is happening in today’s world, right under our noses.

“Imperialism, in all its awful forms, still poses a threat. But it is no longer the imperialism of the west, rightly execrated and self-condemned. Today’s threat emanates from the east. Just as objectionable, and potentially more dangerous, it’s the prospect of a totalitarian 21st-century Chinese global empire.”

One can hope that President Biden can restore the US commitment to democracy, but, reviewing current politics in the US, it is difficult to imagine how he may be able to do so. Particularly since the American people seem willing to elect legislators who have no commitment to the ideas of liberal democracy.

Posted December 12, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 responses to “12 December 2021

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  1. “US President Trump kicked off a two-day Summit for Democracy on 9 December.”????

    As far as I know that asshole is still slumming it in the Florida swamps… Typo perhaps?


  2. I did make a mistake in the initial post. Fortunately, people quickly brought it to my attention and I changed President Trump to President Biden in the first sentence. Apparently you got the uncorrected version. My apologies.


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