The Biden Administration’s recent Summit for Democracy should be regarded as a modest success, fulfilling a campaign promise by President Joe Biden and decisively reversing course after four years of democratic backsliding and warm US relations with autocrats under President Donald J. Trump. As a statement of purpose by the administration, the summit certainly had its effect: it was a clarion call to action by the world’s leading democracy in the face of what Freedom House notes is the 15th straight year of decline in global democracy, and it pointed the way toward some practical strategies to combat the rise of international authoritarianism.
The international event also succeeded in getting under the skin of Russia and China, the two main adversaries the summit was intended to confront. The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement decrying the summit and criticizing failures of democracy in the West. China blasted it as a “joke,” while simultaneously launching a feverish propaganda offensive centered on the idea that China itself was a highly evolved democracy of a purer sort. The ambassadors to the United States from both countries collaborated on a rare joint opinion piece for The National Interest denouncing the summit as the product of a “Cold-War mentality” that can only “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world.” These reactions are a telling reminder of the extent to which authoritarian states, for all their criticism of western democracy, nevertheless regard it as a touchstone of international legitimacy.
If observers were to search for examples of how the summit drew attention to the freedom deficit and sundry human rights violations in the Middle East, however, they would search in vain.
If observers were to search for examples of how the summit drew attention to the freedom deficit and sundry human rights violations in the Middle East, however, they would search in vain. Only two countries from the region—Israel and Iraq, both highly flawed democracies—were invited to attend. Key US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, all repressive regimes, were understandably left out, but it was noteworthy that they were hardly mentioned by participants, including the United States.
This may make some sense in light of the summit’s purpose: to shore up democracy where it already exists and demonstrate democracy’s superiority as an engine of economic and political progress. It was not intended, by and large, to single out individual countries for well-deserved criticism. But by failing to engage on an area of the world that Freedom House ranks as the least free on earth, the summit failed to stand up for democracy where it is most needed.
What Did the Summit Accomplish?
Convened virtually by the Biden Administration during December 9-10, with preliminary events on December 8, the Summit for Democracy included more than 100 countries and focused on the “challenges and opportunities” facing democracies. It centered on three major themes: defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. Plenary sessions discussed technology and digital authoritarianism, the role of the private sector in bolstering democracy, supporting human rights defenders, the role of women, anti-corruption measures, and other issues. The meeting was the first of two proposed summits, with the second expected to take place in person in late 2022 or early 2023. In the interval between the two meetings, all summit participants are expected to “make meaningful public commitments” to advance democracy, human rights, and anti-corruption measures domestically and internationally.
Among the summit deliverables was a commitment by the United States to launch a new Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which includes $424.4 million toward domestic US efforts to build democratic resilience domestically and overseas; $30 million for the International Fund for Public Interest Media to support free and independent media; $33.5 million toward a leadership initiative for women and girls; and $5 million for the Global LGBTQI+ Inclusive Democracy and Empowerment Fund. The State Department also announced a new US “Strategy on Countering Corruption,” which, among other things, involves the appointment of a State Department coordinator for global anti-corruption efforts.
Few Voices from The Middle East
While those attending heard a broad range of opinions from Europe, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, voices from the Middle East were few and far between. The formal program included only two—the Jordanian Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, speaking in his capacity as president and CEO of the International Peace Institute, and Mohamed Zaree, Egypt director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Zaree was the only Egyptian and the only Arab human rights defender to participate in the summit; it was remarkable that he could participate at all, as he is subject to a travel ban and an assets freeze by the Egyptian government because of his work. Other Arab participants would surely have been a welcome addition, especially in the December 8 “Day Zero” panel on political prisoners. Egypt alone holds more than 60,000 such individuals, and Middle East governments in general have locked up opponents at such an alarming rate that the practice has become a regional epidemic with serious social and political consequences. But the summit missed a chance to focus attention on the problem and consider solutions.
The issue of political prisoners has become a regional epidemic with serious social and political consequences. But the summit missed a chance to focus attention on the problem and consider solutions.
The attending countries neglected the Middle East in another important way: the high-level commitments they made to defend democracy and human rights were vague and generally failed to address many of the chief abuses Middle Eastern governments inflicted on their own citizens. These include maltreatment and torture in jails and prisons, forced disappearances, abuse of anti-terror laws to threaten and incarcerate political opponents, intimidation of activists and regime opponents overseas, and a general disrespect for the rule of law.
Did Washington Keep the Middle East off the Agenda?
The tendency of the Biden Administration to seek accommodation with friendly tyrants in the Middle East likely had a lot to do with this glaring gap in the summit’s planning. Biden notably had refused to sanction Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite promising on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” The administration proceeded with significant arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, notwithstanding earlier misgivings and promises to review all arms sales to the two countries.
The tendency of the Biden Administration to seek accommodation with friendly tyrants in the Middle East likely had a lot to do with this glaring gap in the summit’s planning.
Egypt, however, seemed to earn special favor from Washington, despite its worsening human rights record. In September, the State Department released most of a tranche of $300 million in military aid to Egypt that was subject to human rights conditions, while imposing limited conditions on the remainder. The administration also went ahead as planned with a high-level US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue in November, during which Cairo’s government-imposed “national human rights strategy” was praised. In addition, Washington went along with (and probably instigated) the choice of Egypt to host the UN climate meeting COP27 in 2022, which neither the government’s climate record nor its human rights policies justified.
The moves by the Biden Administration were acts of legitimization that signaled the United States’ focus on business as usual with friendly authoritarian regimes in the region.
All of these moves by the Biden Administration were acts of legitimization that signaled the United States’ focus on business as usual with friendly authoritarian regimes in the region. It was not much of a surprise, then, that when Washington organized the Summit for Democracy, the meeting eventually sidestepped the thorny issues raised by America’s problematic Middle East allies—although they were not invited to the party.
Improving the Summit, Supporting Middle East Human Rights
The summit’s ultimate success or failure as an effective defender of democracy will be judged not by the strength of its rhetoric, but by the strength of the commitments, policies, and programs that emerge from it over the course of the next year. A number of measures should be considered to magnify its impact and sustainability. Each of these general recommendations also has specific utility in terms of creating conditions for progress in the Middle East. They are as follows:
- Instead of a two-session event, the summit should become an annual meeting in which progress could be reviewed and commitments gauged. Chairmanship could rotate among democracies to create stronger buy-in from participants and more sustained focus on the issues. The summit cannot be ignored or waited out by autocrats if it is not going away.
- The role of civil society should be strengthened. Instead of depending on governments to include civil society organizations (CSOs) “in a meaningful and collaborative manner,” as this year’s summit did, civil society should be involved at every stage of planning and executing the agenda and take a more prominent role in the plenary meetings. This is particularly helpful for CSOs in the Arab region, where they remain under siege by their own governments. Organizers should take a page from the Bush-era Forum for the Future, part of the George W. Bush Administration’s broader Middle East and North Africa agenda, which included CSOs in meetings with counterparts from their own governments and provided an opportunity to argue and exchange views in the presence of international observers.
- More attention must be paid to the direct linkage between arms sales, foreign aid, and the persistence of autocracy. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where massive and largely unchecked arms sales by the United States and Europe have played a major role in strengthening undemocratic and repressive rule. Likewise, aid programs conducted in coordination with governments, in addition to being expensive and bureaucratic, tend to reinforce those governments’ priorities; more effort should be made to diversify on-the-ground partners, including local communities. A summit that includes NGOs that focus on development would be well placed to examine this in detail.
- Regional democracy and human rights fora should be organized in between and leading up to summits, in which CSOs from various regions develop their own agendas to highlight the democracy deficit and human rights issues in their regions and to propose solutions. In the Middle East, for example, attention might be focused on political prisoners and the lack of due process. These regional fora would report findings and recommendations at the summit itself. This approach would not only draw more attention to specific issues in various regions; it would also have a protective effect on civil society by ensuring that CSOs’ work and personnel remain the subject of international attention.
- Pro-democracy and human rights assistance programs emerging from the summit should be expanded and portions earmarked for the Middle East. This includes funds intended to support the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal as well European and other initiatives that may emerge. Existing bilateral assistance programs for democracy and governance should likewise be reevaluated and reinvigorated. President Biden’s first foreign affairs budget, for example, significantly expanded resources for democracy and governance, but it also continues to focus heavily on security assistance to the detriment of democracy programs.
Fighting for Democracy in a Hotly Contested Space
By leaving the Middle East out of the summit, the administration essentially ignored a hotly contested liminal space where the present and future of democracy and human rights are up for grabs. Post-Arab Spring unrest continues in many places (e.g. Sudan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria), reflecting citizens’ continued struggle for dignity, economic opportunity, and political voice. In the meantime, the autocrats of the region impose ever-harsher repressive measures and seek support from Russia and China in an effort to maintain power. The failure to acknowledge the freedom deficit in this region and, more importantly, to consider practical policies to counter it, can only undermine the goals of the summit and the administration’s own freedom agenda.
By leaving the Middle East out of the summit, the administration essentially ignored a hotly contested liminal space where the present and future of democracy and human rights are up for grabs.
The intervention of Egypt’s Mohamed Zaree at the Summit for Democracy points the way forward. He noted that the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies convoked a parallel regional forum two weeks before the summit itself; at this meeting, participants offered specific views concerning what democratic states, especially the United States, need to do. “In order for the Summit for Democracy to genuinely foster the growth of democracy and successfully stand against the global resurgence of authoritarianism,” Zaree said, “states dedicated to the promotion and protection of democracy and a rights-based global order must adopt a different approach to their foreign policies. This approach must move beyond treating democracy as a rhetorical tool, and instead place it within a framework that is interdependent and equal in importance to issues of stability and security.” Among other things, he added that “de-securitization of foreign policy is an essential first step … [as well as] downsizing military assistance in favor of assistance directed towards human rights, education and development … All forms of assistance must be subject to strict adherence to international human rights standards.”
The failure to acknowledge the freedom deficit in this region and, more importantly, to consider practical policies to counter it, can only undermine the goals of the summit and the administration’s own freedom agenda.
If the Biden Administration truly hopes that the Summit for Democracy will lead to significant global advancement of both democracy and human rights—a largely unobtainable goal if the future of the Middle East region’s nearly half a billion inhabitants is ignored—Zaree’s advice is well worth heeding.