Is Biden Serious about His Summit for Democracy?

Since his inauguration on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden has been hinting at a renewed focus on democracy by his administration to reverse the dismal record of his predecessor on this global front. The 46th president of the United States told world leaders in his first foreign policy speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021 that “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Fight for it. Strengthen it. Renew it.” A few months later he repeated these words and stressed his belief that “the American people are up to this job.” Consequently, many Americans and others around the world took the president seriously in his revived pledge for American activism in support of democracy at home and abroad.

The idea began to materialize in subsequent days as the White House began to consider convening a virtual international summit focusing on global democracy. As the US Department of State revealed in one of its public statements in February, “On December 9-10, 2021, President Biden will host a virtual summit for leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector. The summit will focus on challenges and opportunities facing democracies and will provide a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.” The statement emphasized that “For the United States, the summit will offer an opportunity to listen, learn, and engage with a diverse range of actors whose support and commitment is critical for global democratic renewal.”

This last part of the statement would be quite extraordinary if it did not negate and run contrary to long-established patterns of US foreign policy and its historic modus operandi in this arena, particularly when it came to promoting and supporting democratic principles and practices on a global scale. Historically, the United States has never been lauded for adequate listening, learning, and engaging with diverse international actors on democracy promotion. Indeed, the US record in this regard is quite dismal, and on a bipartisan basis. Whether one considers the deeply entrenched and unrelenting cultural residue of American exceptionalism or the outright streak of racism in the unique American version of mission civilisatrice, the American republic has not been what President Ronald Reagan described as the “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” Indeed, many around the world harbored this hope since the days of Wilsonian idealism, which emerged in 1918 to bring about world peace and stability. At best, US promotion of democracy has been historically selective, inconsistent, and dispensable at the altar of American strategic security interests. Although it represents a universal trend in American foreign policy, this dysfunction has been most pronounced in US dealings with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), particularly the Arab parts of the region.

The news of Biden’s Summit for Democracy did receive widespread attention in the Arab world. The summit largely garnered criticism for its exclusion of representatives from the region—with the exception of Iraq—and its superficial objectives that promised little in terms of a practical outcome to strengthen democracy in a region that needs it as much as, if not more than, any other around the world.

Arab democracy activists throughout the Middle East and North Africa were not the only critics and skeptics regarding this week’s conference held in Washington, DC. Although the State Department argued defensively that “Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible, within logistical constraints,” according to some media reports, the event “is already dividing opinions because of some notable omissions in the list of participants.” Beyond those concerned about the exclusive list of participants, others in Washington expressed doubts about the summit’s objectives. Some experts, for example, felt that “Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ will not make America safer” because the administration’s vision of its foreign policy as “a competition between the world’s democracies … and autocracies” is “naïve and dangerous.” Others have expressed doubts about the ability of the participants, including the United States, to actually “follow through on meaningful commitments on democracy and right issues” in the aftermath of the summit.

Arab democrats and pro-democracy activists were specifically agitated by both the exclusivist list of participants, which they perceived as excluding them, and the narrow agenda which they deemed as oblivious to the Arab world and its needs. Internationally recognized figures, including former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, called for an urgent summit on December 3, 2021, by Democracy First in the Arab World (DFAW), one of the largest gatherings of democracy activists and advocates in the Arab region. The conference took place virtually and adopted a comprehensive list of resolutions regarding the status of democracy in the Arab world and the Biden summit held in Washington. Indeed, key representatives of the group are currently in Washington, DC, to hold a press conference at the National Press Club on Tuesday, December 7, at 2:00 PM, to make public the provisions of their adopted resolution.

In its final statement at the December 3 conference, the DFAW identifies itself as representing “movements, unions, and institutions of civil society, as well as public and political figures” speaking on behalf of Arab voices for democratic change and the rule of law across the Middle East and North Africa. It reiterated its firm commitment to democratic principles in politics and governance and denounced attempts by autocratic regimes and non-democratic forces in the region to thwart the legitimate aspirations of the Arab people for real democratic and representative governance. The statement emphasized that, unfortunately, this is often done with the support of leading international powers.

In its direct appeal to all the “democratic governments” participating in the Biden Summit for Democracy, the DFAW conferees called on the parties meeting in Washington to declare their firm support for genuine democracy across the MENA region based on the following principles:

  1. Condemning unequivocally and sanctioning any regimes or forces in the MENA region that disrupt or assist in disrupting democratic change or constitutional orders, support military coups or civil wars, or promote the overthrow of democratically elected governments.
  2. Reassessing any nation’s relations with any regimes that violate or engage in serious abuses of human rights or engage in political repression.
  3. Calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners across the region without delay, a moratorium on all unjust death sentences, and the end of all political trials and persecutions.
  4. Calling on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations and the General Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute any and all regimes that engage in gross violations of human rights in the MENA region, as well as to publish their findings and recommendations.
  5. Declaring that freedom is the foundation of human dignity that must be granted to all people, as well as affirming the respect for civil liberties, political freedoms, and human rights to all people across the MENA region regardless of religious affiliation, race, gender, age, class, or socioeconomic status.

Clearly, those advocating for democracy and respect for human rights in the Arab world are worried about the deterioration of both throughout the region. Their concerns stem from the post-2011 erosion in the regional commitment to democracy and the apparent increase in power and boldness by the old order and the authoritarian camp in the Arab world. This is precisely the reason for the arrival of the DFAW delegation to Washington and the determination of its members to put themselves on Biden’s radar screen, once they concluded that his administration seems to neglect them and ignore their input at this week’s summit.