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DOUBLE TAKE: The Lows of Biden’s Democracy Summit

As in most things that matter in this world, particularly in maintaining a world order, the U.S. set itself up as the sole and supreme arbiter of what is a democracy. Thus did we see U.S. President Joe Biden holding a “Summit for Democracy” on December 9-10 to which 110 countries were invited.   

He had promised to hold such a summit in the course of his election campaign. The summit’s stated purpose was “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad”. Doubtless, democracy is shrinking not only in the number of countries sliding towards authoritarian modes of government but also within countries, and the focus of the summit is as important as it is topical for our times.  

For that very reason, it was surprising to see countries with dubious democratic credentials being invited while deserving democracies were kept out. Clearly, the selection of countries appears to have been dictated by military, strategic and bloc considerations which determine Washington’s foreign policy and security interests. While the merits of Pakistan being invited have been debated, that Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka being excluded is surprising. More damning is the revelation, by Pakistan, that it stayed away because of being slotted for partial participation. So, there were participants, non-participants and a third category of “partial participants”. 

Just as the U.S. created categories of “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists”, which translates as those Washington can do business with and those it cannot, there is now emerging a scenario of “good democracies” and “bad democracies”. Needless to say, countries that stand with the U.S. to subserve its military, strategic, geopolitical, diplomatic, economic and business interests would be deemed “good”. Those that not prone to do Washington’s bidding or heed its counsel would be condemned as “bad”. Such a conclusion is inevitable given the State Department’s arbitrary choice of participants with no light cast on the criteria applied for excluding countries that are obviously democracies. 

As suspect as the criteria for inclusion and exclusion of countries is the U.S. setting itself up as the sole judge of what constitutes democracy. There cannot be one single authority for defining democracy given the many forms it has assumed in practice across the world. This is a value-based judgment and no one country, not even the U.S., can claim to be the sole repository of all the values that define a democracy. The violent “insurrection” in the U.S. capital which preceded President Biden’s oath-taking showed the world that the foundations of U.S. democracy are vulnerable to the menacing depredations of the very people elected, including to the highest office, under the admirable provisions of the American constitution. 

No less disturbing than the questionable selection of participants is that it is the U.S. that has retreated, as the world saw, from backing the forces of democracy in Afghanistan; and, thereafter, being a spectator to the army’s atrocities in Myanmar. 

There is no denying that U.S. democracy is by far the best the world has. For all its deformities, democracy within the U.S. is envied worldwide by people who are deprived of rights and freedoms as well as those reeling under deficient or authoritarian forms of democracy. Equally undeniable is that U.S. prestige not only as the world’s biggest military power but also as the world’s greatest democracy has taken a severe hit in the aftermath of the Capitol riots, the pullout from Afghanistan, the general indifference to autocracies and the country’s decline as a force for good. 

Amidst this cheerless situation, the credentials of the U.S. and western democracies are further sullied by the endless persecution of Julian Assange. His extradition to the U.S., now cleared by a UK court, is a setback to the cause of press freedom and makes a mockery of the protection the press enjoys under the First Amendment. Assange’s extradition being allowed happened around the time of the “Summit for Democracy”. For all his emphasis on freedom and the importance of a free press, Biden has no qualms about persisting in the footsteps of his predecessor Donald Trump when it comes to hounding Assange.  

As is all too evident, democracy has neither a keeper nor a conscience. 

The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV and a former Opinion Page Editor of DNA.

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