A Democracy Summit Is More Urgent Than Ever
Jan. 6 gave the world’s democracies a glimpse of their own mortality, but it can also be a catalyst for revival.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden placed renewal of the world’s democracies high on his agenda, pledging in the first year of his presidency to convene a global summit of democracies. Originally the summit was meant to be an opportunity for the United States to showcase its return to the helm of global democracy. But after the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the summit has also become about something else: the United States’ own democratic restoration.
After this year’s tumultuous transition of power, some might question whether the United States even has the moral authority to sit at the head of the democratic table. In my view, the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 and Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the election make the need for such a summit, hosted by the United States, all the greater.
Even after four years of Trump, much of the democratic world still looks to Washington as the “shining city upon a hill.” The images of a mob overrunning the Capitol touched a nerve in many fractured Western societies. After all, if it can happen at the heart of Western democracy, it could happen anywhere—and will those democracies be as resilient as America’s in its most testing hour?
Across the trans-Atlantic alliance, the focus of recent years has been on the impact of foreign actors on election processes. For example, after the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, the world began to awaken to the challenge of election interference by Russia, a playbook that has since been taken up by other malign powers such as China and Iran. In 2018, I worked with Biden and former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to co-found the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. As part of that work, we’ve raised awareness of the challenge of foreign election interference and proposed solutions based on trans-Atlantic cooperation. These have included developing tools to detect meddling activity, uniting lawmakers across the free world to agree on common measures to protect elections, and launching a pledge for all electoral candidates to commit to not knowingly or unwittingly aiding and abetting foreign malign powers to meddle. The pledge was signed by all main candidates for the EU Commission presidency in 2019, all major parties in Canada’s 2019 federal election, and, in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, by Biden.
Election meddling is just one of a wide array of existential challenges facing democratic societies. From the impact of illicit and dark money to the weaponization of energy, trade, and investment by Russia and China to divide the free world to the efforts by China to become the global technological hegemon and set the norms and standards of the coming Internet of Things revolution in its own authoritarian image—the perils are everywhere.
However, while it is important not to underestimate the external threats to democracy, the time has come for all of us to conduct some of our own soul-searching, too. After all, Trump is not the first Western politician to rise and seek to hold on to power through the politics of cynicism, division, and dishonesty, and I fear he will not be the last.
The critical question is now about the resilience of democracies to both enemies outside and pressures inside. For example, through our work in the Transatlantic Commission, we’ve seen the increasing deployment of some of Russia’s meddling playbook by domestic actors. The key aim of disinformation is not to make consumers believe a specific story; it is to make them refuse to believe anything, shifting people into polarized parallel universes where they can pick and choose the best truths to fit their prejudices, aided by internet platform algorithms that feed readers junk in order to keep them hooked on their advertising.
The resulting polarization has become a disease across many Western societies. To paraphrase Voltaire, “If you can make people believe absurdities, you can make them commit atrocities.” These bubbles of absurdity have developed across the world, and we need to find ways to burst them.
It will be impossible for governments alone to do this work. An agenda to bolster democracy will need to include technology companies and civil society. It should include smart regulation to reduce disinformation without curbing freedom of speech or strangling digital innovation. It will not be easy, which is why we need a common approach that unites our best minds and shares best practice across the free world.
In 2018, as a civilian, Biden led our charge to unite trans-Atlantic figures in tackling external threats to democracies. Now in the White House, his challenge will also be to unite democracies not just to confront autocracies but drive a new effort to rebuild democracies from within. The events of Jan. 6 gave democracies a glimpse of their own mortality, but they can also be the catalyst for an effort to launch a new dawn for the free world.