Obama’s Democracy Forum Was Better Than Biden’s

If democratic survival is the great issue of our time, Biden’s team has to be more demanding and more ambitious.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden speak before signing the 21st Century Cures Act.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden speak before signing the 21st Century Cures Act.
Then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden deliver remarks before Obama signs the 21st Century Cures Act into law at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Dec. 13, 2016. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If you agree with U.S. President Joe Biden that the contest between democracy and autocracy will define our future but are not convinced that Biden’s Summit for Democracy, held earlier this month, will do much to help win that struggle, then you must answer a question: What else do you have in mind? I am one of those skeptics, and I have been looking for other models. They do exist.

Biden may, of course, be wrong about the centrality of protecting democracy abroad. Realist scholars note that since “ideology and interests do not always align,” Washington will often be at cross purposes with other democracies while needing to work with autocracies on global problems. Others insist that the contest Biden has in mind “is entirely internal and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.”

Those are both serious arguments. But democracy scholars as well as senior Biden officials argue that ideology has become increasingly salient as great-power competition has become a competition not just of interests but of models, and that democratic erosion inside states, including the United States, has become yet more dangerous as China and Russia actively seek to undermine democracies through disinformation, hacking, electoral meddling, and possibly (in the cases of Ukraine and Taiwan) invasion. After the four-year U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, the protection of democracy at home and abroad does, indeed, belong at the center of Biden’s agenda.

If you agree with U.S. President Joe Biden that the contest between democracy and autocracy will define our future but are not convinced that Biden’s Summit for Democracy, held earlier this month, will do much to help win that struggle, then you must answer a question: What else do you have in mind? I am one of those skeptics, and I have been looking for other models. They do exist.

Biden may, of course, be wrong about the centrality of protecting democracy abroad. Realist scholars note that since “ideology and interests do not always align,” Washington will often be at cross purposes with other democracies while needing to work with autocracies on global problems. Others insist that the contest Biden has in mind “is entirely internal and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.”

Those are both serious arguments. But democracy scholars as well as senior Biden officials argue that ideology has become increasingly salient as great-power competition has become a competition not just of interests but of models, and that democratic erosion inside states, including the United States, has become yet more dangerous as China and Russia actively seek to undermine democracies through disinformation, hacking, electoral meddling, and possibly (in the cases of Ukraine and Taiwan) invasion. After the four-year U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, the protection of democracy at home and abroad does, indeed, belong at the center of Biden’s agenda.

The summit was meant to rivet the world’s attention on the problem, and on United States’ democratic leadership. It didn’t go that way for a reason beyond the Biden administration’s control: The pandemic turned what was to have been a great in-person gathering into a series of Zoom meetings that few people knew about, much less watched. But some problems are of Biden’s own making. The 100-odd states that attended now begin a “year of action” in which they are to make good on the commitments they delivered. Even in the immediate aftermath of the summit, none of the democracy activists or scholars I spoke to could tell me what those commitments were. They were formulated in private discussions with U.S. diplomats. States were ultimately free to promise as much or as little reform as they saw fit. And it’s not yet clear how or whether they will be held accountable for doing what they promised. Whatever happens a year hence will probably not feel like a ringing affirmation of democracy.

The Biden administration would not have had to look far for an alternative model. Ten years ago, Barack Obama—no fan of democracy promotion—established the Open Government Partnership, or OGP, a coalition of states and organizations dedicated to transparency. The partnership began as a largely rhetorical campaign but over time has evolved into an organization with 76 countries and several thousand civil society groups. It has several distinctive elements. First, countries can join only if they accept four core principles: “promoting increased access to information and disclosure about governmental activities”; “deepening public participation” in government, including through civil society; instituting “robust anti-corruption policies”; and using new technologies to promote openness and accountability.

Members must work with domestic civil society groups to formulate two-year plans to improve in one or more of these spheres; these meetings are ongoing and serve to hold states accountable. In addition, the organization’s independent reporting mechanism, staffed by a panel of experts, evaluates those commitments and each member’s progress in satisfying them. Members that conspicuously fail to take their own obligations seriously can be suspended. Turkey, Hungary, and Tanzania left the organization rather than face this process; Azerbaijan was suspended; India declined to join rather than face domestic accountability. Others, however, have upped their game in the face of criticism. One oft-cited example is Mexico, which agreed to stop using surveillance technology to spy on domestic activists after the program was exposed in the Pandora Papers. OGP documents state that Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Albania, among others, adopted more transparent budgeting to meet eligibility criteria.

That list demonstrates that “the OGP is not a club for saints,” as Aidan Eyakuze, a Tanzanian member of the OGP steering committee, put it. “These are partnerships for people who want to try to do better,” he said. Countries have to want to learn from one another and from civil society organizations, at least in the limited areas where OGP works. Even then, OGP estimates that only about 20 percent of the 4,500 commitments states have made over the last decade have made a lasting impact. Nevertheless, the organization succeeds because it provides a framework for learning and improving, because it makes real demands of the countries in question, and because it refuses to overlook failure (though it gives members a great deal of leeway).

The Biden administration is no stranger to OGP: both Biden and Samantha Power, head of USAID, participated in OGP’s 2021 civic space plenary, held days after the summit. And USAID helps fund implementation of some of OGP’s initiatives. Joe Powell, OGP’s deputy CEO, said that he even sent a series of documents summarizing the chief lessons OGP had learned, above all the need for firm commitments and domestic accountability, to U.S. National Security Council officials working on Biden’s democracy summit.

“Some of them definitely got it,” Powell said. “I’m not sure that decision-makers at the top of the tree got it.”

Zuzana Wienk, a Slovakian member of the OGP steering committee and the head of an anti-corruption group, said that she and colleagues kept asking what commitment the Slovak government planned to bring to the democracy summit, but were able to meet with local officials only after those officials had formulated their plans. She still doesn’t know what Slovakia has committed to do after the summit. Other activists tell the same story.

The OGP model is a good but limited one. The limiting factor is voluntarism: India, Turkey, and Hungary have incurred no costs for their non-membership, and the benefits for countries that do the hard work required to remain in the partnership are largely reputational. We should be glad that Serbia cared enough to institute open budgeting, but the good opinion of liberal society will not make Serbia put its oligarchs in jail. Only the wish for the enormous benefits that come with full membership in the European Union has even a chance of accomplishing that.

But if it’s true, as Biden says, that the struggle between democracy and autocracy is the great question of our time, then don’t we need to think about a model that offers real incentives to democracies, as the EU does? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others have floated the idea of a “D-10,” but such an organization would have to be far more inclusive—not an apex body handing down rules for the world, but a democratic club with an architecture something like the OGP and a reward structure something like the EU. The rich members would subsidize efforts by the non-rich to improve their democracies, while non-members would pay some sort of penalty, perhaps in the form of trade relations.

There are many reasons why such a model could never work, and I heard several of them when I ran the idea past Thomas Carothers, a leading democracy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (and the moderator of a highly worthwhile panel discussion at the summit on technology and democracy). It would be impossible, Carothers wrote in an e-mail, to create a clear standard for membership; furthermore, it’s unclear what the benefits would be, and “many major democracies don’t really like exclusive clubs.”

Those are very serious impediments. If, on the other hand, I had suggested a club for countries committed to reducing carbon emissions and prepared to impose tariffs on exports from non-members—an idea that has been proposed by economist William Nordhaus—it wouldn’t seem so farfetched. That’s because we regard climate change as an existential issue. Do we, or do we not, feel the same way about democracy?

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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