How democratic are the countries at Biden’s democracy summit?
The Washington Post March 30, 2023
President Biden, propelled by a conviction that the 21st century will be defined by competition between “democracy vs. autocracy,” convened his second “Summit for Democracy” this week and invited the leaders of more than 100 countries to discuss human rights, confronting authoritarianism and lessening corruption.
The invite list includes over half of the countries recognized by the United Nations, and there are complex differences between the democracies present.
“I think the Biden administration has taken a big-tent approach, and there is merit to that,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, executive vice president of Freedom House, a nonprofit research group that monitors and advocates for democracy around the world. “But for me, the bigger question is, can they use this opportunity to galvanize change within all of the countries that are attending and find unity to push for a global community that is more democratic.”
Freedom House’s March report, “Freedom in the World,” scores how democratic various countries are based on factors including respect for political pluralism and civil rights, government stability and the independence of the electoral process. When compared alongside the list of nations invited to Biden’s summit, provided by the State Department, the report reveals significant diversity — and some dispute — in what countries constitute a democracy.
While democracy has declined globally for 17 years, according to Freedom House, there were significant bright spots last year for expanding global freedoms that nearly offset what many have dubbed a democratic recession. Biden was emphatic in remarks on Wednesday about the state of democracy: “I hope what everyone gathered here and everyone watching around the world takes away from this summit: It’s working.”
Here is how some of the countries attending the Biden administration’s summit score in Freedom House’s latest index and what that might say about the state of democracy globally.
‘Free’ countries make up majority of attendees
Two-thirds of the attendees are considered “free” countries, according to Freedom House’s report. This cohort includes many robust open societies and close U.S. allies, like Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom and all members of the European Union except Hungary.
The grouping also includes nations that have recently faced challenges. Brazil’s score, for instance, declined slightly after a bitter and polarizing presidential election in which supporters of outgoing president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the National Congress after he falsely claimed the election was stolen. But other Latin American countries, like Argentina and Colombia, improved their scores, with Columbia joining the “fully free” category after major improvements to its elections and an increase in civil liberties.
Democracy in the United States itself has been strained in recent years amid high political polarization, rising extremist violence and the denial of election results by Donald Trump and his allies. The U.S. score this year did not change in Freedom House’s index after several years of decline.
“We recognize that every country, including the United States, has challenges and has areas to work on. What’s most important is whether a government and society are recognizing those shortcomings, addressing them and moving towards becoming a freer society,” Sedaca said.
‘Partly free’ invitees include quarter of global population
While roughly a third of attending countries are considered only “partly free” by Freedom House’s index, leaders from the 36 nations represent more than 2 billion people, or a quarter of the world’s population. Citizens in these countries enjoy varying degrees of civil rights but lack key liberties considered necessary for a fully free society in the Freedom House analysis.
While many “partly free” countries “are moving forward and moving closer to being a free country,” Sedaca said, “there are certainly some that are backsliding.” That includes India, the world’s most populous democracy, which marked a “significant change” in the country’s trajectory, she noted. The latest Freedom House index also notes that while India and Pakistan, which are both attending the summit, can be considered challenged democracies overall, people who live in the contested region of Kashmir lack even basic freedoms.
Ukraine, whose civil liberties decreased after Russia’s invasion last year, is also an invitee in this category. Other countries in this range include Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria and Peru.
The grouping has several bright spots. The Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia and Zambia all rose considerably in the most recent Freedom House analysis. Zambia, for its part, is co-hosting this year’s summit alongside the United States, the Netherlands, and South Korea.
‘Not free’ participants include key strategic partners
Just three countries solidly viewed as undemocratic societies by Freedom House made the State Department’s guest list for this year’s summit: Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. All three countries attended the summit in 2021, as well.
Congo has been the site of continuous armed conflict for decades. The violence has destabilized the country’s government and displaced thousands over the years in a situation that the Norwegian Refugee Council called the most overlooked refugee crisis in the world. Neighboring Angola is governed by a repressive government that has curtailed civil liberties in recent years after briefly enacting liberalizing changes in 2017.
Iraq, which the United States invaded in 2003, has struggled to establish a functioning democracy since dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown. The national government is rife with corruption, and civil liberties are not guaranteed in most of the country.
Each country represents a place wracked by recent violence where Washington has made commitments to bolstering democracy despite the present circumstances.
An August 2022 State Department statement, for instance, notes that the Biden administration expects Congo to follow through on pledges “to deliver on long-promised reforms and root out pervasive corruption, which is an underlying driver of instability.” Another memo says the United States hopes to “promote and strengthen Angola’s democratic institutions” alongside greater economic ties.
“I think the more important thing to do is to ask what are the commitments that are being made, how are countries following up and to what extent are countries committing to both domestic reforms as well as engagement in their foreign policy,” Sedaca said.