Biden’s plan for a ‘summit of democracies’ is important in today’s world

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US President Joe Biden is reportedly looking to host a virtual “Summit for Democracy” in December. The summit will include both political leaders and apparently people from the private sector and civil society. The summit “will galvanize commitments and initiatives across three principal themes: defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights,” according to a White House statement.

These are all important issues and it will be in stark contrast to the overall authoritarian trend globally. It comes as the US is leaving Afghanistan, ending 20 years of involvement since 9/11. This is also symbolic. The United States was a champion of democracy during the Cold War, although it didn’t always actually work with groups that aligned with its stated values. What that means is that while presidents like John F. Kennedy talked about democracy, the US had a track record, often through its State Department and other actions, of backing dictators and even extremists.

Nevertheless, for the most part the United States emerged from the Cold War offering a “new world order” and George H.W. Bush helped create this world that would be a rules-based international order. A wave of democracy did break out across the world as the US became a global hegemon. However, US wars of intervention, from Panama to Somalia and then in the Balkans and Iraq, tended to be seen as “humanitarian intervention” and “global policing” that went awry. Attempts at nation building were often failures. There were exceptions where new countries were created, such as East Timor and South Sudan, after brutal suppression.

In other cases countries like Somaliland were stymied in their attempt at seeking independence and recognition. Kosovo became a country but groups like the Kurds were sidelined. This mixed bag of results fundamentally changed when the US embarked on a global war against terror. Very quickly many countries chose to side with extremists and authoritarians against the US. Leading this group has been China, Iran, Russia and increasingly also Turkey. Many countries that are authoritarian have learned they can influence Washington by funding or buying up think tanks, human rights groups and lobbyists, even hiring former US politicians and officials to basically work for foreign dictators to lobby Washington to support whichever dictator pays the most.

This new form of American foreign policy, heavily influenced by foreign funding and domestic political infighting, is different from the policies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon or Reagan. Whereas the US might have sided with right-wing dictators in the past in places like Latin America, in order to fight communism, these days it isn’t ideology that guides America’s bad choices, it is mostly lobbying and other bizarre choices. This was evident during the Donald Trump years when he often took calls from Turkey’s far-right authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition some experts in Washington who talk foreign policy have even become religious partisans of Middle East wars, suggesting the US support “Sunnis” or “Shi’ites,” which sounds more like the religious wars of 17th century Europe, than the values the US is supposed to be based upon.

Biden has promised that “America is back,” and this summit may be an attempt to show that the Kennedy-like ideas of a world that is half free and half slave. The former iconic president said in 1960: “Can this nation exist half slave and half free; can the world? As the United States met its responsibilities in the 1860s, so must the United States meet its responsibilities to the same issue, the cause of freedom. I ask your help in this election. I ask you to strike a blow once more for this country. I ask you to join with us in moving this country forward, in reestablishing its image as a strong and vital society.”

Biden was in his twenties when Kennedy was president and he is channeling that era. Israel has long been a US ally and many Israeli and American officials have pointed to shared values, such as democracy, in that relationship. For some on the far-left in the US, who today are leading the anti-Israel crusade in Congress, there is an attempt to depict Israel as anti-democratic and lump it in with authoritarian regimes such as Belarus or Turkey. This is a mistake and Israel’s new government has sought to push back the image that Israel is an ally of authoritarians.

In the Middle East these days the question is not necessarily who is an ally of authoritarians, because much of the region is not democratic. After Israel and the Gulf states signed the Abraham Accords some critics, often funded by Qatar or Turkish-backed groups, accused the new accords of being a support for authoritarian regimes, such as Egypt. This is because the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are allies with Egypt. But recent reports show that Turkey is not just the largest jailer of journalists – who is building prisons at an unprecedented rate – but that it is also part of a global network of far-right authoritarian regimes, from Pakistan to Malaysia. This means that the current conflicts in the Middle East are not about democracy and authoritarianism. The Iranian regime and its axis is an authoritarian mix of sectarian militia groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The Ankara-backed groups, which are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and are linked to Ankara’s ruling AKP party, are authoritarian as well.

That is why the contest today in Tunisia or Libya is not really about democracy versus authoritarianism, it is more about two authoritarian systems struggling for control.

Be that as it may, there are democratic aspects to the region. Iraq has democratic institutions. People may scoff at these institutions, but Iraq has elections and a plethora of political parties along with an important and thriving autonomous Kurdish region. Iran even pretends to have elections and Iran’s media is far more interesting to read than Turkey’s media which almost completely reflects the ruling AKP Party’s suppression of free thought. Even in Qatar this week there were protests against the regime. Qatar has tried to bankroll some human rights groups in the West and uses its state-owned channels, like Al Jazeera, to be weaponized against other countries so that Qatar’s monarchy is ignored.

This is the reality in the region. While US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t lead to an outbreak of democracy, and Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo didn’t turn Egypt into a beacon of democracy either, there are still some democratic aspects across the region worth fostering. Writ large, what is important is that the US-led world order is the one that is allied to Israel, and this is important for Israel. Democracies are better for Israel and Israel’s close friends in Europe, India and other countries, such as Australia and South Korea. Most democracies have some aspects that they could improve. The important issue for a summit on democracy is not to have double standards when it comes to democracies and dictatorships, as Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out in the 1980s, and it is that democracies do work better together and are better for a peaceful world order. One only has to look at the source of violence and extremism in the Middle East to see that it is the totalitarian regimes like Iran and authoritarian fascist countries like Turkey that are harming minorities, killing journalists and destroying places like Afrin and northern Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, to see why a system that is more democratic and open offers opportunities for education, culture and human advancement, as opposed to a Hobbesian-world order.

Source: JP

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