The Summit for Democracy – Where Next on the ‘Year of Action’?

On the 9th and 10th December 2021, US President Joe Biden convened a virtual Summit for Democracy as part of his bid to reinstate America’s commitment to democratic norms. More than one hundred world leaders and civil society representatives came together around an agenda focused on challenging authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting human rights, with an emphasis on the collaborative use of technology to achieve these aims.

President Biden opened the Summit by declaring that “we stand at an inflection point”, with the future of democracy facing “sustained and alarming challenges”. The Covid-19 pandemic has gripped the world during a period of sustained democratic backsliding, with 2021 being the fifth consecutive year in which more nations moved towards authoritarianism than democracy. With Russia escalating its military build-up along the Eastern border of Ukraine – and continuing to occupy areas of Ukrainian territory – and tensions rising between the West and China, the Summit sought to forge a sense of unity during a time in which our strategic rivals appear increasingly empowered.

Tensions leading up to the Summit

The composition of the Summit was decided under a cloud of controversy, with the decision taken to share invitations with a series of nations accused of democratic backsliding, including Brazil and the Philippines. The United States justified its decisions as seeking to galvanise support for democracy, rather than to shame weaker political systems. Nonetheless, several nations with an expectation of participation were also actively excluded. The inclusion of Serbia, Croatia and Poland, but not Bosnia and Herzegovina was seen to be particularly contentious. Criticisms were also made regarding the lack of invitation to nations such as

Hungary, Turkey and Singapore, as the definition of what constitutes a ‘democracy’ ultimately became a grey area. The decision to exclude Hungary as the only EU member state not invited to the Summit saw President Viktor Orban attempt to leverage Hungary’s veto to prevent the EU’s participation being officially classified as an EU foreign policy delegation.

Strategic Rivals React

Russia and China marked the opening of the Summit through publishing a co-authored article by their respective Ambassadors to the United States, denouncing the conference as a product of outdated, Cold War thinking. The Russian Government also produced a long statement outlining the failings of democracy in the United States, and China produced a white paper on the value of ‘consultative democracy’. China’s leaders clearly regarded the Summit as a ‘with us or against us’ occasion, retaliating against various international partners which had agreed to attend and praising those which declined.

Nicaragua, a nation that has had longstanding diplomatic ties with Taiwan, is said to have cut ties with Taiwan following pressure from China leading up to the Summit. On the other hand, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted that Pakistan is a ‘real iron brother’ for declining its invite to the Summit.

Despite deciding to include Taiwan in the Summit, the United States was cautious to navigate the substance of its tensions with China at the Summit, and censored a Taiwanese Minister’s video while she was presenting at the Summit after she shared a map that showed Taiwan in a different colour to China.

Initiatives and outcomes

Ahead of the Summit, the United States announced sanctions against Iran, Syria and Uganda and against individuals in Kosovo and Central America, in an attempt to rally momentum. President Biden also produced a domestic American anti-corruption strategy, with an emphasis on curbing illicit finance. The initiatives from the Summit include:

  • The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, with a budget of $424 million (subject to approval from Congress) for overseas assistance, including supporting independent media, strengthening anti-corruption measures and enhancing nonviolent social movements.
  • The International Fund for Public Interest Media was created with a pledge of $30 million coming from the Presidential Initiative funds.
  • The Global Anti-Corruption Consortium was established to strengthen relationships between investigative reporters and civil society to counter corruption that occurs across borders.
  • The Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative was created by the United States, Denmark and Norway with support from the UK, Netherlands, France and Canada. This initiative aims to restrict human rights abuses that use technology, such as hacking or surveillance.
  • Alongside these initiatives, the United States and the UK launched a joint prize challenge for privacy-enhancing technologies to promote the use of ethical AI when tackling global challenges. Bilateral partnerships were also established with both Japan and the Republic of Korea on emerging technologies.


Where next?

While the outcomes of the Summit were relatively muted to meet the urgency of an ‘inflection point’, success will largely depend on progress made during this coming ‘Year of Action’. We are likely to see further initiatives and pledges agreed at the in-person Summit planned for late 2022. To ensure that the Summit delivers on its promises, invitations to the in-person Summit should be contingent on nations’ individual and collaborative commitments to delivering on its ambitions. Implementing such targets or a benchmark will be necessary to show the Summit has the muscle to enact meaningful change.

The Summit reflects President Biden’s commitment to reversing the anti-democratic trends and narratives seen under former President Trump. As such, Washington made a serious attempt to address democracy at home through its anti-corruption plan, which supported its efforts at global leadership. Despite the political tensions leading up to the Summit to some extent overshadowing its outcomes, the Summit has shown that it is still possible to convene around the concept of ‘democracy’, as an idea which continues to have value and meaning.

Eleni Koumoundouros

Eleni is the Research and Events Coordinator at the British Foreign Policy Group.