Unless these two leading democracies are willing to face the threats to democracy coming from within, the Summit will ring hollow.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been invited by President Joe Biden to participate in the 9-10 December 2021 Summit for Democracy. President Biden envisages this Summit as a centerpiece for placing democracy at the forefront of values guiding US foreign policy, and he would like democracy to be at the forefront of foreign policies around the globe. Indications are that PM Modi will attend this virtual gathering. As the largest democracy in the world, India’s positive participation is vital for the success of the Summit.
The main purpose of the Summit for Democracy is to serve as a counterweight to the perceived success of the Chinese authoritarian model. India is held out as a rebuttal to Chinese assertions that liberal democracy cannot work for a large developing nation. A credible Indian alternative to the Chinese model is more important now than ever if the decline in democracy throughout the developing world is to be arrested. As the US and India become more cooperative in standing up to authoritarian China, their effectiveness will be enhanced by strengthening their democracies at home as well as those outside their borders.
The chief themes of the Summit are: 1. “defending against authoritarianism”; 2. “addressing and fighting corruption”; and 3. “advancing respect for human rights”. According to the White House, the Summit will galvanize commitments and initiatives concerning these themes. Following a year of consultation, coordination, and action after the Summit, President Biden will invite world leaders to gather once more to showcase progress made against their commitments.
The themes of the Summit are often thought of in terms of defending democracy against international threats. Especially after the collapse of US efforts in developing nations as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, the question of how to defend democracy internationally is important. However, major threats to democracy are arising internally in both the United States and India. Unless these two leading democracies are willing to face these threats, the Summit will ring hollow.
Free and fair elections respected by both winners and losers are vital to “defending against authoritarianism”. India has done a remarkable job through its non-partisan Election Commission of assuring the openness and integrity of its elections. So much so that each time India conducts national elections it is the largest organized activity ever undertaken by mankind and the results are universally respected.
The United States, by contrast, has suffered repeatedly from assaults on its electoral systems. Since 2020, the losing candidate for President has mounted an unprecedented attempt to overthrow election results and undermine faith in elections. Some US political leaders are now contemplating the possibilities for overturning elections by legislative action at the state or national level. These developments constitute the continuing threat of authoritarianism. The US can learn from India on this issue, and both countries can make commitments at the Summit to promote and defend the rights of citizens to participate in free and fair elections and uphold the sanctity of election results.
The United States and India both have an interest in “addressing and fighting corruption” as a major means of defending democracy. The recent trove of 11.9 million financial records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and known as the “Pandora papers” shows how serious democracy-threatening corruption is in both India and the United States. Over 300 wealthy Indians are shown as participating in schemes to hide money, while US states like South Dakota and Delaware are shown to be integral to such schemes. “Black money” in combination with non-transparent political contributions threaten democratic political systems. Both the US and India can commit to programs to fight these threats to democracy.
Democracies capable of countering authoritarianism must have systems and programs for “advancing respect for human rights”. Unchecked rule by the majority does not constitute democracy. Unless human rights are protected for all, democracy simply becomes the authoritarianism of the majority. Both the United States and India have grave flaws in their respect for human rights. In the United States, the murders of George Floyd and other African Americans by police have highlighted the problems of the American criminal justice system. In India, the attacks on Muslims and other minorities show there is much to be done in advancing respect for human rights. Both countries can make renewed commitments in the area of human rights.
Addressing internal threats to democracy are difficult because these threats are so intimately bound up with domestic politics. But addressing these threats is necessary if the Summit for Democracy is to be more than a propaganda exercise. Both the United States and India should be willing to identify flaws in their systems and set forth commitments that will help make more perfect unions in both countries.
Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. is Senior Associate, Wadhwani Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Senior Advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group; former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce.