The first Summit for Democracy, hosted in Washington by Joe Biden (pictured) in December 2021, was designed to be a reset of sorts – an attempt to put the US back at the centre of the global democracy movement after a few tumultuous years. For the second summit, which started yesterday, the spotlight is more diffuse. Biden and the leaders of South Korea, the Netherlands, Zambia and Costa Rica are co-hosting events in their home countries.
The approach risks diluting the summit’s takeaways. A gathering across five countries, coupled with dozens of online events, doesn’t lend itself to reaching a grand consensus on the perilous state of global democracy or which issues to focus on. A case in point is Tunisia, whose president, Kais Saied, is busy undoing the final remnants of the Arab Spring. “There is no better litmus test for the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy than Tunisia,” Monica Marks, an assistant professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, told a gathering hosted by the Tunisian United Network here in Washington. Her plea for greater US engagement is likely to be drowned out by the dizzying number of other democratic challenges being discussed over the course of the week.
Perhaps that’s inevitable. Democracy, by its nature, isn’t about one country or one leader. If there’s anything that the US has learned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that democracy cannot be imposed; it requires a groundswell of grass-roots support. But shifting the focus away from Washington also feels like a tacit recognition that, even under Biden, the US is no longer a shining beacon that deserves to lead a global democracy movement. Every nation needs to figure out its own system of government but it helps to have role models. Either the US, or someone else, will need to step up.
Christopher Cermak is Monocle’s Washington correspondent. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.