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diplomacy summit, foreign policy, democracy

A Democracy Summit Must Look Inward and Outward

The Biden administration can use a democracy summit as an opportunity to address democratic backsliding both at home and abroad. 

Words: Alia Awadallah and Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson
Pictures: David Kovalenko

Since the Biden administration announced its intention to host a global summit for democracy, many in the policy community have raised concerns about its prospects for success. The argument that has gained the most traction is that a global democracy summit is likely to elicit accusations of hypocrisy or at best be ineffective given the need to strengthen US democracy domestically. Even so, the answer is not to kill the idea entirely. The Biden administration should instead seek to address these legitimate concerns by proactively tying global democratic backsliding to our own challenges at home and seeking to address both in conjunction.

As advocates for the international summit have highlighted, the summit is an opportunity to engage in egalitarian conversations about the shared threats facing democracies – ranging from corruption to malign influence from authoritarian actors. The summit alone is not enough, but it can serve as a first step toward building a shared pro-democracy agenda and developing incentives for addressing democratic backsliding. This could include establishing a mechanism to provide security and foreign assistance to countries taking concrete steps in this area, such as tackling corruption and improving government transparency.

The summit alone is not enough, but it can serve as a first step toward building a shared pro-democracy agenda and developing incentives for addressing democratic backsliding.

A similar consensus and incentive-building process is needed in the United States. To that end, the administration should host a domestic democracy summit and invite federal, state, and local government officials, as well as grassroots leaders, to help shape and attend the summit. This would be a valuable signal that the administration is committed to working with actors outside the beltway to strengthen our democracy, rather than relying only on federal efforts. The domestic summit would also provide the opportunity to share ideas, secure buy-in from state and local officials, and develop proposals for new programs, such as a federal incentives program for states that take steps to improve anti-money laundering regulations or strengthen democratic processes in other ways. The administration should also resume meaningful cooperation with the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative established during the Obama administration to strengthen democracies around the world through direct government-civil society engagement. OGP can assist with shaping the domestic summit and implementing proposals arising from it.

There are two ways to host a successful domestic democracy summit, depending on the administration’s appetite for such an undertaking and willingness to devote the necessary resources. The first option is to host two summits on democracy: one domestic and one international. The second is to host one large summit, with both international and domestic components.

Both approaches enjoy unique benefits and drawbacks. Hosting two separate summits would allow the administration to focus its undivided attention on each. Additionally, if the domestic democracy summit came first, the administration would be able to approach the international summit with greater credibility and a demonstrated recognition of the challenges facing American democracy. This would help the administration make effective use of the summit, rather than spending time litigating whether the United States has the legitimacy to host it in the first place. While two summits would require more resources and planning, the federal government is not in this alone. The administration can and should actively engage the domestic organizers and civil society organizations who are already working on strengthening US democracy in summit planning – including OGP, which laid out several priority areas that could serve as themes for the domestic summit.

One combined summit would require less of a logistics lift and would allow world leaders and civil society stakeholders to gather together in one place. American and international leaders, along with civil society representatives, would be able to interact and coordinate on shared democratic priorities, rather than relying solely on the administration to thread the needle between domestic and international pro-democracy efforts. Perhaps most importantly, American voters would be more likely to pay attention and become invested when US and international players are in the same room, working on the same threats to democracy. However, developing a cohesive agenda could pose a challenge.

Regardless of which approach is chosen, it would be most effective to stage the event outside the beltway. Following Georgia’s remarkable success in overcoming voter suppression in both the presidential and Senate runoff races, hosting the summit in Atlanta would be a deeply meaningful gesture. Georgia’s rich political history also makes it a fitting site for the occasion and Atlanta has the infrastructure to host a large international event. Additionally, hosting the summit outside of Washington DC would offer world leaders an unusual opportunity to see another part of the United States.

Both approaches would reinforce the growing consensus around the need to bridge domestic and foreign policy in a way that advances the interests of the American people. In an increasingly globalized world, strengthening democracy must be a project both at home and abroad, and the democracy summit(s) can serve as an effective starting point.

Skeptics of the international democracy summit are correct in suggesting that there is an urgent need for a national conversation on repairing American democracy. However, the idea of an international democracy summit is a good one, at least as an initial step toward more expansive efforts. Rather than advocating against it, we can boost the credibility of global pro-democracy efforts by adopting the summit model as a first step to reinvigorating democracy at home.

Alia Awadallah is a co-chair of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and a Presidential Management Fellow at the Department of State. She previously held roles as a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and Research Associate at the Center for American Progress. The views expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.

Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson is the co-chair of Cultivating Common Convergence, a sub-group of the Redefining National Security Working Group for Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS). She is a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and served on the foreign policy team for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Alia Awadallah and Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson

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