Last month President Joe Biden nominated Ajay Banga to become the next World Bank president, and he is the sole nominee for the role. Though born in India, Banga is now a US citizen, ensuring his presidency will continue the 75-year-old “Gentlemen’s Agreement” where an American runs the World Bank (so far always an American man) and a European runs the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Other countries have acquiesced to this system largely because they know the United States wields decisive influence at the World Bank and IMF. These institutions don’t run on a principle of “one person, one vote” or “one country, one vote,” but rather a system closer to “one dollar, one vote.” This system grants the United States — and only the United States — veto power over many major decisions.
This thoroughly undemocratic process may have presented an awkward subject of conversation at the second Summit for Democracy, which took place Mar. 29-30, 2023. Biden’s campaign promise to launch a Summit for Democracy signaled his intent to center democracy in foreign policy. The United States hosted that first summit in 2021, and the Biden administration has only strengthened its calls for a global front against autocracies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
When looking at democracy at the level of global governance, many Global South countries see the United States as an opponent to democracy.
The second summit featured several thematic focuses, including independent media, promoting democratic engagement among youth, addressing corruption, and free and fair elections. While the summit received deserved criticism for extending invitations to authoritarian leaders, positive steps included new efforts to stop the flow of dirty money, the announcement of international efforts to regulate commercial spyware and a $690 million funding pledge for democracy programs.
But none of these accomplishments would do anything to improve blatantly undemocratic processes like the selection of the next World Bank president. This shortcoming is hardly surprising because Biden’s calls for democracy have always suffered from an unstated limitation: it seeks to advance national democracy, but democratizing a Global North-dominated international system has never been on the agenda.
This limitation may help explain why Biden’s framing of democracy versus autocracy has struggled to attract support even from democracies in the Global South. Rather than doubling down on a strategy that can come across as a not-so-subtle effort to promote US geopolitical interests against Russia and China, the Biden administration would do well to show that it means what it says about the importance of democracy, even in international institutions that have historically favored the United States.
A THOROUGHLY UNDEMOCRATIC INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
Biden is right that national democracy is under attack. In the United States, the Jan. 6 insurrection made the threats to democracy abundantly clear. Brazilian democracy has endured similar attacks from within, and countries like Hungary, El Salvador, and Turkey have also experienced significant democratic backsliding.
And when looking at democracy at a national level, where Biden’s legitimate election victory had to overcome anti-democratic forces seeking to overturn it, Biden looks like a force for democracy. But when looking at democracy at the level of global governance, many Global South countries see the United States as an opponent to democracy: the United States holds dominant power in international institutions that are difficult to justify in democratic terms.
In addition to its power at the World Bank and IMF, the United States is one of only five countries to have a permanent seat and a veto at the UN Security Council, a power assigned when much of the world remained colonized. The United States has supported guiding global governance away from the more democratic UN General Assembly to rich country clubs like the G7 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
And when the United States doesn’t like a decision made at the global level, rather than accepting it as a natural part of democracy, the United States simply refuses to cooperate. The United States has not ratified most international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. While Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, the United States remains woefully short of providing the climate finance it owes to poor countries.
The United States is also caught in a hypocritical bind on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s conduct during its illegal invasion of Ukraine. The United States has encouraged the arrest warrant, but is not itself a party to the ICC, in large part because it fears the court holding US administrations accountable for its own violations of international law, like the invasion of Iraq. In fact, the United States even has a law on the books allowing an invasion of the Netherlands if the ICC ever were to arrest an American.
The Biden administration has hinted toward an openness to democratizing parts of the international system. It has announced support for the African Union joining the G20 and voiced support for expanding membership in the UN Security Council (though no new countries would get a veto). And including Zambia and Costa Rica as co-hosts of the second Summit for Democracy at least shows that the Biden administration does not only mean rich democracies when it talks about democratic allies. But in a context where the Biden administration continues to uphold many of the undemocratic features of the international system, these constitute the tiniest steps in the right direction.
IS THE COMMITMENT TO DEMOCRACY SINCERE?
When the Global South sees the United States block its priorities at undemocratic international institutions and turn around and call for a global campaign in defense of democracy, one can understand why many countries are slow to rally behind the cause. Decisions at these international institutions — decisions that are largely out of the control of Global South countries because of their limited power in these institutions — have enormous impacts on their citizens. They face heat waves and floods caused by rich countries’ disproportionate carbon emissions, intellectual property rules that favor Global North pharmaceutical companies delaying their access to vaccines, and citizens watch health and education spending shrink to satisfy internationally-imposed austerity policies. For these countries, national democracy can only achieve so much.
The Biden administration’s mistake is not standing up for democracy globally. Its mistake is thinking that democracy is just about ensuring democracy within each country, and ignoring the need for democracy when countries interact with each other. As long as the United States calls to defend national democracy but not to democratize global governance, it will struggle to convince much of the world it has a sincere commitment to either.
Tim Hirschel-Burns is a recent graduate of Yale Law School.