US President Joe Biden held a virtual summit meeting on democracy a week ago. It is the first of two such summits; the second will be held next year. 110 countries were invited this year. Readers may be surprised at the large number; I know I was after hearing for the last decade or so about the decline of democracy worldwide. In fact, only a day or so before the summit took place, Anne Applebaum’s latest warning charting the “democratic decline” was the cover story of the December issue of the Atlantic Magazine. Ms. Applebaum’s article was not a lifting sendoff for the democracy summit nor an endorsement of the number of countries that were invited, but a warning that these bad guys and a lot of others are actually working together to ensure that the democratic decline continues.
Three South Asian states, India, Nepal, and the Maldives were invited and participated; one, Pakistan, was invited and declined to participate. Three, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan were not invited. My thoughts, which follow, involve two of the absentees, Pakistan which was deliberately absent, and Bangladesh, which initially reacted as if offended and embarrassed not to be invited although this rapidly changed to a more ambiguous nonchalance. The Bangladesh foreign minister expressed optimism that his country would be invited next year. I do not know enough about Sri Lanka and Bhutan to express any opinions about their absence from this summit meeting.
Pakistan is the more interesting case, not only because it declined the invitation, but because some observers would question whether it is enough of a democracy to warrant an invitation. But then, I suppose that a number of the invitees are, at best, to use a technical term, “hybrid democracies.” These are countries which are mixed bags (to use a very non-technical term) with some democratic institutions and behavior, and some that are more common, and/or more powerful in authoritarian countries. As examples, elections are more common and more meaningful in democratic countries, as they are clearly how leaders are chosen and the people choose the policies the country will follow. Control of the media and repression of free expression is more common and usually more pervasive in authoritarian countries. Pakistan fits into this category, running regularly scheduled elections, which vary in their authenticity as barometers of public opinion, but which Pakistanis use as proof of their country’s democratic nature despite such non-democratic tendencies as controlling the press and limiting the criticism of the government (especially in the vernacular press).
Clearly, for a number of countries that received invitations, democracy was not the only criterion; geopolitics was also a factor. However, I do not think that Pakistan’s rejection of the invitation was because it was just being honest, that it was admitting that that it was not a completely functional democracy. In fact, its public statement went the opposite way, saying that Pakistan is a “functional democracy, with an independent judiciary, vibrant civil society, and a free media….” And so on. Perhaps it was yielding to a temptation I saw in a Pakistani pundit’s observation that questioned the US credentials to chair such a summit given its own difficulties with democracy lately. This was, as far as I can tell a reference to former President Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost, claiming it was stolen, and all the related issues with that including the conversion of the Republican Party to a non-democratic party and the threat that poses to US democracy. Yes, that is a genuine issue for the US and the current government. But it misses the point. The Trump-attempted coup d’état, the first attempt to overthrow our democracy in 160 years, was prevented by our democratic institutions, weakened by Trump as they were, and that should be celebrated as a victory for democracy and a reason for a summit that focuses on building stronger democratic institutions throughout the world.
But I don’t believe that Pakistanis actually regard their country’s rejection of the invitation as motivated by such a provincial view. The press speculation on that motivation ranged from avoiding insult to China, to fury on the part of the PTI government for a perceived “snub,” by the incoming Biden Administration in its early days. Pakistan may have declined either to not offend China, Pakistan’s closet ally these days, or as a result of China’s request to not participate. I doubt that, in the hard-ball world of international politics, a perceived snub of last year would drive a government to take s decision this year that it believed was against its interests.
I suspect that these concerns played a role, but the concatenation of other issues reflecting a serious deterioration of relations with the US in the last year, not just regarding Afghanistan but on a number of other issues in the region and the world led to a decision to stake out a position of being more independent and less interested in going along just to get along. And, perhaps, to show the US that it has powerful friends that it thinks are more reliable partners. It was, however, in my view, a mistake to decline as, despite the protestation that it as good a democracy as the US, and doesn’t need democracy lessons from the US, it is a clear step out of the democracy nexus and a declaration that it prefers the company of authoritarians. I doubt this is true for most Pakistanis, so at some point, it will have to come back, and I hope that when it does the US is still a democracy, and I believe that if it is, it will not hold a grudge.
Bangladesh is a different story and raises different issues. As I wrote in my previous article two weeks ago, Bangladesh moved firmly into the authoritarian category of countries in 2018, when the government clearly stole the election from a fragmented and overmatched opposition. The government so clearly controlled the levers of the election that it would have won without any strongarm or violent tactics. It could have won the election by the usual shady vote counting and ballot box stuffing. Yet the government, for some reason, used force and fear to keep voters from the polls while its paramilitary forces and corrupt police stuffed the ballot boxes and counted only votes for the government. This was a blatant steal, a model for authoritarians everywhere, and the government had the confidence to carry it out overtly. Government leaders didn’t even blush when they announced that their party, the Awami League, and its allies, had won around 95% of the three hundred seats in the Parliament. That it seemed to surprise the Bangladesh government that the country was not invited to the Democracy Summit almost 3 years after the they had overtly stolen that election can only be explained by the same sort of “deliberate ignorance” as when they proudly announced its results.
There are few observers of Bangladesh who dispute this assertion that it is now firmly in the authoritarian camp. The most reluctant to use the term authoritarian now call Bangladesh a “undemocratic country.” However, the Trump administration did not seem to notice the change or the election coup in 2018, and continued “business as usual” with Bangladesh, which seemed to be aimed at commercial ties and worry about Chinese incursion. The Biden Administration was not so blind, but was slow to change policy at first, but it seems the failure to invite Bangladesh to the Democracy Summit was the first signal that its view was changing. On the same Friday that the Summit ended last week, the US announced sanctions of seven leaders of the primary paramilitary arm of the Bangladesh government, the RAB, for human rights abuses, reflecting a human rights abuse level that has been condemned by human rights organizations for a number of years.
This may be a good sign. There is much pressure from domestic and foreign sources for the Biden administration to adopt an America First orientation, called by some other name to avoid association with Trump as well as the pro-fascist groups that grew up in the 1930s opposing US entry in World War 2. This argues that promotion of democracy abroad is naïve and harmful to America’s interests. It has been strengthened lately by the chaotic and embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a growing fear of other “quagmires” we might be drawn into abroad as well as a feeling that declining democracy abroad is inevitable in the world as we know it, and it is a fantasy to think we can stop it. I believe this view was a driving force of the Trump administration. The fact that we have sanctioned Bangladesh is, to me an indication that the Biden administration has rejected that theory and has pruned its branches of any sympathy with it.
This defeatist thesis is dead wrong. First, it would really indicate that the US accepts that the authoritarian model of governance will prevail in the world. This is what the authoritarians like China have been proclaiming all along. It is what motivates a lot of leaders who are moving in that direction. Second, an acceptance of the defeatist thesis would change the fundamental identity of the US which, I believe could not be separated from the defense of democracy and the promotion of freedom. Without that core of our Identity, we are no longer American. This is a comparative advantage we lost in the Trump years and are reclaiming under the Biden administration. And it is a foreign policy asset of incomparable value if we use it correctly.