Time for global democracy promotion to be ramped up

As democracy is in decline across the world, we need a new club of democracies to reverse this trend.

Naledi Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2019 [File: AP/Richard Drew]

Democracy is under pressure across the world. According to the latest annual report by Freedom House, a United States-based non-partisan think-tank, the balance is shifting further “in favour of tyranny”. In the report’s assessment, 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of declining global freedom.

This dire picture is confirmed by other studies. In the 2020 edition of its Democracy Index, The Economist Intelligence Unit recorded the worst state of global democracy since the index was first published in 2006.

V-Dem, another leading research project, reported today that in 2020, autocratisation accelerated and “turned viral” across the world. V-Dem’s study points out that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen” is down “to the levels around 1990”. Last year, its researchers concluded that for the first time since 2001, a majority of states are no longer under democratic rule.

The COVID-19 crisis has been used by authoritarian governments to strengthen their grip on power and to stigmatise democracy as feeble. They not only attempt to crush opposition at home, but increasingly interfere beyond borders

At the United Nations, representatives of authoritarian regimes sit on the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations to undermine civil society participation, and on the Human Rights Council to prevent criticism of human rights abuses. On the Security Council, China and Russia are misusing their veto power to stop action against governments for their gross human rights violations, Syria being the most infamous example.

Sidestepping the dysfunctional Security Council, Liechtenstein and Qatar successfully led an initiative in the General Assembly to establish a UN investigation that has already collected massive evidence for war crimes and mass atrocities committed in Syria. Likewise, UN investigations of crimes committed in Venezuela and against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar were pushed through by groups of states.

Nonetheless, democracy has not been a prominent item on the international agenda for many years. The global trend of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarian influence makes it clear that a counter-strategy is urgent. In theory, democratic countries working together could muster substantial economic and political leverage.

Yet when in 2020, in response to China’s increasing influence across the world, then-United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo entertained the idea of “a new alliance of democracies”, it received little attention. The credibility of the Trump administration had already reached a low point.

The presidency of Donald Trump in the US was one of the worst expressions of anti-democratic and nationalist populism across the world. Trump’s “America First” ideology, his disregard of democracy, his attraction to autocratic rulers and his effort to overturn the results of the presidential election caused massive damage. The attack on the US Capitol on January 6 made the US system look weak and in considerable demise.

Now a window of opportunity seems to be opening. In his election campaign, President Joe Biden pledged that during his first year in office, the US will host a global “Summit for Democracy” to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”. An interim national security strategic guidance, published March 3, says that reversing the anti-democratic trend in the world was essential to US national security.

In a similar vein, the European Union’s representative on foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, has said that the EU should deepen its cooperation “with fellow democracies to counter the rise of authoritarianism”. A new action plan adopted in November puts a high priority on democracy promotion.

The United Kingdom has been pursuing the idea of expanding the membership in the Group of Seven (G7) bloc of states to Australia, India and South Korea, in order to form a so-called D10 “club of democracies”. This club, in the UK’s view, should help lessen reliance on Chinese technology. Reportedly, the UK as host of this year’s G7 summit plans to give full access to these three new partners.

As Biden has noted, renewing democracy at home is a precondition for regaining credibility as a promoter of democracy abroad. This applies to all countries that consider themselves democratic, requiring a reckoning with their shortcomings on both fronts.

Surveys indicate that large majorities of people in all world regions continue to believe in democracy. However, there is strong dissatisfaction with how it operates in practice. Governments are perceived to be failing to address major issues such as corruption, inequality, the needs of ordinary people or the threat of global warming.

The attack on the US Capitol prompted German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to call for a “joint Marshall Plan for democracy”. He commented that it was necessary to look into “the roots of the social divisions in our countries”.

Indeed, a club of democracies could help identify common challenges and solutions. As many issues have a cross-border dimension, a transnational perspective would be vital. The criteria for membership in such a club is a crucial question. It is not obvious why a club of democracies should be limited to the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – plus Australia, India and South Korea.

In the new Freedom House assessment, India has slipped into the category of a “partly free” country. France, Italy and the US are rated as “flawed democracies” in the index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit. From the perspective of democratic performance, the club should be open to many dozens of countries rated similarly or better. A red line should be drawn with regard to countries that are clearly authoritarian and not free.

It should not be forgotten that the G7 has drawn massive criticism in the past, not least because of a perceived lack of legitimacy and transparency. The G7 format is not the right starting point. It lacks a permanent secretariat and a formal structure. For a club of democracies, a different approach should be taken.

Instead, what may be considered is ramping up the existing Community of Democracies (CoD), which has been around since 2000. Except for Australia, Germany and France, all “D10” countries are already among the CoD’s 29 member states.

In any case, an honest assessment of how to reinvigorate and defend democracy cannot be made by diplomats and political leaders alone. Biden said that civil society representatives standing on the front lines in defence of democracy will be invited to the US-hosted summit. In this spirit, a network of civil society organisations should be connected to the club.

In addition, it is of vital importance to involve elected representatives. The club should host a permanent global network of parliamentarians from pro-democratic parties. This could tie in with existing pro-democracy efforts at the interparliamentary level and the UN.

The club should also consider convening a transnational citizens’ assembly to produce recommendations on how to strengthen democracy. At the national level, there are good examples of this format to draw upon. The club and its member governments should commit to fund these activities and implement proposals that find broad agreement.

The club should not operate in a silo that is detached from foreign relations and multilateral action. Turning outwards, it should be a platform not only for coordinating democracy promotion but also for establishing and coordinating common value-based policies, including joint smart sanctions against gross human rights abusers.

The China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment shows that this is a major challenge. It was concluded last December, despite the fact that China is brutally crushing dissent, waging a genocidal campaign against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, and stepping up its military intimidation of Taiwan. Observers complain that the agreement does not include any human rights obligations and sends the wrong signal.

The club cannot replace or compete with existing mechanisms of global governance. Working with governments rated unfree is necessary to address major global issues. For the time being, it will remain an ongoing challenge to find a balance between promoting democracy and human rights and an urgent need to collaborate.

A primary purpose of the club should be to pursue common policies in intergovernmental organisations, in particular the UN. The investigations mentioned earlier show that a lot can be done if the political will exists. The group should coordinate a UN democracy caucus to push back against authoritarian influence and help the UN step up its democracy assistance.

Finally, as globalisation increases the need for global coordination and decision-making, democracy needs to be expanded to global institutions. Leading proposals include a UN Parliamentary Assembly, the instrument of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative and the creation of a UN Civil Society Envoy. Ultimately, a club of democracies will only be credible if it helps to promote democracy at this level, too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.