The misguided US 'democracy summit'
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The misguided US 'democracy summit'

An anti-government protester holds a sign at a rally near Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Thailand along with several authoritarian countries in Asean except Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, were not invited to join US President Joe Biden's 'summit for democracy'. (Photo: Reuters)
An anti-government protester holds a sign at a rally near Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Thailand along with several authoritarian countries in Asean except Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, were not invited to join US President Joe Biden's 'summit for democracy'. (Photo: Reuters)

The United States government under President Joe Biden is putting up the right fight in a counterproductive way in its online organisation of a "summit for democracy" this week. Much touted since he won the election in November last year, President Biden's summit of democracies has proved controversial, with both good intentions and unintended consequences. The real battleground, as clichés about the benefits and drawbacks of democracy go, is to make the case that popular rule where citizens should have rights and freedoms for their own collective self-determination is ultimately preferable and superior than all other forms of government.

As has been pointed out and criticised widely, Mr Biden's summit leaves out a range of countries that can be considered "democratic" if the likes of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Pakistan are included. So far, some 110 countries are included. Countries that have been rolling back democracy with right-wing populist characteristics, such as India and Poland, are also in.

From Southeast Asia, only three countries have been invited, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. None of the mainland Southeast Asian countries -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam -- has made the list. As multiparty elections reportedly represent the main criterion for the guest list, autocratic countries like Brunei, Laos, post-coup Myanmar, and Vietnam are understandably excluded. But if Malaysia with its democratic "backsliding" of rights violations can be included, then why not Thailand? But then if Thailand can make the list, why not Cambodia?

Most glaring is the exclusion of Singapore, which in this region appears a long-functioning democracy. Despite its one-party dominance under the People's Action Party, Singapore's parliamentary opposition is allowed ample political space and its popular rights and freedoms are generally respected with legal due process and a widely perceived judicial independence. Excluding Singapore from a patchy Southeast Asia seems misplaced much more than not including Thailand, which has gone through two military coups in 15 years under a military-arranged constitution, or Cambodia, which is practically a one-party elected dictatorship.

So the first self-inflicted shot in the foot of this summit comes from a blurry dichotomy between autocracy and democracy, underpinned by a problematic definition and classification. The polarisation of the world into autocracies and democracies makes more critics and enemies than winning friends. Moreover, it is alienating. Countries that function under a democratic system, such as Singapore, could become resentful towards the US, while others that have slipped in democracy rankings and measurements, such as the Philippines and elsewhere, are encouraged without it being deserved.

Second, because this summit has China and Russia to a lesser extent written all over it, it allows these two authoritarian regimes to have a field day with the faults and flaws of democracy, pointing out the inherent US hypocrisy. While Russia's foreign ministry put out a scathing anti-Western critique of the summit aimed mainly at the US and the European Union, China's pushback from its foreign ministry is methodical and comprehensive in exposing the shortcomings of democracy in America.

The Chinese leadership begins with lessons of meanings and definitions of democracy and how its objective should be the prosperity and welfare of its people. China's written lecture on "the state of democracy in the United States" then elaborates on structural problems in American democracy, its capture by a minority elite and broad dysfunctionality where by "vetocracy" undermines checks and balances. It calls out "entrenched racism", wealth disparity, the Capitol riots in January, Covid-19 mismanagement, and so on. It also attacks the supposed role of the US as the "beacon of democracy" and enumerates much that went wrong with the "colour revolutions".

By not focusing on what's wrong with autocracy in comparative terms, the Biden administration has put the onus on democracies with mixed perceptions and results. Perhaps the incumbent US president is looking for a "Biden doctrine" of sorts. If his predecessors of George W Bush had the "global war on terror," Barack Obama the geostrategic "pivot and rebalance," and Donald Trump "America First," what is to be Mr Biden's? While the Biden administration may be in search of an overarching theme, this democracy summit is unlikely to be it.

In some ways, this summit is where the Biden team may think they can marry democratic values with national interests, having their cake and eating it, too. They want to pursue geostrategic interests and push back China's authoritarian ways, while maintaining primacy vis-a-vis China and upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms. Yet doing so with this summit is not the way forward. It will be hard to sustain this kind of summit of democracies. In its aftermath, there will likely be acrimony and accusations about which countries are democratic, and which are not. Choosing "democracy" to galvanise friends and allies comes with big risks.

Democracies are not static. Some countries that are democracies today may slip and slide into undemocratic practices. The work to be done is to ensure more reversals from the autocratic side -- how to turn autocracies to become more democratic and how to prevent democracies turning towards authoritarianism. These are the ultimate questions that may determine the global rivalry and competition between the US and China.

For Southeast Asia, democracy is clearly down but not out. From the Myanmar military's brutal robbery of democratic rule from its people and Thailand's latent military-backed royalist conservative regime manipulating constitutional ways to elected office to established and emergent authoritarianism around the region, democracy appears in unmistakable retreat. The hope ahead for democracies like Thailand that have been rolled back by military coups and autocratic rule is to promote newer, younger generations who demand basic rights and freedoms to cater to their digitalised lifestyles and 21st-century upward mobility.

Young people generally abhor top-down autocratic tendencies because their tastes and preferences require self-determination and attendant liberties. While many governments, such as Thailand's, have found overt and camouflaged authoritarian practices appealing to keep power and perpetuate their vested interests, younger demographics in these countries do not. What the United States can do -- apart from constantly nurturing and remedying the internal stress and strain of its own democracy -- is to recognise and promote Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha by speaking up for persecuted dissidents and opponents of repressive regimes, providing programmatic support and channels for youth movements to rise up for a better future, including the Milk Tea Alliance across Asian societies and three-finger political symbolism in Myanmar, Thailand, and elsewhere.

While authoritarian pasts have come back to haunt many societies over the past three decades, the newer and younger generations are the agents that can turn back the tide over the next 30 years. Theirs is a necessarily more open and pro-democracy future.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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