December 08, 2021

The Summit for Democracy (Virtually) Takes Washington

By Richard Fontaine, Carrie Cordero, Lisa Curtis, Martijn Rasser, Laura G. Brent, Carisa Nietsche, and Nicholas Lokker

Tomorrow, the White House convenes over 100 governments for its long-promised Summit for Democracy—an event that has already elicited much discussion from supporters and critics alike. Ahead of the virtual summit, which notably excludes Russia, China, and Hungary, experts from across the Center for a New American Security weigh in with their perspectives and expectations.

To arrange an interview, email ssimon@cnas.org. Direct quotes from the text below may also be used with attribution.

  • Richard Fontaine CEO: The Summit for Democracy signals a desire for greater democratic unity, as well as the United States’ unique responsibility to rally likeminded nations. But the event cannot be the high-water mark in that campaign—it should instead kick off an ambitious effort to demonstrate that democracy works in the 21st century.

    This is, after all, the 15th consecutive year that Freedom House has reported a decline in democracy worldwide, and ways in which America has fallen short of its political ideals have been on vivid display. While the United States must continue strengthening democratic institutions at home, it can and should support the growth of freedom abroad at the same time. The Summit for Democracy can be a key part of that effort. There are plenty of skeptics heading into the summit. The Biden administration has an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong, by using the summit as a launchpad for an ambitious and enduring effort to strengthen democracy around the world.

    Related Reading:
    - Op-Ed: Biden Democracy Summit Must Prove Skeptics Wrong (Foreign Policy, November 2021)
    - Op-Ed: Values are Interests (American Purpose, December 2021)
  • Carrie Cordero Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow: By hosting this year's Democracy Summit, President Biden is reasserting America's voice in support of democracy. That the U.S. administration is asserting a leadership role in promoting democracy worldwide in a year when several independent outside reviews have all observed negative indicators in America's own political and civic environment demonstrates that the administration is committed to bolstering democracy—even though the U.S. has challenges at home.

    Attention does need to be paid at home. Election administration, voting access, and strengthening congressional authorities are all areas where civil society and the policy community are coalescing around bolstering U.S. democracy. But the efforts must include more. Among them should be activities geared toward providing greater security and safety at home. Given the wide range of threats facing Americans—from pandemic to domestic terrorism to gun violence to drug overdoses and much more—democracy here at home needs to show it can do a better job of making Americans safe at home.
  • Lisa Curtis Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security: Most media attention on this week’s Democracy Summit has centered on the invitation list, which includes nations like Pakistan and the Philippines, whose citizens have faced serious human rights abuses in recent years. But this press focus misses the forest for the trees. More important than which countries’ officials will be there is the platform and support that the summit provides to individuals fighting for democracy and human rights around the world.

    In the face of Chinese claims that its brand of authoritarianism has allowed it to cope more effectively with the global pandemic and the Russian regime’s recent attempt to kill off a democratic contender, the Democracy Summit provides an opportunity to shift the narrative and highlight efforts to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights. It is more important than ever that the United States lead the way in reminding the world of the power of democracy and the need for governments to be responsive to their citizens to advance human liberty and global prosperity.
  • Martijn Rasser Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security: The summit’s agenda is stunningly light on technology matters given how central tech is as an enabler for the assault on democracy worldwide. Fortunately, the United States and fellow tech-leading democracies are focusing on this issue in other groupings and fora, including the nascent Alliance for the Future of the Internet. Although we should not expect major pronouncements or concrete actions coming out of the summit, the symbolism is important. Beijing and Moscow’s reactions to the summit have highlighted their insecurity and defensiveness as the world’s democracies show even a hint of greater cooperation and alignment. That will prove to be the summit’s greatest impact: showing the potential of collective action on democratic renewal to catalyze ongoing and new targeted efforts, including for technology policy.
  • Laura G. Brent Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security: By putting technology issues on the Summit for Democracy agenda, the White House is sending an important message about the fundamental role technology plays in modern society. The framing of these discussions also critically acknowledges that technology is an enabler of government, for good or for ill. Given the level of concern about technology’s ability to undermine democracy, however, it is perhaps a bit surprising that there are not more, or more specific, technology sessions planned.

    With speakers drawn from government, industry, academia, and think tanks, it will be interesting to judge the level of alignment between these communities on complex and sensitive issues, such as U.S. technology companies operating in authoritarian nations or the role of government in technology regulation
  • Carisa Nietsche Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security: The Summit for Democracy will be a missed opportunity if it does not galvanize meaningful reforms in democracies. While the global agenda the administration outlined is important, the participating countries must also undertake domestic reforms to strengthen their democracies. In the United States, we must protect voting rights, address systemic inequality, and strengthen institutions. We must hold participating leaders – especially those leading “partly free” countries – accountable for their actions and drive home that strengthening democracy starts at home. Democracy is a project, and the Summit for Democracy will only be a success if it galvanizes reforms and breathes new life into that project at home and abroad.
  • Nick Lokker Intern, Transatlantic Security: The Summit for Democracy could have represented an opportunity to strengthen relations between the United States and the European Union, two of the most significant global champions of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, Hungary’s decision to unilaterally block the European Union’s role in the meeting, a spiteful reaction to its own snubbing as a result of recent democratic backsliding, demonstrates how intra-EU divisions hamper the bloc’s ability to exert influence on the world stage. Going forward, the success of President Biden’s values-based foreign policy will depend in large part on his ability to work in lockstep with Brussels. Yet this will be impossible as long as the European Union continues to fail to get its own house in order.

All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Sydney Simon at ssimon@cnas.org or comms@cnas.org.

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Carrie Cordero

    Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow

    Carrie Cordero is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel at CNAS. Her research and writing interests focus on homeland security and intelligence community overs...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Martijn Rasser

    Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program

    Martijn Rasser is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. Prior to joining CNAS, Rasser served as a senior intelligence officer a...

  • Laura G. Brent

    Former Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Laura G. Brent is a former Senior Fellow in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).Prior to joining CNAS, Ms. Brent serv...

  • Carisa Nietsche

    Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Carisa Nietsche is an Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She specializes in Europe-China relations, transatlantic technology policy, and threats ...

  • Nicholas Lokker

    Research Assistant, Transatlantic Security Program

    Nick Lokker is a Research Assistant for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. His work focuses on European political and security affairs, with a particular emphasis on ...