The summit will center on defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and advancing respect for human rights. “We aim to show how democracies can deliver on the issues that matter most to people: strengthening accountable governance, expanding economic opportunities, protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, and enabling lives of dignity,” the statement reads. “We also will show how open, rights-respecting societies can work together to effectively tackle the great challenges of our time, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and growing inequality.”
The concern is that this event will be more than a dog and pony show, a conference with glossy programs but little in the way of substance. While the preview suggests this will be devoid of concrete agreements (the State Department describes it as “an opportunity to listen, learn, and engage”), there are a few things the administration can do to make the summit worthwhile.
First, Biden needs to be able to set an example and show how the United States is tackling issues such as corruption. While there are reforms contained in the For the People Act regarding “dark money” in our elections, there is much the administration can do without Congress to promote transparency and anti-corruption, such as filling all open inspectors general slots, expanding financial disclosure statements, beefing up the Office of Government Ethics and voluntarily including the president and vice president in the executive branch’s conflict of interest regulations. The administration can also speed up responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. These sort of reforms would help Biden cajole other democracies to eschew self-dealing and heighten transparency. It is always a good idea to put one’s own house in order before holding oneself as a model.
In that regard, it is essential that the United States addresses the deteriorating state of voting rights at home. Without this, the administration is in a poor position to talk about the threats to functional democracy. If by the time December rolls around and Congress has not passed significant voting reform — including protections against vote flipping and the politicization of election administration, increased access to the ballot box, and stiff penalties for threatening election workers — our defense of democracy will look hypocritical and empty.
Candidly, threats to democracies do not come solely from authoritarian regimes (although such regimes may help stir anti-democratic sentiments). Right now, the greatest threats to U.S. democracy are all internal — states that pass Jim Crow-style laws; a Supreme Court that eviscerates legal protection against voting discrimination; gerrymandering schemes that help shield incumbents from accountability; and, of course, a national party led by the former president who incited a violent insurrection.
Finally, the administration can emphasize disinformation as a topic for the summit, as it is a key tool that authoritarians employ to threaten democracy. The United States is awash in it — from anti-vaccine misinformation to ongoing attempts to incite another insurrection based on bizarre theories that the disgraced former president could somehow be “reinstated” later this month. Democratic governments that respect freedom of speech have few tools at their disposal to address this problem. However, transnational social media companies do — and they have failed to address the problem adequately and uniformly.
It may be time, if not to regulate these companies, then to apply public pressure on them to be transparent about their algorithms, to report on the full extent of disinformation spreading on their platforms and to create a body that would hold them accountable for enforcing their terms of service. In addition, there is a host of interesting ideas to improve the social media diet. The American Academy of Arts and Science has put out a detailed list of recommendations to do this, including creation of “civic media platforms”; exploring a “public-interest mandate” (as broadcast networks have) for Internet platforms protected from liability (in the United States, under Section 230); and research into the impact of social media on democracies.
There is no reason the summit has to be an empty exercise. If Biden can use the event to encourage meaningful voting reform and anti-corruption measures at home, and if it does meaningful work on the role of social media in attacks on democracy, it might be worth the time and effort it takes to put on such a gathering.