Tallies by human rights groups show that in Belarus, after a year of protests against a stolen election, there are 631 political prisoners. In Cuba, following protests on July 11, some 830 people have been questioned or detained or have disappeared. In resistance to the military coup in Myanmar, 968 have been killed and 5,571 are in detention. Against those who protested in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny earlier this year, about 90 criminal cases have been opened. China is convicting pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. This trail of repression — the rise of an illiberal order — is growing more intense every day. Democracy is in crisis.
Those who hold democratic values dear should applaud President Biden’s announcement of a Summit for Democracy, to be held virtually Dec. 9 and 10, with a follow-up next year. Dictators have been emboldened in recent years not only to deny liberty to their own people but to infiltrate and undermine freedom elsewhere. They have learned to exploit capitalism and globalization to enrich their kleptocratic regimes. They have learned to stage phony elections, parties and media while maintaining a monopoly on power and rejecting genuine competition. They have turned rule of law into a cudgel, accusing those who dissent of being “foreign agents” or “extremists” and throwing them in prison.
Mr. Biden has created a focused agenda: defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights. Democracies must rediscover their natural, competitive advantages. One of them is the power of alliances; when Lithuania stands up to China and Belarus, as it has lately, other democracies must speak up in its defense. Democracies also can harvest the rich sources of ideas and resilience that are nurtured in nongovernmental organizations, universities and media, and absent in societies governed by fear.
What’s needed in this struggle are fresh ideas and workable methods. Those in the trenches fighting for their right to speak and assemble openly, to believe what they want and to disseminate those thoughts, have turned often to street protest. It has been impressive to see the demonstrations blossom, but it is discouraging to witness how rapidly the regimes crush them with raids, arrests, coercion and force, up to and including mass killing. How can the world’s democracies put new and effective tools in the hands of those on the front lines, such as digital means to expose their tormentors and rally their compatriots? If a simple Facebook video could trigger protests in Cuba not seen in 60 years, if Mr. Navalny could expose the Russian president’s secret palace in a YouTube video seen 100 million times, what else is possible? Two recent reports, one by Freedom House and the other from the National Endowment for Democracy, detail some new strategies. Mr. Biden’s summit must launch a renewed determination to defend democracy — and come up with actionable plans to do so.