The Global Summit for Democracy: Let’s talk about supranationality

During the opening remarks of US President Biden at the virtual summit. To the right US Secretary of State Blinken. Source: Still image from YouTube/State Department

From 9-10 December 2021, representatives from politics, civil society, and business from over a hundred countries gathered for the virtual Global Summit for Democracy on the invitation of the US administration under Joe Biden. The agenda included speeches and panel discussions on various challenges that democracy is facing worldwide, among them the fight against corruption, ways to deal with disinformation, protection of human rights and press freedom, and the integrity of elections. The event took place online, and recordings of the panels can be found here.

Who was invited, who was not?

The summit had already created quite a stir in the run-up. There was much discussion, for example, about the list of invited governments: The summit was not limited to a core of full democracies but also included some more dubious invitees – even the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Iraq which are rated as “not free” in the Freedom House Index.

On the other hand, there were also some prominent absentees, among them some formally democratic, but internally troubled countries like Bolivia or Tunisia. Among the member states of the European Union, only Hungary was not invited to participate. This triggered a spiteful reaction from Viktor Orbán’s government, including a pointless veto against a common EU summit position.

President-elect Joe Biden pledged to convene a summit of democracies. The image was taken at an event in Iowa in 2019. Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

China’s reaction

Among the twelve most populous countries in the world, only China and Russia were not invited– and they did not simply shrug it off, either. It was certainly no coincidence that on the weekend before the summit the Chinese government published a paper titled “Democracy that works” in which it presented its own concept of a “whole-process people’s democracy”. According to the Chinese Communist Party’s logic, democracy is not defined by free and equal elections, separation of powers, fundamental rights or similar criteria, but by “addressing the issues that concern the people”, for which every country was supposed to find its own way.

While this argument would hardly stand up to a rigorous analysis in democratic theory, the Chinese paper and the timing of its publication can best be understood as an attempt to create rhetorical confusion and not to leave the term “democracy” (with all its positive connotations) to the USA and its allies alone. However, the fact that the summit caused the Chinese government to take such action in the first place is symptomatic of a larger problem: the Summit for Democracy was not only about consolidating and developing existing democracies. It was also overshadowed by the intensifying global political conflict between the “West” on the one hand and China and Russia on the other.

New systemic rivalry

This geopolitical dimension could not be entirely avoided. Many of the challenges facing national democracy in the countries that participated in the summit have domestic roots. However, it is known that the Russian government in particular has repeatedly tried to disrupt democratic processes in other countries with disinformation campaigns and by other means. China, for its part, has destroyed democracy in Hong Kong and is increasing its pressure on Taiwan. Conversely, national liberal democratic movements – whether in Belarus or Venezuela – tend to turn to the USA and the EU in search of international support. The new “systemic rivalry” between democratic and autocratic great powers is not just an invention of Western geopolitical strategists.

The global competition between the USA and China (and the EU and Russia) is not only about constitutional values, but often enough about opposed economic and political interests. It is about the control of trade routes, supply of raw materials, access to sales markets, as well as strategic partnerships, diplomatic and military alliances, political presence in the world – in short, it is about the centuries-old great powers’ game for global hegemony. Viewed through this lens, the organisation of the Summit for Democracy could all too easily be seen as a mere attempt by the US to rally like-minded governments in order to improve its geopolitical position: a kind of “NATO plus” that draws its meaning primarily from a confrontation with China and Russia.

But the goal of democracy promotion is too important to be subordinated to geostrategic issues. If it is to succeed, it must be directed inwards rather than outwards: towards a concrete agenda for improving the political system of the states involved, not towards a political showdown with other, non-democratic countries.

Global democracy has yet to be created

In this context, it is worrisome that much of the Summit’s agenda focused on negative challenges and threats to national democracy, rather than a positive agenda for the future. Democracy is by no means a finished product that only needs to be defended – especially on a global scale. On the contrary, almost everywhere in the world democratic principles have so far been realised only at the national (and in some cases at the continental) level. Beyond that, there is little more than intergovernmental organisations and precarious international law. There are no supranational parliaments in which democratically elected legislators set binding law, and no courts before which individuals could claim their rights.

This may, in theory, have sufficed as long as most socially relevant political issues affected the national level only. But in an age marked by global economic interdependence, worldwide migration flows, a planetary climate crisis and a pandemic, national democracy can hardly be considered the last word in democratic wisdom. On the contrary: due to the constraints of globalisation, nation states are rapidly losing the ability to act on their own, and a purely national democracy without global democratic institutions is in danger of becoming pointless. The Rodrik trilemma comes to mind.

From the summit for democracy to a global democratic union

The aim should therefore be to overcome today’s intergovernmentalism and to start dealing with global issues in jointly elected institutions. The most obvious way to achieve this, a democratisation of the United Nations, is difficult to achieve in the foreseeable future, not least because China and Russia’s resistance could be expected. But why shouldn’t we start with worldwide supranational democracy on a somewhat smaller scale – for example, with a group of those countries that are now gathered at the Democracy Summit?

Why don’t we create a global “Democratic Union” with a supranational parliament that has real decision-making power on selected issues that concern all member states? It seems quite obvious that in the future we will need more global financial redistribution to deal with the effects of the climate crisis – why should this be done intergovernmentally and not through elected supranational institutions equipped with their own budget? And aren’t we currently observing in the case of Poland that a supranational court that can impose real sanctions within the framework of a binding supranational legal order is the most effective means of how a community of states can oppose aspiring autocrats?

If all that is too much to ask, why don’t we at least start with a democratic parliamentary network and a transnational citizens’ assembly, as suggested by Democracy Without Borders, that would set in motion stronger global cooperation beyond intergovernmental fora – and perhaps pave the way for other democratic advances to become possible in the future?

What is valued more: sovereignty or democracy?

Such a supranational-parliamentary “Democratic Union” would be primarily inward-looking. If it works well and has an adequate budget, more states will want to join, which, as we know from the history of the EU, could provide an important incentive for democratisation. But its main endeavour would not be focused on external geopolitical interests, but on democratically dealing with the political issues that are common to its member states.

At the Global Summit for Democracy, such proposals were not on the agenda. Unfortunately, in case of doubt, many governments still ascribe a higher value to national sovereignty than to (supranational) democracy. But things do not have to remain like this. If the US administration is not interested, perhaps the EU could step in and invite the world to another global democracy summit, one that puts a strong focus on the supranational dimension?

Manuel Müller
Author of the blog Der (europäische) Föderalist. Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen.