President Joe Biden is right to convene a Summit of Democracies to promote basic freedoms around the world, but there is a danger that inviting some democratically elected but authoritarian presidents could end up legitimizing these would-be dictators.
According to a White House statement, Biden “will bring together leaders from a diverse group of democracies around the world for a virtual Summit of Democracies” on December 9-10. The meeting will be to propose joint initiatives to combat authoritarianism and corruption, and to promote respect for human rights, the statement said.
It sounds great, and it is certainly much better than former President Donald Trump’s encounters with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un and other autocrats whom he happily embraced while ignoring their human rights abuses. But Biden runs the risk of making the mistake of inviting both well-established democracies and hybrid democracies, with the idea that the latter abide by the agreements that are signed.
That has already been tried in the past and it didn’t work that well. In the late 1990s, under Bill Clinton, the United States co-sponsored a major international summit to promote democracy in the world.
At the June 27, 2000 conference in Warsaw, Poland, senior officials from 106 democratic countries signed a declaration entitled “Towards a Community of Democracies.”
Although the dictatorships of Cuba and China were not invited, as they probably will not be now, the Warsaw conference and its aftermath in the following years included Venezuela and Peru. At that time, Venezuela was governed by the former military coup leader Hugo Chávez, and Peru by Alberto Fujimori, who had closed the Congress of his country eight years earlier.
One could argue that Chávez had just been elected, and he deserved a chance to reform. But Venezuela continued to be invited to the conferences of the Community of Democracies until 2005, when Chávez was already grabbing almost absolute powers.
Both Venezuela and Peru happily signed the Warsaw Declaration of 2000, which committed countries to holding free and fair elections, respecting the other powers of the State and a free press. Would it make sense for Biden to now invite the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele? He was democratically elected but has stormed Congress with army troops to intimidate the opposition, and more recently used his majority in Congress to fire five independent Supreme Court justices. Would it make sense for Biden to now invite Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently threatened not to recognize the results of next year’s presidential elections if he is defeated?
Would it make sense for Biden to invite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador? Recently, he gave a red carpet welcome to the dictators of Cuba and Venezuela, giving them a major propaganda victory at a time when both were brutally suppressing the opposition. Would it make sense for Biden to invite Bolivian President Luis Arce, who allows his justice system to keep former President Jeanine Áñez in prison on unfounded charges of “genocide”?
Would it make sense for Biden to invite Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, who as of this writing has refused to overrule or fire his Security Minister, Aníbal Fernández, for tweeting a veiled threat against the children of a political cartoonist ?
Instead of inviting more than 100 countries, as the Clinton administration did, Biden should hold a smaller summit. It would be better to invite a few well-established democracies to coordinate new diplomatic ways to pressure Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other dictatorships to restore basic freedoms. And summit participants could also explore new ways to protect themselves against would-be autocrats in their own countries, like Trump in the United States, who want to subvert the results of free elections.
A small summit of well-established democracies would make more sense than inviting leaders of dubious democratic credentials and allowing them to boast of having been invited to a club of free countries. President Biden, don’t make that mistake. It has already been tried, and it did not work.
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