To the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy—a song that initially derided American culture but that then became an unofficial revolutionary anthem against the British—the Biden Administration has just held its promised virtual Summit for Democracy in December 2021.
The stated goal of the Democracy Summit was to open the doors to common approaches among “democratic” states to fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. The conference brought together some 111 “democratic” state leaderships (a few of which can dubiously be called “democracies” and one, Taiwan, is not a state) to discuss what is essentially domestic policy. This represented an original initiative that differed from the more traditional foreign policy focus on international political-economic policies and defense and security strategies.
Although controversial, the Democracy Summit could prove to be positive if it eventually blazes the path for fundamental reforms in the nature of democratic governance throughout the world—in the assumption that states will follow through on their promises. From the outset of the conference, it was clear that the Biden administration was looking to the future in the effort to inspire youth to press for democratic reforms in their respective countries. This is taking place in an American political context in which both presidential candidates in 2020 were over 70 years old—raising critical questions as to how presidential candidates are chosen in the U.S.
While deeper democratic reforms and efforts to reduce corruption in certain countries may prove plausible, and assuming that that U.S. government support for democracy movements does not cause backlashes as it has in Russia and China, more fundamental democratic reforms will not take place unless the U.S. itself—as it is still the hegemonic global liberal-democratic power—begins to significantly reform its own governmental structure and practices. It is crucial that Washington deepen its own practices of democratic governance at all levels—so as to live up to its own principles and to practice what it preaches.
The dysfunctional nature of U.S. domestic governance needs deep reforms if the U.S. is to prove to be a “beacon” for democratic reforms around the world and if the U.S. is to avert the real possibility that an authoritarian regime could soon come to power in the U.S. itself.
Much as I argued in World War Trump, and in many articles, some proposed options that need in-depth discussion in the coming years include:
- enhancing the transparency of democratic government decision-making though independent oversight and other initiatives, while also reforming campaign financing laws, as steps toward reducing corruption;
- limiting the President and Congress to a single six-year term in office, while collapsing both the House and Senate into one body and limiting the Supreme Court members to a 12-year term;
- eliminating the Electoral Congress but mandating that presidential candidates must have significant experience in Congress or as State Governors or some other meaningful political experience;
- breaking the bipartisan duopoly and opening the door to multiple parties that seek to govern in power-sharing coalitions;
- augmenting civil society participation in all levels of governance, from the local, to the state, federal and international, while including employee participation in corporate decision-making;
- making voting requirements as easy as possible for all citizens, with independent oversight to prevent gerrymandering in favor of one political party;
- making certain all government decisions thoroughly discuss and consider all possible options through greater use of multi-option voting and once again encouraging multiple party cooperation;
- providing all individuals basic human needs, including the right to a clean environment and water;
- protecting human rights by opposing all forms of torture (which should include the death penalty);
- strengthening laws protecting whistleblowers and journalists to report on even controversial issues that challenge the decisions of political and military leadership.
The above 10 proposals represent just a few viable means to more positively improve the American form of democratic governance and that could prove applicable in many countries. Yet there are evidently a number of issues listed above where the U.S. and other democracies thus far disagree.
Debates within democracies
What must be addressed is the fact that democratic structures and practices of governance can be very different—ranging from presidential to parliamentary systems to consociationalist and confessional systems. There are both multiparty and two-party systems, and some “democracies” such as Japan and Mexico, have been ruled primarily by one party since the end of World War II—which raises questions of possible corruption and lack of transparency.
And while democracies may generally share similar ideals, they do not rank those ideals in the same order. Liberal and Social Democracy are not always compatible, and concepts of workplace democracy generally do not fit into either of the latter forms of democracy. At the same time, what is essential to democracy is the right of individuals to participate in governance and the right to free and protected speech. Yet even on these issues, there are disagreements.
In terms of human rights, the European Union, for example, opposes the death penalty, while the death penalty is up to each of the states in the U.S. Federal system of democratic governance—as the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment. And for all its talk about the rights of women and opposition to discrimination based on sex, the U.S. has not yet passed the Equal Rights Amendment—although Congress is reconsidering the issue.
Another major human rights issue is that of journalistic and personal freedom in an era of increasing state and corporate surveillance. There is a heavy irony in the fact that during the Democracy Summit Biden announced the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal that promised $424 million to support Free and Independent Media; fight Corruption; bolster Democratic Reformers; advance Technology for Democracy; defend Free and Fair Elections and Political Processes—in the same week that the U.S. won its case to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.
The U.S. government has accused Assange of illegally publishing “top secrets” that exposed U.S. war crimes and other concerns. The U.S. wants to punish Assange for violating the 1917 Espionage Act, a law which was passed during wartime—when the U.S. is not now technically “at war” even if it is called the “Global War on Terrorism.”
As Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers that exposed U.S. war crimes during the Vietnam War, put it: “Without whistleblowers, we would not have democracy… The First Amendment is a pillar of our democracy and this (the Assange case) is an assault on it. If the freedom of speech is violated to this extent, our republic is in danger. Unauthorized disclosures are the lifeblood of the republic."
Trump and free speech
This issue of free speech and free journalism is becoming even more complex in the U.S. itself as the Biden administration seeks to deal with the Trumpist opposition which claims the “Big Lie” that the Democrats had fixed the 2020 presidential election. A further irony is that the Democracy Summit and its presumed support for independent journalism ironically come at a time when Donald Trump has promised to start a new social media platform called Truth Social (in 1984 “doublethink”).
The latter is intended to denounce the “fake news” of the liberal democratic media and of the Biden administration. Assuming Trump can raise up to $1 billion as he has boasted, Trump’s Truth Social claims that it will be “America’s “Big Tent” social media platform that encourages an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating against political ideology.”
After Trump was banned from Facebook, there is a risk that attempts to censor Trump could strengthen his cause. With Republican and Democratic ideologies clashing, and with both parties vying to justify their previous and ongoing support for the Global War on Terrorism, it will prove very difficult to ascertain which—if either side, Republican or Democrat—is telling the truth.
The GWOT has reached a cost of over 8 trillion dollars and has been accompanied by significant violations of human rights in which the U.S. has blocked investigations by the International Criminal Court and others. The fact that both parties likewise continue to support excessive yearly military spending of over $1 trillion, among other incredibly wasteful governmental policies and expenditures, represents an issue that argues for the development of a multiparty democratic system. It seems the Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked on social issues, but not military spending!
If Biden and the Democrats are not careful, the real threat to American democracy will not come from Russia or China, but from authoritarian movements within the U.S. itself. In general, these far-right populist movements in the U.S. and elsewhere thrive on concerns that are not fully or appropriately addressed by liberal-democratic states. And in the case of the U.S., such movements are challenging the overly complex system of American democratic “checks and balances.”
If Biden’s Democracy Summit is to mean anything, it needs to show why democracy—if properly exercised and practiced—will improve all people’s lives, not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well. It must show why authoritarian governments cannot fulfill all the social and political needs of the general population—an issue that will be challenged by China in particular. Yet, as argued above, the liberal U.S. form of democracy cannot show its advantages without significant reforms.
The question of term limits and democracy
One way to expand democratic participation and reduce corruption is to establish more stringent term limits.
There is a danger that if Trump and the Trumpists eventually have their way after a Biden presidency, they will seek to expand the power of the Executive branch by permitting the President to run for three or more terms of office while limiting the terms of Congress, and further weakening the power of the Supreme Court. Trump’s ultimate goal is to significantly augment the power of the Presidency while weakening Congress and the Supreme Court.
In their nostalgia for the defeated Southern Confederacy and in opposition to the power of the Federal government that has significantly augmented its powers since the Civil War and after the New Deal of Franklyn D. Roosevelt, it is been overlooked that the Southern Confederacy did not forge a strong executive branch. Instead, it imposed strict term limits on its leadership. The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was chosen by an electoral college in a form of indirect democracy for a single 6-year term as president of the Confederacy.
At the same time, if the Biden administration is to revive its Yankee Doodle Dandy values, it should be recognized that the American revolutionaries at the time of the Articles of Confederation demanded strict term limits for their representatives. A one term six-year presidency can be passed as a Constitutional amendment.
These historical analogies to the American Revolutionaries and to the Southern Confederacy both support term limits as a means to reduce corruption, but also as a means to strengthen democracy (at least for the American Revolutionaries).
Yet a single term U.S. presidency is not what Trump is offering the American people. What Trump seeks is a dictatorship for himself and/or his cohorts—in backing the far-right siege on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
Need for a global peace conference
There is a real danger that Biden’s Summit of Democracies will not only alienate key authoritarian U.S. allies, which were not invited to the Summit but will reinforce the ideological division between 'democracies' and 'authoritarian' regimes and thus further polarize the global system.
Polarization of the global system could make it even more difficult to engage in a diplomatic compromise between rival states in the quest for peace and sustainable development. And given the fundamental differences and interests among democracies themselves, as well as the differences among those allies that are questioning democracy, major democratic reforms will simply not take place in a highly polarized and hyper-securitized global geopolitical context in which major powers of the UN Security Council are threatening war against each other.
While the Democracy Summit could help make some marginal improvements in the way democratic states govern and interact if they follow up on their discussions, the formulation of the summit is problematic in that it forged a clear political division between the democratic “in” group and the authoritarian “out” group. And while the Summit excluded U.S. allies such as Hungary and Turkey, it also permitted a number of the ‘in’ states to participate that have begun to question the nature of democratic governance or that do not necessarily act in accord with democratic principles.
There were a number of states that appear to be democracies in name, but that does not engage in democracy in practice, or whose present commitment to democracy is questionable. These include Poland, Brazil, India, and the Philippines, as well as Ukraine. By inviting these countries, the question remains as to whether they will engage in significant democratic and human rights reforms, or whether the leaderships will think that because they are major U.S. allies they will remain untouchable.
In the aftermath of the Yankee Doodle Dandy Democracy Summit—that seeks to revitalize the American commitment to democracy since the American Revolution—what is really needed is a Global Peace Conference that brings democracies, non-democracies, as well those so-called democratic states that are beginning to question democracy, together into a forum so as to seek ways to reconcile both their geopolitical and economic differences as well as their ideological disputes.
The fact that the French-led G-7 summit in 2019 invited Russia, Iran, and India shows that such a dialogue with the authoritarian states is possible. And at a minimum, President Biden should engage in two new summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with Chinese leader Xi Jinping—as Moscow boosts its troop presence around Ukraine and Beijing threatens Taiwan—in an effort to prevent major power war.
The question of Taiwan and Texas
While Russia and China were not invited to the Democracy Summit, Taiwan was. By inviting Taiwan, Biden sent a message to Beijing that Taiwan is already an independent ‘democratic’ state—even though it is claimed by China as a province.
In many ways, U.S. claims to recognize Taiwan as an independent state parallel the possibility that Beijing could recognize recent Texan claims to secede from the Union (Texit). As is the case for the feared “secession” of Hong Kong and Taiwan from China, a demand which is seen as illegal by Beijing, the proposed secession of Texas is also considered illegal by U.S. law.
So if Texas—which has begun to gerrymander districts in such a way as to permit Republicans to win and which appears to be separating itself both culturally and politically from the rest of the U.S.—makes good on its threats to secede, will Washington crackdown by force as did Lincoln at the time of the Civil War and as did China on Hong Kong and maybe on Taiwan?
While the possibility of Texan independence appears to be a dubious prospect, it is not impossible. What policy might Washington pursue if Texas continues to pursue such a direction? It seems evident that the best option is dialogue.
The need for multilateral dialogue
In this perspective, it is necessary to find ways to reconcile Beijing and Taipei through multilateral dialogue on domestic as well as international issues involving the Europeans, Russia and other states in Asia as well, while also seeking to reconcile Ukraine and Russia. And perhaps such a multilateral dialogue could eventually prove necessary to reconcile Washington and Texas too!
A dialogue between democratic and non-democratic countries could prove helpful in moving toward peaceful reforms in non-democratic countries as well. Yet without opening up the discussion to all countries—as well as to critics of the U.S. model of democracy—which is not the only model of democracy—Biden’s Democracy Summit will not make any significant progress in the cause of global peace and sustainable development.
There is a real risk that these democratic discussions will reinforce the ideological division between 'democracies' and 'authoritarian' regimes and thus further polarize the global system. And the polarization and militarization of the global system could put to a halt democratic reforms in both the U.S. and everywhere.
In sum, if the Democracy Summit is used merely to extoll the present form of Yankee Doodle Dandy democracy, then it will prove to be an exercise in propaganda. If, however, the post-summit discussions begin to seriously critique and reform real weaknesses in the present American system of liberal democratic governance, as well as the weaknesses in other states, then the summit would have proved very worthwhile.
The prospect for domestic reforms in both authoritarian and democratic states will prove much more feasible in a time of peace than in preparation for a major power war.