Summit for democracy

U.S. democracy summit nothing but a drama

Print edition : January 14, 2022

U.S. President Joe Biden during the virtual democracy summit on December 9, 2021. Photo: AFP

The Biden administration receives widespread flak for convening a dubious summit for democracy, with Russia and China condemning it as the U.S.’ ‘cold war’ mentality that could trigger new ideological confrontations worldwide.

On December 9-10, the Joe Biden administration hosted a virtual ‘Summit for Democracy’ that was attended by around 80 world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Among the other leaders invited to the summit was Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader who claims to be the “acting President” of Venezuela. Guaido has lost credibility even among the Venezuelan opposition that functions from outside the country.

The United States, which included many “authoritarian” leaders who have been riding roughshod over human rights in their home countries in the guest list, surprisingly kept out some North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member-countries that claim to be functioning democracies.

The notable exclusions from the Western military alliance were President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. Despite the fact that both of them are authoritarian rulers, Western-style elections are regularly held in both nations. In Turkey, the opposition had won the keenly contested elections. Similarly, in Hungary the opposition had won.

Another conspicuous exclusion was Bangladesh, which too did not meet the Biden administration’s criteria for measuring democracy.

Pakistan was invited but declined to participate at the eleventh hour. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry did not give any specific reason for the decision. The Ministry’s statement thanked the Biden administration for the invite and said that the government was looking forward to engaging with the U.S. on the subject of democracy at “an opportune time in the future”.

Relations between the two countries have become frostier since Biden took over. He has not spoken to Prime Minister Imran Khan after becoming President, despite the recent developments in Afghanistan that led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country and the Taliban’s takeover of the government.

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The Pakistani government also seems to have made the decision to not get embroiled in the looming “cold war” between its “all-weather” ally China and its former military ally, the U.S. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said on Twitter that Pakistan acted like a “real iron brother” by declining to attend the summit.

The Biden administration had invited Taiwan to the summit, infuriating China, which considers Taiwan to be its province. Under its official “one China” policy, the U.S. recognises only the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is not recognised as an independent nation.

Russia joined China in strongly criticising the “democracy” summit, saying it was part of the U.S.’ gameplan for the creation of a “bloc” mentality in international politics, similar to the situation that existed during the Cold War period. Just before the two-day summit commenced, the Russian and Chinese Ambassadors to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov and Qin Gang, jointly published an article titled “Respecting People’s Democratic Rights” in National Interest, an American magazine.

The authors said that the summit was an evident product of the U.S.’ “cold war mentality” that will only succeed in creating “dividing lines” and triggering new ideological confrontations in the world. They wrote: “This trend contradicts the developments of the modern world. Democracy is not a prerogative of one country or a group of countries but a universal right of all peoples. It can be realised in multiple ways and no model can fit all countries.”

Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, warned that the summit would only bring “negative energy” to the world. He said that there cannot be “a single template or one standard” that characterises democracy.

The timing of the conference gave critics of U.S. foreign policy an opportunity to highlight the deep flaws in the kind of democracy that the country practises. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that the U.S.’ claiming the right to decide which country was democratic or not was “pathetic”. The outsize role that big business plays in the electoral politics of the country, the undemocratic nature of the U.S. electoral college and the ongoing efforts to deny voting rights to minorities are issues that Americans themselves are deeply disturbed about. The U.S. Supreme Court is now packed with right-wing judges.

Internal criticism

Many mainstream U.S. commentators criticised Biden’s decision to hold the conference, given the apparent crisis that the U.S’ own democracy itself was facing. A recent report published in The Washington Post warned that American democracy itself was in dire straits.

“We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” said Prof. Barbara Walters, who serves on the U.S. Political Instability Task Force, which advises the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Barbara Walters is with the University of California, San Diego, and has done in-depth research on the civil strife going on in various hotspots around the world. She said that the U.S. States is now an “anocracy”— a category between a democracy and an autocracy.

In an article published in The Washington Post, three retired U.S. Generals also issued a warning , saying that a potential split in the armed forces might end in a civil war in 2024 if there is a replay of the events that happened in Washington on January 6, 2021. In a report released in November, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance put the U.S. in the list “of backsliding democracies”.

Holding the democracy conference was one of Biden’s campaign pledges. He has failed to keep some of his more important promises, like restoring the Iran deal.

Also read: Why Iran is unlikely to normalize ties with the West in 2022

The Biden administration has continued with the reinforced blockade on Cuba that the Trump administration had instituted. The U.S. is also continuing with its retrograde policies towards Venezuela and other countries in the region that refuse to be client-states. The region has considerable experience with U.S. doublespeak on the issues of freedom and democracy.

Russia and China have also pointed to the devastation that the “colour revolutions” sponsored by the West in the name of democracy caused in some of the former Soviet republics and East European countries that were part of the socialist bloc.

In his opening remarks at the summit, Biden said that he had called the summit because of “sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights—all around the world”. He spoke about the necessity of “free speech”, “freedom of religions”, “free assembly” and “free media”. Several leaders listening to him have openly trampled on one or all of the freedoms Biden was holding forth on. Duterte has been accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of crimes against humanity for his role in the police and vigilante killing of over 50,000 people. Bolsonaro has been accused by the Brazilian Senate Commission of Inquiry of “mass murder” of citizens with his policy of herd immunity in response to the pandemic.

Biden had sent a letter to all the summit participants stating that his administration recognised and appreciated their partnership “in working to build democratic and human rights respecting societies that allow all citizens to thrive”. He claimed that democracy was in decline because of “outside pressure from autocrats”. The unnamed autocrats he was referring to were obviously the Russian and Chinese leaders, not U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Biden and the Democratic Party are still peddling the discredited line that it was Russian interference in the 2016 elections that led to Donald Trump’s victory. Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by a wide margin but the Electoral College votes enabled Trump to become President.

Hypocrisy on media freedom

The U.S.’ dubious commitment to a “free media” is exemplified by its treatment of Julian Assange, the founder-editor of Wikileaks. While the Summit for Democracy was going on, the United Kingdom’s High Court, ruling on an appeal by the U.S. government, reversed a lower court’s decision and delivered a judgment allowing Assange to be extradited to a U.S. jail. For the last 10 years, the U.S., aided by the U.K. and Sweden, has been after Assange for daring to leak information revealing U.S. war crimes committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places that were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

The two judges who heard the case said that they arrived at their decision after the U.S. promised “humane treatment” of Assange if the U.K. handed him over.

They said that a specific assurance was given that he would not be incarcerated in the specially built federal government prison designed to hold prisoners for long years in solitary confinement.

The lower court had denied the request to send Assange to face trial in the U.S. given the fragile state of his mental and physical well-being after being confined indoors for more than a decade—first in the Ecuadorian embassy and now in the high-security Belmarsh prison.

The U.S. political establishment is united in its determination to punish Assange. In all, 18 criminal charges have been filed against him by the Justice Department. In September, Yahoo News reported that plans for Assange’s forcible extradition or killing were discussed at the highest levels of the CIA during the tenure of the Trump administration. It was reported that Mike Pompeo, who was CIA Director at the time, had presided over the discussions. He said that he had “no apologies” to offer for what he tried to do.

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If sent to face trial in a U.S. court, Assange would be looking at up to 175 years in prison. Assange’s lawyers had provided sufficient evidence to the British court detailing the CIA’s illegal targeting and surveillance of their client. Assange was arrested in April 2019 from the Ecuadorian embassy and has been in solitary confinement in Belmarsh prison ever since.

Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party, tweeted that Assange should not be extradited “for revealing uncomfortable truths”. Assange’s only crime, as John Pilger, the veteran journalist and peace activist wrote, was to “expose the criminal actions and secrets on which governments, especially those claiming to be democracies, base their authority”.

So far, the U.S. has not punished those responsible for the war crimes committed by its forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has failed to take action against the military personnel responsible for the killing of 10 innocent people, including seven children, in a drone attack in Kabul in August. All the victims belonged to a single family. The Pentagon has said that those involved did not violate the laws of war and were not guilty of negligence.

The New York Times published a report in December in which it said newly obtained Pentagon documents revealed that more than a thousand civilians were killed by the U.S. military owing to “faulty targeting” and “deeply flawed intelligence”. The report also said that the Pentagon had “drastically undercounted” the number of civilian deaths.

Speaking before the start of the democracy summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasised the media’s “indispensable role” in the dissemination of information to the public and in holding governments to account. He pledged that the U.S. government would continue to support “the courageous and necessary work of journalists around the world”.

The Biden administration proposes to allot $424 million to encourage independent media coverage worldwide. However, the U.S. has no qualms in hounding journalists like Assange. By foisting espionage charges on a non-American citizen like Assange, the U.S. is sending a message that it has the power to punish any journalist in the world who publishes material it considers harmful to its national interests. The move will have a negative impact on investigative journalism at a time when the media is under assault in an increasing number of countries.

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