The Summit for Democracy: What the Media Missed

Media coverage of the December 8-10 Summit for Democracy has largely focused on President Joe Biden’s remarks, coupled with critical reactions from China, Russia, and skeptical U.S. pundits. Few U.S. commentators seem to have bothered to listen to the three days of often thoughtful remarks by other world leaders and the many intelligent, emotionally engaging panelists representing a broad swath of civil society, business, and academia.


Photo Source: Al Drago / Bloomberg News

Media coverage of the December 8-10 Summit for Democracy has largely focused on President Joe Biden’s remarks, coupled with critical reactions from China, Russia, and skeptical U.S. pundits. Some U.S. editorialists argued that Biden should concentrate instead on our challenges at home (predictably, those same publications will be quick to chastise Biden for ignoring global problems). Few U.S. commentators seem to have bothered to listen to the three days of often thoughtful remarks by other world leaders and the many intelligent, emotionally engaging panelists representing a broad swath of civil society, business, and academia.

The administration invited over 100 governments to the virtual event but excluded the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala). This took courage. The administration seemed to be admitting that its early efforts—led by Vice President Kamala Harris—to promote economic development and good governance in that troubled region by addressing the “root causes” of migration were not working. Less surprisingly, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba were also absent from the invitation list.

Some pundits decried the Biden administration’s decision to invite the Brazilian government, led by Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil; yet, however distasteful and anti-democratic in his persona, Bolsonaro was duly elected, and Brazil is traditionally the powerhouse of South America. Mexico also received an invitation, although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador chose not to attend and instead send his ambassador to the United States to the summit. In a sly swipe at the mercurial Mexican leader, summit planners offered one of the private sector panel slots to a dynamic female entrepreneur, Melina Cruz Villafaña, to discuss responsible business practices. Cruz is CEO of Homely, a Mexico City-based online marketplace that matches cleaning workers with household vacancies. In an indirect ideological challenge to López Obrador’s statism, Cruz decried government regulations that advantage the big, established firms over smaller start-ups.

Many other extraordinary Latin American voices were heard at the summit, addressing the overarching themes of reversing democratic backsliding, combating corrosive corruption, and defending human rights.

While the kleptocrats of Honduras were not invited, Jennifer Avila Reyes, a brave Honduran journalist, was. The winner of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Media Award spoke on a panel on press freedom moderated by Agnès Callamard, the fiery Secretary General of Amnesty International. An outspoken opponent of corrupt populism, Avila Reyes also warned against the corrupting influence of international funding not aligned with a publication’s agenda.

During the summit, the president of the Dominican Republic, Luis Abinader, introduced the fledging Alliance for Democratic Development (ADD). The tripartite coalition of small, open, reasonably well-functioning economies in the Caribbean Basin—Costa Rica, Panama, and the DR—garnered Biden’s high praise in his closing remarks: “This is the sort of inspiring commitment and partnership that I hope we’ll see more of … in the next year of action.”

Chilean Margarita Maira of the youth advocacy organization Ahora Nos Toca Participar (Now It’s Our Turn to Participate) enthusiastically endorsed her country’s constituent assembly. This coming Sunday, the world will see whether Chilean youth turn out in sufficient numbers to elect Gabriel Boric, the progressive 35-year-old candidate for the presidency.

The panel on political prisoners, personally introduced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, packed the biggest emotional punch. Poised yet passionate, Nicaraguan Victoria Cardenas, spouse of economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro, described the horrific conditions confronting her husband and some 40 other prominent political prisoners in the sordid jails of dictator Daniel Ortega. Cardenas lamented that her husband, never overweight, has lost so many pounds as to no longer be recognizable to his own family.

The summit allotted space to many other inspirational elected leaders. Magdalena Andersson, Mette Frederiksen, and Jacinda Ardern, the prime ministers of Sweden, Denmark, and New Zealand respectively, reminded listeners that pragmatic social democracy can elect charismatic leaders and provide high-quality social services.

In remarkably candid remarks, Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo attributed his country’s success in containing COVID-19 to trust between government and citizens; he criticized the international community for its spotty, unequal distribution of vaccines and set the goal of national self-sufficiency in vaccine production. The intrepid anti-corruption campaigner Maia Sandu, now president of Moldova, chastised wealthy countries for providing safe havens to corrupt officials from poorer nations.

Disappointingly, Juan Guaidó, the exiled leader of the Venezuelan opposition, rehearsed a stump speech focusing too heavily on his own nation’s seemingly intractable conflict.

Among the nongovernmental standouts, journalist Maria Ressa demonstrated why she deserved to win the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless defense of media freedoms in the Philippines. Amy Jadesimi, scion of a wealthy Nigerian family, burnished her Stanford MBA credentials in her articulate advocacy of partnerships between government and business and the vital role of international standards in guiding business practices. Google’s Kent Walker displayed an open-mindedness to public debate on the many controversies swirling around high-tech.

Antony Blinken’s understated yet empathic style led a team of U.S. officials and academic experts that were at once well-informed and issue-focused while eschewing imperial arrogance or overbearing preachiness; U.S. officials readily admitted that they face daunting problems at home. There was no hint that the United States could still claim to be Ronald Reagan’s bright beacon of a “city on a hill.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recognized that U.S. state jurisdictions are major enablers of tax evasion and money laundering, allowing the wealthy to break laws with impunity. The top U.S. financial official lambasted “money laundromats on the 81st floor” and warned against “financial alchemy” that transforms wealth into power.

The State Department’s point person for democracy promotion, Uzra Zeya, who has combined careers as a distinguished diplomat and a non-profit executive, and the sparkling Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and now head of USAID, proved to be credible torchbearers of Biden’s global democracy campaign. Eric Lander, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and his colleague Tim Wu, showed through their thoughtful yet energetic demeanors that the Biden administration has reached out to the best and brightest in academia to help fashion smart regulatory policies to fit the rapidly evolving tech space.

Nevertheless, some U.S. speakers, including Vice President Harris and Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), seemed more inclined to address domestic constituencies than to reach out to a global audience. Increasingly, this has become a serious problem for U.S. foreign policy: U.S. interest groups willfully imposing their domestic agendas on foreign audiences.

Many leaders announced specific initiatives for the 2022 Year of Action. A second summit in a year’s time, hopefully in-person, will take stock of progress. Through a rich array of new institutional initiatives, the United States pledged $424 million to help activists and journalists reverse democratic backsliding, battle corruption, and defend democratic elections. Some programs smack of old-fashioned meddling in other nation’s internal affairs, but the administration seems aware of these pitfalls and promises to be guided by its local partners.

Among the specific pledges: the U.S. will launch a multi-donor International Fund for Public Interest Media to provide liability coverage for investigative journalists; through the Strategy on Countering Corruption, the U.S. Treasury will demand greater transparency in domestic real estate markets to counter illicit money-laundering; a Democracies Against Safe Havens Initiative will assist foreign governments to widen ownership disclosure; USAID will launch a Powered by the People Initiative to bolster nonviolent social movements; additional funds will seek to empower workers’ unions worldwide; and a Defending Democratic Elections Fund will address cybersecurity concerns and foreign electoral manipulation.

The Summit for Democracy set the stage for the regional IX Summit of the Americas, scheduled for mid-2022. It now seems likely that the United States, as host, will not invite Cuba and Nicaragua, and will turn to the exiled Guaidó to represent Venezuela. But even if present, the three most populous Latin American nations—Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico—will likely resist U.S. entreaties on key summit themes. The United States will, again, be obliged to turn to credible civil society and business leaders, with those remaining capable copacetic governments, to build coalitions of the willing to drive forward mutually agreed-upon initiatives.

To be sure, Latin America did not figure as prominently at the Summit for Democracy as it would have, say, in the 1990s when democratic governance was at its apogee. That is hardly the fault of the Biden administration. Effective foreign policy requires effective, willing partners. Perhaps that is why Biden was so quick to endorse the new Alliance for Democratic Development, even if the total population of its three Caribbean Basin member states is barely 20 million. In a world where big states are embracing local variations of authoritarian nationalism, small can, indeed, be beautiful!

Richard E. Feinberg was a principal architect of the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 and has attended six of the seven subsequent summits. He formerly directed the APEC Studies Center at UC San Diego, where he is currently Professor Emeritus. Feinberg serves as book review editor for the Western Hemisphere section of Foreign Affairs magazine.

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