On January 6, 2021, Pro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump's election loss. Hundreds breached the U.S. Capitol Building. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Sipa USA).
Biden’s Democracy Summit: A little humility is in order

The first step is to acknowledge our own shortcomings before going out to tell others how it’s done.

The Biden administration reportedly is actively planning to hold an international summit meeting on democracy, the convening of which would fulfill one of the president’s campaign promises. Many details have yet to be worked out, but the administration is expected to host such a gathering near the end of this year.

Questions about the appropriateness of carrying through on this idea center on how deeply troubled America’s own democracy has been shown to be. The United States just came perilously close to having the outcome of a free and fair presidential election overturned. This jarring episode occurred on top of longer-standing defects in U.S. democracy. The will of most of the people often is flouted, and minority rule sometimes is sustained, by voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, and unrepresentative constitutional structures such as the electoral college and the Senate.

Critics argue with good reason that U.S. credibility as the convenor of a global meeting on democracy is deficient. James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson have suggested that instead of an international meeting, the United States should hold a domestic summit meeting about what needs to be done to shore up democracy at home.

Supporters of the administration’s plan to hold an international meeting argue, also with good reason, that after four years of Donald Trump’s open preference for autocrats over democrats, a U.S.-led boost to the cause of democracy worldwide is needed more than ever.

Given that the administration seems determined to hold a global summit, America’s patent democratic deficiencies ought to be recognized in the messaging at the meeting.  Humility needs to be part of the approach. Any other approach would not be credible.

Admittedly, this strategy would open President Biden to the same sort of political attack lines that were aimed at Barack Obama whenever he said anything that acknowledged past mistakes and departed from full-throated American exceptionalism. One need only remember the “apology tour” that never occurred but that Obama’s Republican opponents kept accusing him of taking. Nonetheless, putting up with such ill-founded brickbats would be an acceptable price for using an international meeting in a way that ultimately could help strengthen American democracy.

In that spirit, here is some material for President Biden’s opening speech at the summit meeting:

“We are gathered here to recognize and remind the world of the great role that democracy plays in the respect for, and betterment of, mankind. Many different political forms and procedures have been tried through history, and many claims have been made on behalf of different forms of government. But no form of political rule can better ensure that it will be exercised in the interests of the governed than one in which the governed themselves are free to select—and when they so choose, to reject—their rulers.

Democracy is an ideal always to be striven for, and never perfectly attained. We Americans understand that, based on our own history, as much as any other people. We fought a bloody civil war, and waged struggles over civil rights for over a century beyond that, to establish the full rights of citizenship of those who had once been enslaved, and their descendants. The right of women to vote was not established until more than halfway through our history as an independent nation.

Some of those struggles continue today. Ensuring an unfettered right of all citizens to vote, and combating destructive falsehoods that undermine democracy, still must command our attention.

An acknowledgment of shortcomings is a strength, not a weakness, of our democracy and that of any other nation. It is part of the openness and honesty that are needed for democracy to work. Too often the label “democracy” or “democratic” has been applied to political systems that are anything but that. What matters is not the label but the substance. And the substance includes not only institutions and procedures but also a political culture—a culture that is based on fair play and that recognizes that both defeats and victories are part of the process.

Democracy at home and democracy abroad are related. Democracy is not an exclusively American concept any more than it belongs to any other nation. The idea of democracy has its roots in ancient times. Today democracy is practiced to varying degrees in otherwise differing cultures, on every inhabited continent of the world.

Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside, through the barrel of a gun or through other means. We Americans have learned some lessons here, too, based on our own history and our own relations with other countries.

But what goes on outside a nation’s borders can affect the health of democracy inside those borders. Clear expressions of support for democratic principles, as can take place at this meeting, demonstrate the strength and universal applicability of those principles.

Such expressions, while carefully avoiding ties to competing political elements in a country, can give needed encouragement to those inside the country working on behalf of democratic ideas and procedures.

All of this applies to my own country as much as to any other. The opening words of our Declaration of Independence speak of a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” We should, and do, maintain that respect. We welcome scrutiny that is offered in good faith and genuine support for democracy, which can only help us to come even closer to our own democratic ideals. Other nations ought to welcome similar scrutiny for the same reasons. 

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