Caleb T. Maupin
The upcoming “Democracy Summit” called by US President Joe Biden states that its session will focus on three key themes:
1. Defending against authoritarianism
2. Addressing and fighting corruption
3. Promoting respect for human rights
The US envoys of China and Russia immediately criticized the summit in a jointly composed article entitled “Respecting People’s Democratic Rights” published on November 26th. (See also: Christopher Black , Biden’s Democracy Summit: America’s Push for World Domination, Nov. 30, 2021).
The dangerous implications of working to create Cold War-style dividing lines should not be ignored. In the aftermath of the Second World War, when western leaders spoke of the “free world” standing against the “Iron Curtain” the ultimate results were horrendous. Massive military engagements by the United States in Vietnam and Korea took the lives of millions. In countries across Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific region, brutal military coups and US-led interventions killed additional millions. The 1965 US-backed coup in Indonesia, done in the name of protecting the “free world” from an elected President who seemed sympathetic to China and Russia, resulted in an estimated 500,000 deaths.
Selective Definition of “Democracy”
But beyond the danger of returning to Cold War style international dividing lines, the summit is politically shallow. In the rhetoric surrounding the conference, some countries are presented as moral nations who “respect human rights” while other countries are “authoritarian” or “corrupt.” Biden’s summit is an attempt to rally the countries he deems to be “good” in opposition to the countries he deems to be “evil.”
There is no shortage of hypocrisy in the list of countries and non-countries Biden has invited. While the elected government of Venezuela is not invited, Juan Guaido, an individual who has never been elected but claims to be the legitimate President of Venezuela despite no clear constitutional mandate will be welcomed to participate. The Island of Taiwan is invited to participate alongside sovereign countries simply as a spiteful move against Beijing, despite the USA not recognizing the government on Taiwan.
External threats and subversion do not facilitate democratic reform. China’s process of building up its economy and at the same time, fighting corruption and enacting human rights reform have come in the context of relentless efforts by the USA to make China less stable and render this process more difficult. The US government currently embraces Alexei Navalny’s unpopular efforts to destabilize Russia. Navalny has been convicted of tax fraud and cannot legally participate in the elections, but US media celebrates him as a hero unfairly prevented from running for office. The United States uses its media bullhorn to promote his disruptive demonstrations in the hopes of creating turmoil and hurting Russia’s economy.
Many countries with problematic records in relation to authoritarianism, human rights, and corruption will be welcome to participate. Israel will participate despite widespread condemnation for its treatment of Palestinians. Nigeria will participate despite its current President Muhammadu Buhari being a former military dictator. When Buhari ruled the country with an iron fist from 1983 to 1985 after a coup, he armed street police officers with whips so they could arbitrarily beat civilians. Since taking office in 2015 he has used the military to violently suppress the peaceful Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Sheikh Ibrahmin Zakzaky was detained by the Nigerian military for almost six years without charges. It is also widely understood that many local officials in the Nigerian government cooperate with Boko Haram terrorists. All of this is not seen as sufficient grounds for barring Nigeria’s participation in the conference.
South Korea will be welcome to attend the summit, despite its harsh National Security Law that forbids citizens of the country from advocating peace with their northern countryfolk. Human Rights Watch described the law this way: “The National Security Law criminalizes any dissemination of anything that the government classifies as North Korean “propaganda.” (The two Koreas are technically still at war, as the Korean War ended with only a ceasefire in 1953). The law imposes significant restrictions on the freedom of South Koreans to create and join political associations by imposing severe criminal penalties on anyone who joins, praises or induces others to join an “anti-government organization,” a term not clearly defined in law.” In 2012 a 24-year-old man Park Jung-geun was given 10-month prison sentence simply for the crime of praising Kim Jong-il on Twitter. The law has also been used to suppress the former Unified Progressive Party, as well as peace and labor activists in South Korea. However, South Korea will be welcomed as a “democracy” at Biden’s summit.
While the USA does not recognize the internationally observed elections of Nicaragua and Venezuela, the US does recognize that the government of Bolivia, Honduras and Peru were legitimately elected. Regardless, because the people of these countries have chosen to elect leaders the USA disapproves of, these countries are also not invited to the “democracy summit.” The Palestinian authority has also been excluded.
The arbitrary nature of who the Biden administration and the US State Department label as democratic and non-democratic should discredit the entire gathering. Participation seems to be more about friendly business relations with Wall Street, hosting US military personnel, and cooperating with Washington’s international agenda than any real assessment of “human rights” or “democracy” in the country.
Where Do Human Rights Come From?
Beyond the hypocrisy and the dangerous polarization of the international community, the messaging of this summit is also problematic. What is the basis for rolling back authoritarianism and corruption and promoting respect for human rights? How do societies become more open?
While in an alliance with the Soviet Union and China to defeat fascism, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Roosevelt was pointing toward a basic understanding of political science that now seems to be completely absent in Washington DC.
No one in the world spoke of human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or “life, liberty and property” until at least the 1400s. Modern concepts of elected government and civil liberties have been largely absent throughout most of human history. These concepts only emerged when the development of technology and economics had made them realistic and feasible. Only when a society is stable enough and prosperous enough to facilitate more openness can such concepts realistically be applied. Autocracy and social hierarchies are not the result of immorality on the part of human beings, but a direct result of material conditions. Political systems and structures do not develop in a vacuum, but are directly related to the conditions of life.
For US leaders to insist that all countries on earth must practice "democracy" (US-Style) and human rights in the same manner, despite very different conditions and situations is a laughable display of both ignorance and arrogance. It reveals the bombastic propaganda-oriented nature of the upcoming conference. The event will not be a place where human rights and democracy are advanced, but rather a forum for demonizing selected countries in service of specific geostrategic aims.
The Result of US-led “Democratization”
Many of the countries barred from Biden’s Summit could be more open and less corrupt, if they were not facing military threat and subversion from the United States, and if they were permitted to build up their economies in peace. The USA claims it seeks to advance human rights in China. Let's not forget that from the 1950s when the United States worked to foment the Tibet Civil War killing hundreds of thousands of people, up to current times when US officials coddle the Falun Gong extremists and others who seek to topple the Chinese government, China has been forced to protect itself and its process of development. External threats and subversion do not facilitate democratic reform. China’s process of building up its economy and at the same time fighting corruption and enacting human rights reform have come in the context of relentless efforts by the USA to make China less stable and render this process more difficult.
The US government currently embraces Alexei Navalny’s unpopular efforts to destabilize Russia. Navalny has been convicted of tax fraud and cannot legally participate in the elections, but US media celebrates him as a hero unfairly prevented from running for office. The United States uses its media bullhorn to promote his disruptive demonstrations in the hopes of creating turmoil and hurting Russia’s economy.
There is no question that both Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia are wildly popular. Their leadership has greatly improved economic circumstances in their respective countries and they maintain a massive base of support among a solid majority of their population. However, US leaders still present them as somehow “undemocratic” and work to undermine them. Democracy, defined as “the rule of the people” is only accepted as such if it is carried out in a manner US officials approve of. To Washington, popular will and public support do not seem to be a factor in determining whether or not the people rule in a respective country. That begs the question, what does democracy even mean to US officials?
From 1989 to 1991, US intelligence agencies coordinated “color revolutions” to effectively topple many governments across Eastern Europe including the Soviet Union. Many who participated in these demonstrations had legitimate grievances about a lack of transparency and a desire for more open political discourse. But the whole world saw the results of “democratization” at the Cold War’s conclusion. Behind the rhetoric about “freedom” was an economic wrecking ball. Country after country was reduced to extreme poverty with the selling off of government assets, the stripping of social safety nets, mass unemployment and a huge rise in crime and poverty.
The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in economic catastrophe and the looting of Russia. It also resulted in ethnic strife, as different nationalities and religious groups were played against each other as the entire region became more impoverished and unstable. The USA happily embraced Russia during the reign of Boris Yeltsin, as poverty, instability and dismal conditions abounded. It was only with Putin’s rise, which ushered in economic rebirth and renewed stability, that the USA declared Russia to have lost democracy once again.
What was the result of George W. Bush’s attempt to “spread democracy” to the Middle East by invading Iraq? How have Libya and Syria fared as a result of US efforts to foment unrest and destabilize these countries in the name of “democracy” since 2011?
In Afghanistan the United States maintained a military presence for 20 years, claiming it was “giving the Afghan people a chance at democracy.” Throughout the entire time life did not improve for the Afghans and the country continued to be unstable as terrorists and drug traffickers flourished.
US regime-change operations, invasions, interventions and “color revolutions” done in the name of democracy have not resulted in advancing human rights around the world. Instead, they have resulted in refugee crises, an expansion of terrorist and drug-dealing organizations, and a very large number of deaths. This record of US actions and their results alone should completely discredit a summit extolling the values of democracy convened by US leaders.
The True Road to Democratic Reform Around The World
In their joint op-ed Ambassador Qin Gang and Anatoly Antonov wrote “Democracy is not just about domestic governance; it should also be reflected in international relations. A truly democratic government will support democracy in international relations. It will not foster hegemony and division abroad while building democracy and unity at home. The path to prosperity of nations goes through respectful cooperation with each other, despite some differences in views on particular issues.”
Rather than sanctions, military threats, heated rhetoric and condemnation, US leaders should advance democracy in a different way. Opening doors of trade, expanding international cooperation and recognizing common interests with other great powers is far more likely to advance human rights.
As Roosevelt understood, backward conditions and instability hold back democratic progress. The road to creating more open, prosperous and democratic societies is through raising people up from poverty and bringing the world together. The United States should work with China and Russia around the world to provide jobs, infrastructure, access to medical care and education to those who are impoverished. Rebuilding international relations on the basis of win-win cooperation and human-centered development will do far more to advance democracy than military escalation, global polarization and accusatory international summits.
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