Democracy is under pressure worldwide. According to the latest annual report from Freedom House, a US-based non-partisan think tank, the balance is shifting further “in favor of tyranny.” According to the report, 2020 was the 15th year in a row that global freedom was restricted.
This terrible picture is borne out by other studies. In the 2020 edition of its Democracy Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit recorded the worst state of global democracy since the index was first published in 2006.
Another leading research project, V-Dem, reported today that autocratization accelerated and “went viral” around the world in 2020. The study by V-Dem indicates that “the level of democracy of the average world citizen” has fallen to “the level around 1990”. Last year, the researchers came to the conclusion that for the first time since 2001 the majority of states are no longer under democratic rule.
The COVID-19 crisis has been used by authoritarian governments to strengthen their power and stigmatize democracy as weak. Not only are they trying to crush the opposition at home, but they are increasingly intervening across borders
At the United Nations, representatives of authoritarian regimes sit on the committee on non-governmental organizations to undermine civil society participation and on the Human Rights Council to prevent criticism of human rights violations. In the Security Council, China and Russia are abusing their veto power to stop action against governments for serious human rights violations, with Syria being the most notorious example.
Liechtenstein and Qatar have bypassed the dysfunctional Security Council and successfully launched an initiative in the General Assembly to launch a UN investigation that has already gathered massive evidence of war crimes and mass atrocities in Syria. Likewise, UN investigations into crimes in Venezuela and against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar were carried out by groups of states.
Yet democracy has not been a major item on the international agenda for many years. The global trend of democratic relapse and increasing authoritarian influence makes it clear that a counter-strategy is urgent. In theory, democratic countries that work together could exert significant economic and political influence.
When the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promoted the idea of a “new alliance of democracies” in 2020 in response to the increasing influence of China around the world, he received little attention. The Trump administration’s credibility had already hit rock bottom.
Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States was one of the worst expressions of anti-democratic and nationalist populism around the world. Trump’s “America First” ideology, his disregard for democracy, his attraction to autocratic rulers and his efforts to dismiss the presidential election results caused massive damage. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol left the US system weak and in serious decline.
Now a window of time seems to be opening up. In his campaign, President Joe Biden promised that in his first year in office, the US would host a global “summit for democracy” to “renew the spirit and common purpose of the nations of the free world.” A preliminary national security strategic guideline released on March 3 states that reversing the anti-democratic trend in the world has been essential to US national security.
Similarly, the European Union’s representative on foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, has stated that the EU should “deepen its cooperation with other democracies to counter the rise of authoritarianism”. A new action plan adopted in November puts great emphasis on promoting democracy.
The United Kingdom has pursued the idea of expanding membership in the Group of Seven (G7) bloc to include Australia, India and South Korea in order to form a so-called D10 club of democracies. According to the UK, this club should help reduce reliance on Chinese technology. As the host of this year’s G7 summit, the UK is reportedly planning to give these three new partners full access.
As Biden noted, the renewal of democracy at home is a prerequisite for regaining credibility as a promoter of democracy abroad. This applies to all countries that consider themselves democratic and have to reckon with their shortcomings on both fronts.
Surveys show that a large majority of people in all regions of the world continue to believe in democracy. However, there is strong dissatisfaction with how it works in practice. It is assumed that governments fail to address important issues such as corruption, inequality, the needs of ordinary people or the threat of global warming.
The attack on the US Capitol prompted Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to call for a “joint Marshall Plan for Democracy”. He said it was necessary to examine “the roots of social divisions in our countries”.
Indeed, a club of democracies could help identify common challenges and solutions. As many issues have a cross-border dimension, a transnational perspective would be crucial. The criteria for membership in such a club is a crucial question. It’s not clear why a club of democracies should be limited to the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – as well as Australia, India and South Korea.
In the new evaluation of the Freedom House, India has slipped into the category of a “partially free” country. France, Italy and the US are classified as “flawed democracies” in the index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit. From the standpoint of democratic performance, the club should be open to many dozen countries that are rated similarly or better. A red line should be drawn in relation to countries that are clearly authoritarian and not free.
It should not be forgotten that the G7 has generated massive criticism in the past, not least because of an alleged lack of legitimacy and transparency. The G7 format is not the right place to start. There is no permanent secretariat or a formal structure. A different approach should be taken for a club of democracies.
Instead, consideration can be given to expanding the existing Community of Democracies (CoD), which has existed since 2000. With the exception of Australia, Germany and France, all “D10” countries already belong to the 29 member states of the CoD.
In any case, diplomats and political leaders alone cannot give an honest assessment of how democracy can be revived and defended. Biden said civil society representatives who are on the front lines in defending democracy will be invited to the US-hosted summit. With this in mind, a network of civil society organizations should be connected to the club.
It is also crucial to involve elected representatives. The club should host a permanent global network of parliamentarians from pro-democratic parties. This could be related to the existing pro-democracy efforts at the inter-parliamentary level and at the United Nations.
The club should also consider convening a transnational citizens’ meeting to make recommendations on how to strengthen democracy. There are good examples of this format at national level. The club and its member governments should commit to funding these activities and implementing proposals that find broad consensus.
The club should not operate in a silo that is separate from external relations and multilateral action. Outwardly, it should not only be a platform for coordinating democracy promotion, but also for defining and coordinating common value-based strategies, including common smart sanctions against gross human rights abusers.
The comprehensive investment agreement between China and the EU shows that this is a major challenge. It was finalized last December despite China brutally cracking down on dissent, waging a genocidal campaign against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and intensifying its military intimidation towards Taiwan. Observers complain that the agreement contains no human rights obligations and sends the wrong signal.
The club cannot replace or compete with existing mechanisms of global governance. Working with governments that have been deemed unfree is required to address important global issues. For now, it will remain an ongoing challenge to strike a balance between promoting democracy and human rights and the urgent need for cooperation.
A primary purpose of the club should be to promote common policy in intergovernmental organizations, particularly the United Nations. The research mentioned earlier shows that much can be done if there is political will. The group should coordinate a UN democracy caucus to fight back against authoritarian influence and help the United Nations step up its aid to democracy.
Finally, in the face of increasing globalization, which increases the need for global coordination and decision-making, democracy must be extended to global institutions. The main proposals include a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, the United Nations World Citizens’ Initiative as an instrument, and the creation of a United Nations Civil Society Envoy. Ultimately, an association of democracies will only be credible if it also contributes to the promotion of democracy at this level.
The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.