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Faced with Rise of Authoritarian China, US Unsheathes Sword of Democracy to Wield Soft Power

By: Kanwal Sibal

Last Updated: December 11, 2021, 11:18 IST

US hard power suffered a serious blow in Afghanistan. To change the narrative and shift it to the area of soft power which the US has dominated globally, the Summit for Democracy seems a good diversionary move to mark and revive America’s global leadership, writes Kanwal Sibal. Photo: Reuters

US hard power suffered a serious blow in Afghanistan. To change the narrative and shift it to the area of soft power which the US has dominated globally, the Summit for Democracy seems a good diversionary move to mark and revive America’s global leadership, writes Kanwal Sibal. Photo: Reuters

India will have to be watchful about what may lie ahead. It cannot distance itself from this US initiative but has to resist any hectoring.

President Biden’s initiative to hold the first Summit for Democracy has many motives. The image of US democracy suffered a serious blow under Trump. The bitterness of the presidential election whose result was challenged by the outgoing incumbent to the point of questioning its integrity exposed the undersides of American democracy. The Democratic Party seeks to restore the public’s faith in the country’s democratic system.

Biden has now honoured his commitment to convene a Summit for Democracy. Spreading democracy worldwide has been America’s agenda since long and was used as a tool of US diplomacy during the Cold War. With its end and the demise of communism as an ideology, it has been used for achieving US geopolitical objectives in various parts of the world.

Today, faced with the rise of authoritarian China which is challenging US power, the old sword of democracy has been unsheathed to politically delegitimise China’s Communist Party controlled political system. This objective of political delegitimisation also extends to Russia under Putin, which explains the political interest in the Navalny case, for instance.

US hard power suffered a serious blow in Afghanistan, and earlier too with the ease with which China occupied and militarised islands in the South China Sea despite the presence of US forces and bases in the region. China has since taunted the US as a declining power and brandished its own hard power to counter the US in the western Pacific. To change the narrative and shift it to the area of soft power which the US has dominated globally, the Summit for Democracy seems a good diversionary move to mark and revive America’s global leadership.

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China’s Comical Campaign against Summit

This initiative was bound to create controversy. Whatever Biden and the Democratic Party may judge about their domestic effort to put US democracy back on its rails, its image abroad has been seriously tarnished. The Chinese have belittled US democracy in official conversations even at the head of state level, as happened when Biden and Xi had their recent conversation. The selection of the countries invited has been marked by geopolitics, not democratic eligibility alone, carrying risks of causing misunderstandings and resentment in countries excluded. My points in an article many days ago finds repetition in the words of the Richard Haas, President of the US Council for Foreign Relations, who said on December 9 that the Democracy Summit was ill-advised as the US needed to work with non-democracies on regional and global challenges, the list was filled with inconsistencies and that the US, which needed to put its broken house in order, was not in a position to preach or provide a model.

Surprisingly, China has launched an almost comical campaign against Biden’s initiative, claiming its own democracy is superior, drawing a ridiculous comparative chart to prove this, and propagating a new notion of a so-called “whole process democracy” that China has developed and which America lacks. It has commandeered articles from sold-out individuals praising the quality of Chinese democracy, with even a claim that the Chinese language based on characters that represent full words rather than an alphabet or letters works in favour of a higher quality democracy.

The Chinese and Russian ambassadors have jointly penned an article in The National Interest (a US publication) criticising the US initiative from which both countries have been excluded. This vociferous Chinese opposition and a more subdued Russian one seems to suggest a concern that this initiative is impactful and isolates them. The other objective would be to build greater resentment in those excluded and also put pressure on some who have been invited and are close to China not to attend. Pakistan was invited—an anomaly in itself as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were excluded—has declined the invitation to show solidarity with China, underlining how much Pakistan has become a prisoner of its ties of dependence on China, to the point of losing control over its foreign policy. The opportunity Pakistan had to gain credibility as a functioning democracy through this invitation has been frittered away. In snubbing the US, it has consolidated its reputation of being a Chinese stooge.

The oddity in Chinese reaction is that Xi has repeatedly repudiated western democracy and values, presented its own political and economic model as better suited to the needs of developing countries. With all the Chinese bluster today about its destiny to be the world’s pre-eminent power, to rail against the US move is to show a sense of vulnerability. There seems to be a domestic compulsion behind this campaign to discredit the Summit for Democracy.

Disquieting Features of Biden’s Agenda

Biden’s address on the occasion recognises the need to renew America’s democracy, cites Freedom House reports about retreat of democracy worldwide, mentions Gandhi in the context of civil rights, outlines his worry at the increasing “dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governments that they feel are failing to deliver for their needs”, and alludes to pressure from autocrats who “seek to advance their own power, export and expand their influence around the world, and justify their repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today’s challenges”—a clear allusion to China.

The agenda that Biden has outlined has some disquieting features. Having used the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy tool, the bringing together of leaders and activists, trade unionists, experts etc. to “reaffirm our shared commitment to make our democracies better; to share ideas and learn from each other; and to make concrete commitments of how to strengthen our own democracies and push back on authoritarianism, fight corruption, promote and protect human rights of people everywhere” is a recipe for problems in the future. It risks giving the US, as the strongest country with an activist agenda on these issues, pressure buttons on developing countries. Already the West is very judgmental on these issues. A collective oversight on the functioning of democracies abroad therefore seems potentially troublesome.

In any functioning democracy, civil society activists, experts and the like are very much part of making the system work better and be more responsive to people’s needs. Often these elements are critical of government functioning, have specific agendas of their own, even act as road blocks in governance because of their own vested interests. Bringing them together with sovereign governments on an international platform and be judges on whether the commitments taken by governments have been implemented carries the risk of external interference in the internal affairs of countries. To expect the participating countries “to follow through on our commitments and to report back next year on the progress we’ve made” suggests some form of politico-moral accountability. The strategy seems to be similar to the one in climate change negotiations—press countries to make Nationally Determined Contributions and subject them to periodic review, which means, in this case, voluntarily subjecting participating countries to raise their standards of democracy under international scrutiny.

The US intends to “lead by example”, investing in its own democracy and supporting its partners around the world. For credibility, Biden has outlined steps taken to strengthen American democracy: advancing racial justice and equality, making it easy for Americans to register to vote and ensure free, fair, and secure elections, the release of the first US government Strategy on Countering Corruption, which includes working with other partners to improve transparency, hold corrupt actors accountable, reduce their ability to use the US and international financial systems to hide assets and to launder money.

The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal will focus efforts on bolstering democratic resilience and human rights globally. The US is planning to allocate resources ($424m) to shore up transparent and accountable governance, including supporting media freedom, fighting international corruption, standing with democratic reformers, promoting technology that advances democracy, and defining and defending what a fair election is. The focus will be on a free and independent media because around the world press freedom is under threat. The International Fund for Public Interest Media will sustain independent media around the world. (The US must first control its increasingly ideological “liberal” press).

The US will launch new programmes to help connect anti-corruption activities across civil society. Empowering the LGBTQ community, promoting labour law reform, reducing the potential for countries to abuse new technologies, including surveillance technologies will be on the agenda. The Fund for Democratic Renewal and the Partnership for Democracy programme, which will allow State Department and USAID to provide funds to support US partners working on democratic front lines around the world, will be available to implement the stated goals. All this raises questions about a fresh US crusade in favour of democracy.

India Must be Watchful

India will have to be watchful about what may lie ahead. It is already in the cross hairs of US human rights/academic/media/religious organisations on democracy/freedoms issues. It cannot distance itself from this US initiative but has to resist any hectoring. PM Modi, in the closed door meeting, has reportedly called for reform of international institutions, stating that “principles of democracy should also guide global governance”. In his public National Statement at the Summit, Modi has confidently recalled that the world’s largest democracy had ancient democratic traditions dating back to 2500 years, that modern day Indian democracy had achieved improvements in human well being on an unimaginable scale, that India believed in the power of democracy to deliver, that democracy was not only of the people, by the people, for the people but also with the people, within the people.

Noting that different parts of the world had followed different paths of democratic development and could learn from each other, India, Modi said, would be happy to share its expertise in holding free and fair elections and in enhancing transparency in all areas of governance through innovative digital solutions. He rightly stressed the need to jointly shape global norms for emerging technologies like social media and crypto currencies, so that they were used to empower democracy, not to undermine it.

The author is Former Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:December 11, 2021, 11:18 IST
last updated:December 11, 2021, 11:18 IST