Are the u.s. summit for Democracy Countries actually Democratic?
“In the race for the 21st century between democracies and autocracies, we need to prove that democracies can deliver." Since the announcement of President Joe Biden’s Summit of Democracy, the White House has continuously echoed this refrain. The Summit, taking place between December 9-10, 2021, and bringing together more than 100 countries, seeks to reaffirm the free world’s commitment to democracy, make the case for fighting corruption, and promote human rights. However, despite the laudable goals and the diversity among participant countries, the invitee list has managed to stir up quite a bit of controversy, with several notable snubs. Freer countries like Bolivia and Sierra Leone were not invited, while less free countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Niger were. This begs the question of whether the Summit is actually a coalition of the democratic countries of the world united against the forces of autocracy or merely a hodgepodge of Washington’s allies and regionally important partners as critics claim.
Critics of the Summit for Democracy have ranged from prominent newspapers to foreign governments. The Economist noted that “Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy is not all that democratic.” Chinese state television, angered by the invitation of Taiwan (over which China claims sovereignty), called it a “haughty party” thrown by “Princess America”. It is a “joke” Tian Peiyan, deputy director of the Policy Research Office of the Communist Party’s central committee commented. Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov called the event “an evident product of [America’s] Cold-War mentality.” Are freedom and democratic norms across the world even declining or is this just alarmism from Washington?
Here, we take a look at some of these contentious claims. Every year Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) located in Washington D.C. gives each country and several territories a “freedom score” on a scale of 0 to 100. This score is the aggregation of 25 different metrics that account for the strength of a country's democratic institutions as well as its levels of civil liberties and political rights. Using Freedom House's scores and weighting by population, we look at how the Summit and Non-Summit worlds, answering: Is the Summit for Democracy actually Democratic?
Is Freedom around the world Declining?
Unfortunately, yes. Across the world, a greater percentage of people have been living in less free societies. This trend has accelerated precipitously in the last few years. Across every group region of the world, freedom levels compared with their 2006 values have declined.
Are the Summit for Democracy Countries Actually Freer?
Yes. Despite the harsh criticism from China and Russian diplomats, the Summit for Democracy invitee-countries are significantly freer than countries that were not invited. Russia and China are actually some of the least free societies, having some of the worst Freedom House scores (20 and 9, respectively) and experiencing some of the worst declines in freedom scores over the last decade. Despite the Economist headline that the Summit for Democracy is not all that Democratic, the invited countries and their populations are freer than the populations in non-invited countries.
Having noted the overall greater freedom scores of attendees, there are some glaring issues. The critics of the Summit do have some valid points. Some countries with abysmal freedom scores were included in the Summit, while other struggling and blossoming democracies were not as previously noted. Perhaps the most glaring (although perhaps forgivable given their size) are the fairly democratic states of San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco.
While Summit countries are freer, both groups of countries have experienced the worldwide drop in freedom, with non-Summit populations experiencing it the worst. While the Summit countries have gone from a weighted average score of 73.5 to 68.0 between 2006 and 2021, the non-Summit countries have fallen from a 28.8 to a 19.6 weighted average.
Where is Democratic BackSliding Happening in Non-Summit Countries?
In countries not invited to the Summit, the largest drop in freedom scores has actually occurred in Europe, with Turkey (65 in 2006 to 32 in 2021) and Hungary (93 in 2006 to 59 in 2021) plummeting in freedom scores during the past 15 years. Another major drop occurred in the Americas with Venezuela (54 in 2006 to 14 in 2021), Nicaragua (63 in 2006 to 30in 2021), and Honduras (66 in 2006 to 44 in 2021).
Where is Democratic Backsliding Happening in Summit Countries?
Given that the Summit for Democracy countries are trying to reaffirm their commitment to democracy, perhaps an even more salient question is where democratic backsliding is the worst within their ranks. In each world region, the freedom scores of Summit countries have notched down slightly in the last 2-3 years with Mexico experiencing the biggest loss of freedom (80 in 2006 to 61 2021). The most notable drop in a region’s population’s overall freedom occurred in Eurasia, with Ukraine’s population undergoing several turbulent years during the 2010s.
As a last note, a common criticism of the Summit for Democracy has been that the Summit is mostly made up of wealthy European states along with U.S. allies in the Pacific. However, despite some truth in this characterization, we do see that across each region in the world, the Summit for Democracy countries have maintained higher average levels of freedom throughout the 21st century than their non-Summit counterparts.
So is the U.S. Summit for Democracy actually democratic? By this metric, yes.
As a whole, the populations in Summit-invitee countries are freer than the populations in non-invitee countries. However, whether these free governments and societies can deliver, as President Biden has suggested, more stable and better lives for their populations, remains an open question.