President Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy held on December 9-10, 2021, focused on three issues central to democracy: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights.
However, the guest list of more than 100 countries caused considerable controversy worldwide because of who was invited and who wasn’t, raising stark questions about the direction of US foreign policy for the Middle East and North Africa and whether the US remains serious about promoting human rights and democratic values in the region. While the leaders of Russia and China appear to have expressed the most upset over their exclusion, MENA experts have been musing over the implications of choices made for the Summit.
It is difficult to discern the logic behind the list of 111 invited countries.
It is difficult to discern the logic behind the list of 111 invited countries. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Europe was the region with the most countries invited (39), followed by the Western Hemisphere (27). 17 countries out of the 54 on the African continent were invited. All of those were sub-Saharan Africa.
None was invited from North Africa, the most notable absence being Morocco, a constitutional monarchy and the US’ oldest ally.
Only two countries out of the 18 in the Middle East—both with questionable records on human rights—received invitations: Iraq and Israel.
According to the Carnegie Endowment, out of all the countries invited to the Summit, an estimated 69 percent are regarded by a Carnegie Endowment study to be “Free”; 28 percent are “Partly Free” and 3 percent are “Not Free.” Eight of the invited countries fall exceptionally low on Carnegie’s democracy rankings: Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Serbia, and Zambia.
Pakistan, one of the lowest ranked countries (130th out of 139) in the World of Justice Project’s overall rule of law index, received an invitation to the Summit, but declined to go for unspecified reasons.
While four other invited countries are ranked as seriously backsliding due to their trend toward autocracy or declines in freedom of expression, neither Iraq nor Israel are included in WJP’s global rankings.
In stark contrast to 2 out of the 18 MENA countries, almost a third of all 54 African countries were invited.
In stark contrast to 2 out of the 18 countries in the Middle East region, almost a third of all 54 African countries were invited.
Clearly some countries are more advanced in terms of rule of law than others. By comparison, to some of the invited countries, Morocco, for example, is ranked 90th out of 139 by WJP for the rule of law, although it dropped four places from 2020.
WJP is sounding the alarm that 85 percent of the world’s population live in countries where the rule of law is in decline, representing more than 6.5 billion people. The organization found that COVID-19 has accelerated rising authoritarianism around the world, that constraints on government power declined in more that 70 percent of the countries studied, and that “civic space closed in 82 percent” of the countries. The report highlights the widespread deterioration worldwide in democracy and the rule of law. Thus, President Biden’s summit “for democracy,” i.e., to encourage democracy, was timely.
To be sure, the US itself, ranked 27th out of 139 countries in 2021 by the WJP, well after the UK, Australia, and many northern European countries, is itself in need of more democracy and rule of law. It has fallen in various democracy rankings over the last ten years including having slid down two places in the WJP rankings from 2020. The US’ overall WJP rule of law score dropped 2.9 percent in 2021, more than any other high-income country or any other country in Western Europe and North America.
Transparency International warned about democracy not becoming “the COVID-19 pandemic’s lasting victim.”
In an open letter dated December 8 to all governments (including those that were not invited to the summit), Transparency International warned about democracy not becoming “the COVID-19 pandemic’s lasting victim.” It urged countries to take “meaningful action against corruption.”
Yet combatting corruption and supporting democracy in the MENA region is easier said than done. The United States has two basic tools for pushing American values of reform, democracy, and human rights, according to the Washington Institute: (1) diplomacy, which covers both public and private messaging; and (2) assistance programs to aid reformers, activists, and receptive governments.
While US foreign policy always faces contradictions between America’s national interests and what administrations often tout as American values, this is particularly true in the Middle East. As the Institute notes, many of the states that routinely violate human rights “are the same ones that Washington relies on as partners for security, energy, and peace initiatives.”
This has posed a considerable conundrum for President Biden in his first year of office after he declared “America is back” in his first foreign policy speech on February 4, 2021. Biden hailed the return of “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
American diplomacy and foreign policy have been more “chameleon-like.”
Instead, American diplomacy and foreign policy have actually been more “chameleon-like,” according to Imad Harb of the Arab Center DC, who cites three country scenarios as emblematic of Biden’s color-changing foreign policy in the MENA region.
First, the US took a hard stance with respect to the coup that took place earlier this year in Sudan. The Biden administration condemned the military takeover and suspended $700 million in emergency economic assistance.
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On the other hand, the US did little or nothing when the first democratically elected President of Tunisia suspended democracy and dismissed the Parliament in 2021. Instead, “the US stood idly by,” according to Harb. “Letting Tunisia’s democracy be buried alive without much pressure to the contrary is the ultimate sign of neglect of the United States’ vaunted doctrine that touts the protection of democracy and human rights,” he said.
Third, with respect to Israel, Harb faults the Biden administration’s failure to criticize, much less sanction Israel for its ongoing “system of apartheid” imposed on “Palestinians under occupation and inside Israel” and the administration’s anemic response to Israel’s designation of six Palestinian human rights and civil society groups organizations as terrorist groups. The move was condemned by more than a dozen experts of the UN Office of Human Rights and others throughout the world.
Contrast the US silence to Israel’s mass delegitimization of rights groups with a more recent single instance of same by Russia.
Contrast the US silence to Israel’s mass delegitimization of rights groups with a more recent single instance of same by Russia when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on December 29 that the US condemned the decision by Russia “to forcibly close International Memorial, one of Russia’s most respected human rights organizations.” Blinken declared, “Russian authorities should end their repression of human rights defenders and other independent voices.”
Harb noted also with respect to Israel the US’ anemia with respect to settler attacks and threats of expulsion against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the continuing siege of the Gaza Strip that “hardly receive a mention by US officials.”
Similarly, he criticized the administration’s “mere rhetoric” when the Biden Administration voiced opposition to Israel building more than 3,000 new housing units on West Bank lands, but did nothing when Israel went ahead with the plan.
In sum, Harb argued these three cases demonstrate the Biden administration’s inherently inconsistent foreign policy that flip flops between advocating democracy and human rights to merely advancing geostrategic interests.
Notably, of the three counties reviewed by Harb, only Israel, with one of the poorest human rights and rule of law records, as documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, was invited to the Summit.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black woman, and first Asian woman to become Vice President, recently highlighted the need for the US to get its own house in order. In an interview on December 26, she warned about the dangerous antidemocratic trajectory America is on.
“Right now, we’re about to take ourselves off the map as a role model.”
Harris cautioned that America will be at risk of losing its standing as the model for democracy in the world if Congress does not pass legislation this year to protect American citizens’ voting rights. With 33 more restrictive voting laws already enacted by Republican-led legislatures around the US this year, she warned, “Right now, we’re about to take ourselves off the map as a role model, . . . if we let people destroy one of the most important pillars of a democracy, which is free and fair elections.”
What the combination of a declining democracy at home and an indecisive and lackluster foreign policy portends is a significant erosion of American global soft power. And it may have more severe unintended consequences.
Ironically, the Biden administration’s diplomatic inaction in the Middle East now appears to be a main driver in reshaping regional allegiances and alignments that is serving to strengthen autocracies in the region as they feel they can no longer count on the US. As analyst Martin Jay puts it, “relations in the [MENA/Gulf] region are generally improving between old rivalries on a grand scale due to Biden’s dithering.” Jay suggests that when it comes to the Middle East, it’s almost as if “Sleepy Joe” is not just asleep at the wheel, but “in a coma.”
The Summit for Democracy was merely the first step in what is supposed to be a year of action. It served as an opportunity for the US to highlight civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and peaceful dissent at a moment in which democracy is declining around the world, especially in the MENA region, and at home. It also highlighted the danger that if the US is to retain its leadership role as a “beacon of freedom” in the world, clearly it will have to reconcile its own worsening performance on democracy and the rule of law.
In effect, it will have to put its money where its mouth is and reform its own house, lest the US take itself off the map and become ineffective and irrelevant on the global stage. As the airlines recommend, put on your own mask before helping others.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, this advice is more cogent than ever.