In the United States, the National Security Council is responsible for democracy and human rights. Its Director for Democracy Rob Berschinski, at a briefing in Washington DC on the next edition of the Democracy Summit, addresses salient issues. Excerpts:
FREE press and democracyIn addition to all of the diplomatic and programmatic support that the U.S. Government has provided and will continue to provide to media around the world as part of the Summit for Democracy process, we issued a half-billion-dollar – just shy of half-billion-dollar basket of deliverables. We call it the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal – and it breaks into five pieces, one of which is fighting corruption, another one of which is supporting free and independent media – and as part of that have rolled out a number of new programs globally that take on different facets of supporting free and independent media. So this is very much at the heart of everything we’re trying to do because we know how important free media is to democratic societies and, frankly, just to educated societies.
In terms of kind of the through-line between the summits and as they reflect the National Security Strategy and U.S. foreign policy, President – from President Biden on down, one of the hallmarks of this administration has been re-engaging with the world. Now, we do that in any number of ways; certainly, we do it through these big set-piece, multilateral summits. We’re also doing a tremendous amount of bilateral diplomacy at all times, and we’re engaging through various multilateral organizations like the UN and really have made a concerted effort. And it takes all of that to realize this vision. So there’s a lot of summitry going on, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to portray that our diplomatic activity is limited to that.
Now, there are different memberships, invite lists, between the Summit for Democracy and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, absolutely. And again, that reflects our overarching foreign policy goals, which are: we are going to build coalitions of partnership with governments around the world to address the world’s most pressing challenges, as I mentioned in my remarks, and that’s what the President hopes to achieve in bringing the leaders of Africa together.
With the Summit for Democracy, our overarching goal is to strengthen democratic processes within our own borders and as part of our foreign policy with like-minded democratic governments, because we realize that democracy is under threat in many different ways – certainly on the African continent but not only on the African continent, including in the United States and in many countries around the world. There are many reasons and authors for that stress, some of them internal, some of them external. But President Biden puts a premium on having those conversations, and that’s really what’s motivating the Summit for Democracy.
African leaders and preconditions for taking a seat at the table of democracy summit
We have purposefully avoided preconditions. I don’t think it’s the role of the U.S. Government to say to a foreign government, you must do X thing. And we’re not going to be the judge of another country – the strength of another country’s democracy. And I say that with all due acknowledgment and humility in terms of the stresses that U.S. democracy has been under in recent years and continues to be under. So this isn’t about demands. We purposefully cast a very wide net with the first Summit for Democracy; we invited over 100 world leaders at many different stages in terms of their history of democratic governance and the strength of their democratic governance. That was very purposeful.
We want to work with anybody who exhibits political will to make progress on any of the key pillars under the summit’s umbrella, and that’s going to take many forms. So that’s really how we’re coming at this with our partners.
On the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Obviously the context in which the second summit occurs – vastly different than a summit that took place in December of 2021, given that everything is going on. Of course the aggression against Ukraine is going to be a focus of the second summit – not the only focus, as I mentioned at the top; stresses on democracies is a global problem and we intend to continue to address it at such – as such through this process. But no, to answer your question directly, Putin did not jeopardize progress that’s being made, and moreover, through this devastating and unnecessary war, the Ukrainian people are really showing that courage to defend the front lines of freedom lives on. And that’s why we in the U.S. Government and so many around the world are doing so much to support them.
Then lastly, in terms of opposition members, dissidents, activists, yes. Just like in December, we fully intend to incorporate voices from repressive countries, including those whose governments are not invited, and are looking to cast as wide a net as possible and, as I said, have as many events as possible. And so we don’t want to – we don’t want to preclude anyone’s participation, with the understanding that in this formal summit there are only so many hours in the day; there are so many topics to be covered and so many countries that we need to consider. So we’re looking to have a broad and diverse group.
Mexico and America
Mexico is a strong and close democratic partner to the United States. And in terms of invites – and this goes for invitations to any country – we haven’t made final decisions on invites at this point. That decision will come and formal invitations will go out to capitals. But I think the expectation is that the invite list to the second summit will look very similar to the ultimate participation list from the first summit.
The role of young people
We completely agree that engaging young people around the world is really the future to democracy for all the obvious reasons, and are looking forward to having the youth event, the YALI event, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. I was part of the Obama administration at the point at which YALI and some parallel programs were set up, and we see clearly what dividends they pay. So we’re really looking forward to that aspect of the summit.
I’ll say with regard to the Summit for Democracy, we haven’t made final decisions around the agenda. I think it’s safe to say that there will be multiple components that in different ways engage youth, and over the course of what we’ve been calling the year of action, the interval between the first summit and the second summit, we’ve gone out of our way to engage civil society broadly, but that includes engaging young people around the world. Our embassies in countries across the globe have done various events under the umbrella of the Summit for Democracy. They’ve looked a little different in different places, but our guidance here from Washington is, of course, to engage young people as a matter of course and also in direct correspondence with the summit process. So absolutely.
Criticism that the Summit for Democracy might divide nations
We are not asking anyone to choose sides. That’s not our intention. That said, as I mentioned, the data is pretty overwhelming that over the course of the last 15 years, give or take, the quality of democratic governance around the world has declined. That is true, as I’ve mentioned, in the United States, among many countries around the world. And again, there are many factors – the rise of certain populist and illiberal leaders within democracies, the influence of authoritarian states on democracies, the impact of technology and frankly threats to journalists. All of this has had this detrimental effect on democracies.
President Biden feels very strongly that that is a threat to global peace and security, and the livelihoods of the American people and people around the world. And that’s really what the Summit for Democracy is all about. It’s not about dividing the world into camps. This gets back to the question around: “Are we demanding something of our participants?” We absolutely are not. We are engaging them in a dialogue about how we all live up to the aspirations that we hold dear. That’s really at the core of our message.
So on Taiwan, we were proud to have their involvement in the first summit, which is reflective of the democratic resilience of the Taiwanese people. And I would just refer you back to my earlier comments in terms of no final decisions being made on invites, but also in all likelihood no major changes either. And more broadly, Taiwan’s participation in the summit process is completely in keeping with existing U.S. policy with respect to the “one China” policy, and there have been no changes in that regard.
On this – the third summit, or the potential for a third summit, we also haven’t made a decision yet. We are starting to field questions along these lines from many of our partners. It’s a good question to be asking, and one that we’ll look forward to answering soon. But of course we recognize that the work, as I mentioned earlier, to meaningfully improve our democratic governance structures takes time. It takes lifetimes. So we very much hope that aspects of the summit process will continue beyond March.