The global fight for democracy begins at home

Nathalie Tocci is a Pierre Keller visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a board member of ENI and the author of POLITICO‘s World View column.

In an age of great power rivalry, the protection and promotion of democratic values are increasingly becoming two sides of the same coin. And as world democracies gather virtually at United States President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy this week, the invitees — including 26 member countries of the European Union — should view them as such.

Two of the summit’s main aims are to protect democracies from authoritarianism and maladies like corruption, and to promote democracy in the non-democratic world. Biden thus understandably opted for a wide tent approach to his list of participants: More than 100 countries will be present at the summit, several of which stand out as weak democracies or visibly display authoritarian traits.

The rationale is both strategic — as rivalry with authoritarian China is at the forefront of everyone’s minds — and normative: If democracy is an unending journey that can move forward but also backward, we must first recognize its fragilities in order to address them.

The summit’s protection agenda includes strengthening human rights, rule of law and good governance, addressing socioeconomic inequalities, investing in innovation and industrial capabilities and enhancing security. This means demonstrating that liberal democracy delivers and that it is worth striving for. This also requires deterring and assertively constraining all those external attempts at interference and hybrid destabilization, notably by authoritarian powers.

This agenda is both ambitious and complex, but at least it is clear. The real difficulty arises when we shift to the promotion of democratic values.

The foreign policy instruments developed for value promotion belong to a past era. Military interventions, sanctions, development and trade conditionality, civil society support and — in the case of the EU — enlargement and neighborhood policies all worked best at the height of the liberal international order.

Applying those instruments in our current post-interventionist era of value contestation may still work in the same way in some cases, like Georgia or Ukraine. But in most others — from Serbia and Turkey, all the way to Belarus — they simply do not. Indeed, the latter two countries did not even make it onto Biden’s rather generous list of invitations.

There is an upside to the U.S.’s explicit turn away from military interventions carried out with the (ostensible) aim of democracy promotion though. The damage done to the global appeal of liberal democratic values in those years, and to the credibility of the West, was huge — particularly in much of the Global South.

However, U.S. hard power also underpinned the EU’s largely soft power tools as they spread the bloc’s liberal democratic ideals. With this fundamental rethink of the U.S.’s role in the world, the clout of European policies aimed at spreading such norms has also diminished.

This does not imply that European enlargement, association, sanctions or trade or development policies should be abandoned. In fact, the opposite is true. It does mean, however, that while doubling down on the values promoted through these policies, the EU must equip itself with a hefty dose of strategic patience.

Above all, it means that given the diminished direct and short-term effect of its foreign policies, the most important thing the EU — and all liberal democracies — could do is get their own house in order.

For the EU, this means ensuring that the values enshrined in the Treaty of the European Union — including human rights, rule of law and democracy — are respected not just by countries that seek to join the union but by those already in it. The cases of Hungary and Poland stand out on this front, with the former not having even been invited to the summit and currently attempting to block the EU’s joint contribution because of it.

The legal route to ensure EU countries stay true to EU values — including the suspension of voting rights in the bloc — is difficult, if not impossible to follow. The political route of persuasion has so far not delivered on its own either. It is thus the economic conditionality route, which the European Commission has embarked on and was vindicated by the EU’s advocate general this week, that is the necessary path to take. EU money must be made to stop flowing to countries that don’t respect its rules.

What is at stake here is not just democracy in Hungary and Poland but the signaling to other illiberal and nationalist forces in Europe. It is about protecting the foundations of the EU and of liberal democracy in general.

The democratic path is far from linear, and the point of this summit must be to figure out how to work together along the journey. This is about leadership from the center by the U.S. and the EU, not the front, and in order to promote liberal values, the democratic model must be seen as worth emulating.

That requires first looking to the log in our own eye, and being ready to recognize — and address — our own democratic weaknesses.



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